moved that Bill C-626, An Act to amend the Statistics Act (appointment of Chief Statistician and long-form census), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, before I begin, as members may know, this debate has been rescheduled three times because of events out of our control over the last couple of weeks. We are used to mixing up our schedules, but that also means that my family's schedule has been rescheduled three times, so I would like to thank my family, staff, and volunteers for taking care of that. I would also like to acknowledge my wife, who has volunteered quite a number of hours to this project. I would also like to acknowledge the outpouring of support from across the country we have had in the last little while.
Today I rise to present my private member's bill, Bill C-626. It is a bill that reflects the belief that people must have trustworthy information about themselves to govern themselves wisely.
Indeed, the Prime Minister himself said in his recent speech to the United Nations:
...vital statistics are critical.
You can’t manage what you can’t measure.
We parliamentarians should aspire to safeguard the integrity and quality of fundamental information about the people of Canada, whom we endeavour to serve. Is that not what we seek when we pray at the beginning of each day in the House of Commons: Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all, and to make good laws and wise decisions?
However, the quality of national statistics has been compromised. In 2011, the voluntary national household survey replaced the long form census. Researchers have publicly called that survey worthless.
What are some of the effects? In May 2014, the Progressive Conservative premier of New Brunswick said that the elimination of the long form census makes it hard to track the outcomes of the province's poverty program. That is, it is hard to figure out what New Brunswick got from the money spent to help the poor.
National household survey data were too meaningless to be published for 25% of Canada's towns and cities because of low response rates, rising to 30% in Newfoundland and Labrador's and 40% in Saskatchewan.
All levels of government and the private sector have been handicapped by bad data here in Canada. What is worse is that the one mandatory long form census forms an essential anchor that is needed to adjust for errors in many other voluntary surveys. We have lost that data anchor.
Why is the voluntary national household survey so poor? The problem is that certain groups of people tended not to fill out the voluntary survey. Rural residents, single parents, one-person households, renters, the very rich, the poor, and younger people all tended not to complete the national household survey. The result is a biased and misleading picture of Canada and Canadians. This is what scientists call a systematic error. A systematic error, unlike a random error, cannot be corrected by sending out more census forms.
This systematic error is eliminated if everyone who receives a long form survey fills it out. Not filling out the long form census is a disservice to the country. That is why filling out the census should be considered a civic duty.
In 2011, the government went ahead and sent out more voluntary surveys to compensate for the lower response rate. This inflated the cost of the census by approximately $20 million, but it gave us poorer information. Avoiding such waste is another reason we should restore the mandatory long form census.
More importantly, making business and investment decisions and managing the economy and the affairs of the people all require trustworthy information about the people. That is why, just this past summer, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce passed a policy resolution calling for the restoration of the mandatory long form census. That is why, in 2010, groups such as the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade opposed the elimination of the mandatory long form census.
Let me say this again. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade want the mandatory long form census.
Let me give an example of the value of the census. Suppose one wants to know how educational attainment and income are related. One could get data on education from graduation records. One could get data on income levels from tax returns. However, if one wants to know how a person's education is related to income, one has to ask the person both questions at the same time. One has to survey people. This sort of question is very important for provincial government policy, and that is why the provincial governments of Ontario and Quebec protested the elimination of the mandatory long form census.
The government said in 2010 that it eliminated the long form census because some people believed it was an intrusion into personal privacy. In its “Final Report on 2016 Census Options”, Statistics Canada considered the use of a virtual census based on using administrative data the government collects in the course of normal operations and in other surveys. Indeed, some countries, such as Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, manage to do this and have no census.
In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen in August 2014, chief statistician Wayne Smith said, “Could we actually, without bothering Canadians...[b]e able to obtain the same level of accuracy or better than the current survey-based census?... [W]e’re probably two censuses away before we could do it”.
Is this the long-term plan of the Conservative government? Could it be that the government is only guilty of being too hasty in eliminating the long form census before its replacement was ready to be implemented? The answer to that can be found in the same StatsCan report, which noted the following about the virtual census:
...this approach requires both a population register and a universal personal identification number. Neither exists in Canada....
