The federal government is sticking to its plan to make the 2011 long-form census voluntary, despite eliminating the threat of jail time for those who refuse to fill out surveys, Industry Minister Tony Clement says.

Tony Clement

Industry Minister Tony Clement tells the CBC he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper both 'feel strongly' about the move to scrap the mandatory long-form census, but won't say who made the decision.

In an interview with Rosemary Barton aired Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Clement said the decision this week to add two questions on languages to the mandatory short-form census fulfils the government's legal obligations under the Official Languages Act.

Clement said that despite the removal of the threat of jail time, the government believes Canadians should not face fines for refusing to answer intrusive personal questions.

"I think we've gone as far as we can go on the changes," the minister said. "The issue is that there is still coercion involved."

Clement, the minister in charge of Statistics Canada, has been blasted for his handling of the census changes, and accused of misleading Canadians on the advice he received from the agency about the move to end the mandatory long-form survey.

The decision to cancel the mandatory long-form survey prompted an outcry from a range of social and religious groups, as well as statisticians, opposition parties and some provinces, contending the quality of data from a voluntary form would be significantly lower than from a mandatory survey.

Internal documents released this week show Statistics Canada officials warned Clement's office as early as March 2010 that the projected initial response rate to a voluntary survey would be as low as 50 per cent.

Munir Sheikh resigned as Statistics Canada's chief statistician after Clement made comments in a Globe and Mail interview in July that suggested Sheikh and the agency recommended ending the mandatory long-form census and replacing it with a voluntary survey.

Won't shed light on cabinet talks

But Clement insisted he has made it clear "from the get-go that this was a government decision."

"I think we are meeting the objections of those who are concerned about robust and reliable data," he said.

"We're working with StatsCan, just as we have since the beginning."

The minister said despite some decisions being controversial, he takes solace in the fact that he thinks his actions are the right thing to do.

"Certainly, the media approach to this has been relatively one-sided, but that's the way it goes on some issues," he said. "I've got to focus on the fact that I have to make the best decision for Canada and Canadians."

The 2011 census will now include the following questions, with the second one as a two-parter:

  • Can this person speak English or French well enough to conduct a conversation?
  • What language does this person speak most often at home? Does this person speak any other languages on a regular basis at home?

When asked by the CBC's Barton whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the decision, Clement would only say the call "comes from government."

"I'm not going to get into what was said at cabinet," he said. "That's not traditionally what cabinet ministers do who stay as cabinet ministers. But I will tell you that the prime minister feels strongly about this issue, as I do, that there is a better approach."