The Commons industry committee passed a motion Friday calling on the Conservative government to reinstate the mandatory long-form census.

Conservative MPs voted against the motion, which also called for the removal of the threat of jail time for those who refuse to fill out the mandatory short-form and agricultural censuses.

Census

The information Statistics Canada collects in the census helps governments make decisions on everything from education to health care. (CBC)

During the committee meeting, several organizations expressed support for the mandatory long-form census and voiced concern the voluntary survey replacing it will lower the quality of data.

Some individual witnesses, however, spoke in favour of eliminating the mandatory long form.

One witness, former top civil servant Mel Cappe, urged MPs to find a way to save the long census, calling it a "public good."

Cappe, a former clerk of the Privy Council who later served as high commissioner to Britain, told the committee the threat of jail for failing to fill out the mandatory long form should be removed and the questions should be tweaked to minimize intrusiveness.

"We need a database that we can trust," he said, adding that the threat of fines should be maintained to preserve the integrity of statistics.

James Henderson, a farmer appearing as an individual, said he found the long form "burdensome."

Henderson also told MPs that filling out the mandatory agriculture census — a separate survey from the long form sent to farmers — required him to hire accountants.  

Government committee members grilled witnesses who spoke in favour of the mandatory long form over whether they supported the information-gathering methods used by census-takers.

During his round of questioning, Conservative MP Mike Lake asked James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, whether he felt it was acceptable for the government to have a census official fill out detailed information on individuals who refuse to fill out the form.

He noted the description on the census refusal form that included instructions for officials to record the individual's physical features, as well as other identifying marks such as birthmarks and tattoos.

Turk replied that his point was that information obtained from a voluntary long form census would not be valid or reliable.

"As I understand, the position of the government of Canada is that it's perfectly OK to make the short form mandatory but not the long form," Turk replied. "Presumably, the same things to which you're objecting will continue in place, merely for a shorter version of questions."

The government has said it plans to get rid of jail penalties for refusing to fill out any federal survey form, including the short-form census.

Jail threats 'nonsense,' MP says

But NDP committee member Brian Masse said the government is "propagating nonsense" that Canadians could ever be "locked up and put away" for refusing to fill out the long form.

Joseph Lam, vice-president of Canada First Community Organization, questioned the value of the mandatory long-form answers, telling MPs that he knew of people who "put in all kinds of information" because they are required to respond.

On Thursday, the Opposition Liberals announced they will table a private member's bill to reinstate the mandatory long form when Parliament returns next month.

The Conservatives have been under fire over the census issue since Industry Minister Tony Clement announced the plan in late June to change the procedure.

Clement and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have said it is not appropriate for Canadians to be threatened with jail time or fines for refusing to answer intrusive questions.

Earlier this month, Clement announced two questions on languages would be added to the mandatory short-form census to fulfil the government's legal obligations under the Official Languages Act.

With files from The Canadian Press