What might life be like with such a universal personal identification number? It would be a number people received at birth. They would use it for education, health care, driving or gun licences, paying taxes, voting, reporting change of address, or banking. All their vital information could be in a single database, catalogued by universal personal identification number. That is what happens in countries with no census.
Most Canadians would agree with Statistics Canada that there are serious privacy issues with a virtual census. Letting Statistics Canada take a snapshot of them every five years, as it has done for decades, is not as risky as having all their vital information tethered for life to a universal government ID. For decades Statistics Canada has done an excellent job of protecting the privacy of individual Canadians who fill out the long form census.
To summarize, the Conservative government knows that the long form census is less of a threat to privacy than other national data-gathering systems in use today.
Bill C-626 would also give new responsibilities to the chief statistician so that the work of Statistics Canada was not unduly subject to the political imperatives of the day. In 2010 the industry minister claimed that Statistics Canada itself suggested the replacement of the long form census with the voluntary survey and that Statistics Canada and the chief statistician supported the government's move. In the wake of this statement, chief statistician Munir Sheikh resigned from his post, issuing a public statement, explaining:
I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.
It can not.
Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister.
Munir Sheikh later elaborated on his resignation, explaining that a critical issue was the fact that StatsCan was subject to significant interference from the government of the day. He has since gone on to say:
...in my mind the most serious consequence of cancelling the census, is the loss of trust in Statistics Canada to be independent of government interference.
Bill C-626 seeks to protect the integrity of StatsCan so that Canadians can trust that their data are produced according to strict professional considerations, including scientific principles and professional ethics. In describing the duties of the chief statistician, Bill C-626 would remove the phrase, “under the direction of the Minister”, and instead would require the chief statistician to establish and publish guidelines, on technical and methodological matters, based on international best practices.
Indeed, Canada helped codify some of these best practices in a document called the United Nations “Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics”. The bill also gives the chief statistician the duty of educating the public, consulting stakeholders and choosing census questions.
Under Bill C-626, the minister may give orders and the chief statistician is still accountable to the minister, but if those orders fall within the scope of technical or methodological guidelines, the orders must be published in the Canada Gazette.
Because the chief statistician is granted additional duties and independence, Bill C-626 requires that he or she be chosen in a way that safeguards the credibility and integrity of the office. For that reason, the bill establishes a process similar to how officers of Parliament are chosen. There is extensive consultation with stakeholders by appointing a search committee composed of senior representatives of the civil service, the statistics profession and the Canadian research community. There is also consultation with the leaders of all official parties in the House of Commons, because the chief statistician should be credibly non-partisan.
Finally, Bill C-626 does not enshrine the latest form of the long-form census into law. Instead, it acknowledges and makes allowances for new sources of data or methods of data collection in the future, methods that must maintain or improve the quality of data, but may be less intrusive or less costly, all the while protecting people's privacy.
Bill C-626 eliminates the threat of a jail term for failing to truthfully answer the census. Instead, it replaces it with a fine of, at most, $500. People who guard their privacy so much that they will not fill out the census will not face a jail term.
I want to re-emphasize that Canada's mandatory long-form census is less of a risk to privacy than the national statistics systems of other countries who have no census, and instead rely on administrative data tied together by a universal personal identification number.
Data about Canadians is continually collected, analyzed and stored by public and private organizations, probably more so than if the mandatory long-form census still existed. What is the difference? When Statistics Canada collects, analyzes and stores data, it works very closely with the Privacy Commissioner. Statistics Canada is accountable to the public as it does its work through this elected House. With the mandatory long-form census, Canadians are, in a sense, getting the best information for the lowest cost in risk to privacy.
I will end by talking about duty. As Canadians, we have a duty to ensure that Canada has the financial capacity to protect us from foreign threats and to offer all of us equality of opportunity, thus we have a duty to pay taxes. As Canadians, we have a duty to ensure that our justice system is accepted by the people as legitimate and fair, and thus we have a duty to serve on juries. As Canadians, we have a duty to ensure that trustworthy information is available so that we may govern ourselves wisely for the benefit of all. This is the duty to respond to the census.
For the good of Canada, may responding to the long-form census again be recognized as a civic duty. May the House vote to approve Bill C-626 at second reading.