When Canadians fill out their 2011 census forms in the next few days, they will be giving Statistics Canada an up-to-date snapshot of the country's population.

But it will be a snapshot that some say is less sharply focused than it has been in the past.

Canadians filling out the mandatory short-form census will answer basic questions relating to personal details such as their address, age, gender, marital status and mother tongue.

For the first time, however, there won't be a mandatory long-form questionnaire sent to one in five Canadian households. Instead, there will be a voluntary National Household Survey sent to one in three households. It will include questions on citizenship, ethnic origin, religion, education, employment, income, housing and other subjects.

The federal government has said the change strikes a balance between the need for reliable data and the right of Canadians to refuse to divulge personal information without having to break the law.

"We also recognize that a balance must be drawn when the government is collecting data under the threat of fines or jail or both," Industry Minister Tony Clement told a parliamentary committee looking into the census issue in July 2010.

Hundreds of organizations and municipalities have strongly criticized the census change, suggesting the information gathered won't be as robust or useful as data collected in the past.

'Critical to virtually all kinds of planning'

The information gleaned from the short-form census will provide basic demographic details that will continue to be vital for services Canadians depend on.

"That's critical to virtually all kinds of planning," said Don McLeish, a professor in the department of statistics and actuarial science at the University of Waterloo. "There's little you can do in planning roads, municipalities, schools, seniors homes, without information of that kind."

Basic census demographic information also allows anyone doing any other kind of survey — whether for a government or private purpose — to accurately adjust their information if they find their results over-represent a particular demographic, said McLeish.

But McLeish sees a weakness in the move to the voluntary household survey and predicts it will be a very expensive exercise that turns out "to be a bit of a flop."

"The information that's obtained there is no longer comparable with the 2006 information on the long form," he said in an interview Thursday. "That means we won't be able to tell what trends are happening in our population."

The more detailed information in the mandatory long-form census also "allowed us to say something about income and age and location," said McLeish.

"It is this kind of detail that is required, for example, if you're building either subsidized housing or subsidized seniors homes, or so on. I think we lose that."

Fewer responses predicted

McLeish expects the household survey itself will be well executed.

''Statistics Canada is quite competent at trying to adjust for non-response," he said. 

But the agency is predicting only a 50 per cent response rate.

"We will have surveyed half of the population [who received the long-form survey]," McLeish said. "I'm not sure what that's good for unless you know exactly the characteristics of the people who didn't respond or have a lot of information about them."

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has also questioned the impact of the move to a voluntary long-form survey and has predicted it will likely generate fewer responses than the mandatory long-form census.

The federation wouldn't comment further Thursday on the census changes, with a spokesman saying only that its position hasn't changed from the one outlined in a letter sent to Clement in July 2010.

In that letter, from president Hans Cunningham, the federation predicted the census change will "reduce the quality and availability of local area data that municipalities rely on to improve service and performance."

Census info tied to transfer payments

As census forms and information arrive in the mail this week, some provincial governments are urging residents to get busy and complete them.

"The census is much more than just counting how many people live in our country," said Manitoba Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade Minister Peter Bjornson in a news release. "It's about asking important questions that help shape vital front-line services to ensure all residents have access to the services they need.

"It only takes a short time to fill out your census, and the benefits are wide-reaching."

In New Brunswick, Finance Minister Blaine Higgs told the legislature there's a lot riding on the numbers Statistics Canada gathers.

"Transfer payments make up 40 per cent of our budget, so for that reason, we want them all to be counted and make sure we don't miss anybody," said Higgs.

This year, New Brunswick will receive about $3,300 in federal transfers for every person counted.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which has used long-form census data extensively, has also expressed concern about the change in census methodology.

Ted Mallett, vice-president and chief economist, said the federation expects any information collected will be weighted appropriately to represent the population as a whole, but he acknowledged there might be a break in the continuity of data with the introduction of a different kind of survey.

"I'm not anticipating it's going to harm the data quality," he said in an interview Thursday.

Any survey is only an approximation of reality, he stressed.

Still, there should have been more open discussion around the changes, Mallett said, and assessing their overall impact will take some time.

"It's going to take a number of years to figure out the quality side," he said.