An Industry Canada employee questioned Conservative MP Maxime Bernier's claims in July that as minister he received about 1,000 complaints a day about the mandatory long-form census, internal documents obtained by CBC News show.
The former industry minister, now a Conservative backbencher, said in July of this year that he was blitzed by complaints when he oversaw the 2006 census as minister.
However, in a July 18 email found among documents obtained by CBC News through an access-to-information request, ministry employee Paul Halucha asked a high-ranking official at Statistics Canada whether the agency had any numbers to back up Bernier's statement.
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Industry Canada's "internal survey of correspondence did not show anything close to a thousand a day," he wrote to Statistics Canada's Connie Graziadei, adding in brackets "we got a standard 25-30 a year."
The documents suggest officials inside the ministry responsible for the census were themselves caught flat-footed by Bernier's contention that the government had been inundated with complaints over the 2006 survey.
According to the documents, Graziadei replied with a breakdown of the 882 complaints Statistics Canada received for the 2006 short- and long-form census, which included 332 complaints about a contract the agency awarded to Lockheed-Martin for census data collection.
In her email, she said Statistics Canada received 22 complaints about the "intrusiveness of the questions." There were also 116 about the "subject matter" of the questions.
Industry Minister Tony Clement, who will oversee the 2011 census next spring, has said the government received too many complaints from citizens who said the mandatory long-form census is intrusive and they don't want to feel forced to file.
Clement told the industry committee in July that a census-taker told him about how people "were in tears, absolutely terrified of being deported" if they didn't fill out the long-form census.
But nowhere in the documents does Statistics Canada list anyone complaining about the long-form census being mandatory, despite numerous Conservative MPs saying they've heard an earful from constituents about having to fill out the 40-page form.
No evidence of complaints: opposition
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, who has introduced a private member's bill calling for the government to reinstate the mandatory long-form census, said the documents show the government made the decision on a "totally ideological basis," while NDP MP Brian Masse said the Conservatives are "just making it up."
"There's no evidence," Bennett said Monday during a panel discussion on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon. "I think as members of Parliament, we haven't had any complaints to our offices, and that's the easiest place for somebody to complain."
Conservative MP Mike Lake said he couldn't speak to the specific access-to-information request, but noted Statistics Canada's own enumerator's manual for non-response follow-up lists contingencies for "frequently asked questions," including a section dealing with "invasion of privacy."
"I assume when people are going to bring up a concern they would bring it up specifically with the person working on the census," Lake told Solomon.
He said his own experience as an enumerator for the 1991 census showed him people had specific problems with the mandatory long-form census. However, Masse said, enumerators are specifically trained to respond to such concerns.
"That’s why they actually have a low level of complaints," Masse said.
When asked by CBC News on Monday whether MPs are either required to send or normally report complaints about the census to Statistics Canada, a spokesman for the agency replied: "Whenever Statistics Canada is contacted by an MP's office on the census, we conduct research and act upon findings to address the respondent's concern."
For months, opposition parties have been pushing the government to reverse its decision and reinstate the mandatory long-form census, citing an outcry from statisticians, various social, language and religious groups, as well as some provinces and municipalities that the quality of data from a voluntary survey will be lowered.
The Conservatives have said the move to a voluntary long-form survey is a "balanced" approach that weighs the need for data with the concerns of Canadians who feel they shouldn't be threatened with fines or jail time to divulge personal information to representatives of the state.
Bernier resigned from the cabinet in 2008 after he admitted to having left NATO briefing documents at his ex-girlfriend's home.(Industry Canada, Sept. 27, 2010) Release of Docs Re Long-Form Census From Canadians_A-2010-190