CSA Blog



Long Form Census

Although the decision to eliminate the long-form census appears to be set in stone, expressions of concern continue to flow—with organizations such as the Canadian Medical Association arguing that its ability to make informed policy decisions or to deliver essential services is severely compromised.

If the minister responsible for Statistics Canada is to be believed, the long-form census was eliminated so that upright citizens would no longer be threatened with jail time for failure to complete and return a census form that asked intrusive personal questions. A more convincing reason is that we have a government that not only says “Don’t bother me with the facts!” but also wants to ensure that no one else has access to the facts.

In July the CSA wrote a letter to the Honourable Tony Clement on behalf the association executive and sociologists across Canada. That letter is included FYI in this blog.

CSA Letter to Tony Clement

July 21, 2010

The Honorable Tony Clement
Minister Responsible for Statistics Canada

Dear Minister Clement:

The recent decision of the Conservative Government—to cancel the mandatory long‐form census (2b) and to replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey—effectively undermines its commitment to research excellence as evidenced by the establishment of almost 2000 Canada Research Chairs, many of them in the humanities and social sciences. This decision, involving an Order in Council rather than widespread consultation with the stakeholders who depend upon quality census data, eliminates our most comprehensive and accurate source of longitudinal data. The social and economic consequences for Canada and our “common good” are profound.

As representatives of Canadian sociologists and as citizens, we are deeply concerned about the loss of the following:

1) data—based on a truly representative sample—that are vital to education (in a range of disciplines), to research in the social sciences, as well as to the analysis that informs policy‐ and decision‐making in both public and private sectors;

2) data, again representative, that one can disaggregate to small geographic units (e.g. census tracts), age categories (e.g. 85 years and older), and relatively small minorities (e.g. Jews in Toronto or recent immigrants in Montreal);

3) data (for 2011) that are strictly comparable to those of previous censuses which allow longitudinal analysis and the measurement of trends in socioeconomic indicators over decades;

4) the ability to produce an accurate portrait of our country that provides the benchmarks against which other surveys can measure the adequacy of their samples;

5) the data required to measure our standing on the range of social indicators used for international comparisons; and

6) quality data—at a time when other countries are making more and better data freely available to scholars, policy analysts, business, and citizens with the goal of enhancing innovation.

The representative data we are about to eliminate are of fundamental importance to researchers, policy analysts, social scientists, and decision‐makers in both private and public sectors. The data derived from a voluntary survey, conducted weeks later, cannot be added to census files or data bases to produce a comprehensive portrait of Canada. The message to Canadians is that the voluntary National Household Survey is not the census—and indeed it is not. It follows that noncensus data cannot be merged with census data to produce the official Census 2011.

Long‐form data are used by businesses, provinces and municipalities, economists, urban and community researchers, policy analysts, sociologists, and other scholars in the humanities and social sciences (including geographers and historians). Religious and ethnic groups are also users. They all rely on the mandatory long form census for solidly representative and accurate data—especially when data are disaggregated to community or minority‐group levels. Whatever the unit of analysis, an accurate statistical portrait of the population—one that allows for cross‐tabulation—is required.This cannot be provided by the voluntary NHS because bias‐‐due to the under‐representation of specific groups—is likely. Aboriginal people, recent immigrants, low‐income families, and perhaps even busy professionals may fail to respond to the survey.

The loss of comparable, longitudinal, long‐form data seriously impairs our ability to monitor change in the social indicators that inform policies and programs related to immigrants, visible minorities, the poor, ethnic groups, Aboriginal peoples, disabled people, or women (e.g. the value of unpaid work in the home). Similarly, it makes it impossible to track changes in educational attainment, labour force participation, type of employment, income (by source), religious affiliation, language use, or migration and commuting patterns. In the absence of accurate, representative, and directly comparable longitudinal data, we will no longer the able to measure the effectiveness of our social programs.

Municipalities (including large cities) and even provinces cannot gather such high quality, comprehensive, and reliable or truly representative data themselves. Not only would their costs be prohibitive but, unlike the federal government, they cannot make their surveys mandatory. With respect to the gathering of data, the best gift the federal government can give to our smaller jurisdictions and to Canadian citizens in general is access to high‐quality data derived from a mandatory long‐form census sent to one household in five.

The adequacy of sampling procedures and weighting requirements of many independent surveys are measured against the population characteristics established by the long form census. Statistics Canada itself depends on the census as the sampling frame for its own surveys (e.g. the General Social Survey or the Aboriginal Peoples Social Survey).

One individual, identified as jmars, made a succinct and insightful comment on the long form census issue for Canada’s Digital Economy Consultation (digitaleconomy.gc.ca).

“Here is the Catch‐22 that cancellation of the long form census creates:

Without the data on incomes, poverty, travel to work, immigration, education, and occupation provided by the mandatory census sample, Statistics Canada CANNOT CHECK THE REPRESENTATIVENESS OF ITS OWN SUBSTITUTE, THE 30% VOLUNTARY SAMPLE. All other researchers CANNOT CHECK THE NATURE OF NON‐RESPONSE IN THEIR SURVEYS NOR CORRECT FOR IT. So the lack of one benchmark makes good surveys unlikely and poor surveys the norm, EVEN AT STATS CAN!”

Many indicators of well‐being are shared with other countries or agencies. Depending on the purpose, we provide indicators of educational attainment (e.g. 25‐44 year olds with university degrees), income (e.g. percent below the poverty line or low‐income cutoff), and income distribution (by quintile). The World Bank regularly compiles internationally comparable socioeconomic profiles of the nations of the world, while the United Nations publishes its annual HDI or Human Development Index (on which we are highly ranked). The accurate reporting of our socioeconomic indicators is essential.

Furthermore, the decision sets us apart from other countries that are making data freely accessible to their citizens, scholars, municipalities, and other private or public sector organizations. Their aims are to democratize public sector data, empower people, and drive or unlock innovation. The United States (data.gov) and the United Kingdom (data.gov.uk) have gone the farthest down this road but, according to the American site, other countries have embraced this movement. These countries include Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Estonia and—ironically—Canada!! As a country with an advanced digital knowledge‐based economy, Canada should be part of this movement.

Lastly, at a time when we are climbing out of a recession and relying heavily on immigration for population and labour force growth, we cannot afford to jeopardize our ability to gather high quality, accurately representative data on a range of social and economic indicators that measure adaptation by immigrant groups.

Considering the importance of long‐form census data to our members and to Canadian society at large, we ask that you reverse your decision to replace the mandatory long‐form census with the voluntary National Household Survey. Our understanding of Canada and its diversity depends on it.


Chair, Research Advisory Committee
Canadian Sociology Association

Cc The Right Honourable Stephen Harper

Letter Signatories: Canadian Sociology Association
Research Advisory Committee
Executive Committee


Other arguments against the cancelation of the mandatory long-from census

Ideology trumps evidence with new voluntary survey

Marsha Cohen, MD MHSc and Paul C. Hébert, MD MHSc
Canadian Medical Association Journal

Posted by Jim Frideres, President-Elect





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