Ex-StatsCan head defends mandatory census

Former chief statistician Munir Sheikh says he quit because Statistics Canada's reputation "suffered" from Industry Minister Tony Clement's suggestion the agency backed his move to end the mandatory long-form census.

Clement 'manufacturing a crisis' over survey: opposition MPs

Munir Sheikh, the former deputy minister in charge of Statistics Canada, prepares to take his seat at a House of Commons industry committee hearing on Tuesday. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))
Former chief statistician Munir Sheikh has told MPs looking into the government's decision to end the mandatory long-form census that he resigned because he could not remain head of an agency "whose reputation had suffered."

Sheikh, accompanied by his lawyer, told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa on Tuesday that he took issue with media reports quoting Industry Minister Tony Clement suggesting Statistics Canada was supporting the Conservative government's move to end the mandatory survey. 

"Let me first of all say that it is the right of the government to make decisions, which if lawful should be implemented by any department of the government," Sheikh said in response to a question by Liberal MP Dan McTeague.

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"The fact that in the media and in the public that there was this perception that Statistics Canada was supporting a decision that no statistician would, it really casts doubt on the integrity of that agency, and I as head of that agency cannot survive in that job."

Sheikh's voice broke as he read an excerpt of a recent article of support by Alex Himelfarb, former clerk of the Privy Council, who wrote Canada's senior public servants are traditionally guided by the principle of "fearless advice and loyal implementation."

"This is based on the belief that governments work best when they have access to the best possible information, options, and advice — including what they may not wish to hear," Sheikh read.

Sheikh's comments came after opposition MPs grilled Clement over the census decision, accusing the Conservative government of "manufacturing a crisis" and deliberately misleading Canadians.

The Conservative government announced in late June it would end the mandatory long census form for 2011 and replace it with a voluntary national household survey.

Since then, there has been growing outcry from statisticians, community groups, as well as some provinces and municipalities, who argue policy-makers would no longer have reliable information to aid their decision-making.

Clement told the committee he recognizes the information gathered in the long-form census is "valuable," but the government has sought to find a "balance" between collecting data and respecting Canadians' privacy.

"We also recognize that a balance must be drawn when the government is collecting data under the threat of fines or jail or both," the minister said.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail two weeks ago, Clement suggested Statistics Canada had offered him a recommended option for doing away with the long census.

But during his appearance Tuesday, the minister said the Conservative cabinet made the decision, while Statistics Canada had actually argued for the status quo.

"To those in the opposition or to commentators who have criticized not just the decision but the very authority for the decision, I ask this simple question: Who do you want to decide under what circumstances you are subject to jail?" Clement said.

No commitment to reverse stand

Clement gave no indication that he would reverse the decision, but offered concessions such as including questions on official languages in the mandatory short census form — questions that were about to become part of the new voluntary long survey.

The minister also said the results of that new survey, which replaces the mandatory, long census, will be made available to future researchers and historians in 92 years, as long as respondents tick off a box agreeing to the release of their information.

During his round of questioning, Liberal industry critic Marc Garneau pointed out that 95 per cent of Canadians who received the mandatory long form in 2006 filled it out "without any fuss whatsoever."

Garneau accused Clement and other government ministers of misrepresenting what questions were on the 2006 mandatory survey, while NDP member Charlie Angus accused the government of deliberately creating an impression that Canadians would have "jackboots kicking down the door" if they didn't fill out the mandatory form.

In an at-times heated exchange, Angus asked whether Clement consulted the federal privacy commissioner or examined a privacy impact assessment before making his decision.

New Canadians 'in tears'

When Liberal MP Anthony Rota asked Clement to disclose how many Canadians have been jailed over their refusal to fill out the mandatory form, Clement wouldn't give an answer. Instead, the minister accused opposition parties of only wanting to "get tough" against law-abiding Canadians refusing to answer "extensive private and personal" questions to representatives of the state.

At one point, Clement also recalled being told recently by a former census taker how some new Canadians were "in tears" and "terrified of being deported" if they failed to fill out the form.

Tories press Sheikh on jail threat

Conservative committee members, in turn, pressed Sheikh on whether he felt Canadians should be threatened with jail time for not complying with the census requirement.

At one point, Conservative MP David Anderson asked whether the statistician's home needed renovations, a question on the 2006 long-form census.

When Sheikh replied his home needed minor renovations, Anderson asked him whether it was "worth imprisoning Canadians for that data."

Sheikh replied government has a right to determine the level of punishment if the person refused to answer the question. His only concern, he said, was that the quality of the data obtained from a voluntary census form would be lower than a mandatory survey.

"Every statistician on this planet would answer the question the same way," he said.

Later in the day, federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart testified there have been 50 complaints in the past 20 years about the census. The vast majority of those complaints were filed before 2000, she said.

With files from The Canadian Press