The Liberals Just Restored Canada’s Long-Form Census. Here’s Why That Matters

Canada’s new Minister of Innovation, Science and Development, Navdeep Bains, told reporters on Parliament Hill on Thursday that the federal government is restoring the mandatory long-form census just in time for its next rollout in 2016.

Canada conducts a census every five years by sending an eight-question form to Canadian households. However, one-fifth of those households traditionally received a mandatory 61-question census that provides the government with much more insight into the lives of Canadians.

In 2010, the Harper government cancelled the mandatory long-form census, replacing it with a short voluntary survey developed by Statistics Canada. Researchers said the data provided through the voluntary survey lacked detail, leaving major gaps in knowledge about areas with poor survey response rates.

Munir Sheikh, the former head of Statistics Canada, resigned in protest.

Bains said the decision to reinstate the long-form census falls into the government’s commitment to rebuild scientific knowledge in Canada.

Our plan for an open and fair government starts with the reinstatement of the mandatory long form census,” Bains tweeted.

Our government is committed to creating and implementing sound, evidence-based policies built on quality data.”

Success!” science-advocacy group Evidence for Democracy posted to its Facebook page. “The new Liberal government has announced that the mandatory long for census will be reinstated immediately…This would not have happened without your calls for smart government decision-making.”

Wendy Palen, associate professor of ecology at Simon Fraser University and board member with Evidence for Democracy, said the long-form census is key to evidence-based decision-making in Canada.

And while the idea of evidence-based decision-making “is a little wonky and process-oriented,” it’s actually a “really important and fundamental cornerstone of effective democracy,” Palen said.

Practicing evidence-based decision-making means that “we invest in things like our pubic science capacity to study things that are of national importance…so we can craft policies around that evidence we’ve collected,” Palen said.

She added the long-form census is a “really important piece for evaluating the consequences of [our] decisions” and gives us deeper insights into “our environment, our economy and our internal demographics.”

Palen said the best available science was excluded from the decision-making process in Canada under the Harper government, which spent $22 million taxpayer dollars switching the long-form census to a voluntary survey.

At the time, the government justified its decision by arguing they were protecting Canadians’ privacy, although the statistical information gathered in the census is purged of personal details so cannot be traced to any individual.

The limited data made available from the 2011 census left all levels of government, researchers, universities, civil society organizations, commerce groups and city planners unable to determine basic facts about the populations they served.

Faith-based organizations said the shoddy information made it difficult to track the effect of policy on religious and cultural minorities. Business groups including the Conference Board of Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce urged the Harper government to reverse its decision.

The Canadian Medical Association said the lack of data would limit the effective use of health information and delivery of programs.

Advocacy organizations said it was impossible to tell with any accuracy how poverty rates were affecting marginalized, low-income families.

City planners in Hamilton, Ont., were left wondering about the sudden decline of the city’s Chinese population while Toronto struggled to understand if high-need communities would benefit from more subsidized child care or free skills training programs.

Palen said organizations like Evidence for Democracy play a crucial role in providing a network of scientific experts to help improve the use of evidence in support of the democratic process in Canada. She added her organization will also track how well the Liberal government is keeping its science-related campaign promises.

I think it’s important to hold our government accountable,” she said, adding, “but now is not the time for that.”

Right now our role I think is in cheering the government on, saying, you made these great promises in the campaign and you elevated the issues around science during the campaign because they are important to Canadians.”

I think our role right now is to offer our expertise, offer our help on making good on some of those promises.”

Image: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister Navdeep Bains via Flickr