Tory MP takes back census remarks

Conservative MP Rick Dykstra is stepping back from comments Wednesday in which he said the short-form census will soon become voluntary.

Rick Dykstra steps back after saying short-form soon to be voluntary

Rick Dykstra, MP for St. Catharines, Ont., seen here with school children at a September 2009 funding announcement, is stepping back after he said Wednesday the government was going to make the short-form census voluntary. (MARKETWIRE/Public Safety Canada)

A Conservative MP is stepping back from comments Wednesday in which he said the short-form census will soon become voluntary.

Rick Dykstra, who won a return to Ottawa to represent St. Catharine's on Monday, told his local newspaper that the census Canadians started getting this week will be the last.

"We've already changed the long-form census so that it is not mandatory and that is, frankly, the road we are going with the short-form census as well," Dykstra told the St. Catharines Standard.

"I frankly don't think this is the sort of thing a person should be penalized to do."

The story ran Thursday morning, but by midday the newspaper updated its story with a new interview in which Dykstra said he wasn't clear the first time around.

"What we are going to do is reduce the penalties for not doing the short-form census," Dykstra said Thursday morning, the Standard reported.

"What I should have said was we were going to reduce the penalties. We couldn't because we had an election, but we will be introducing that at some point in the new Parliament," he said.

The Conservative government last spring quietly removed penalties for not completing the long-form census, making it voluntary. It's now known as the National Household Survey.

The penalties were as severe as three months in jail and a $500 fine. They still apply to the short-form census most people get in the mail.

Statisticians and researchers argue a voluntary survey won't be as accurate and the information it yields will be useless. Industry Minister Tony Clement has said Statistics Canada will send more National Household Surveys in the hope of getting a higher response rate.

Clement's spokeswoman said the government is not planning to make the short-form voluntary.

"We do not believe that it's right to be threatening Canadians with jail time, so that is something that I think Mr. Dykstra was intending to get across," Heather Hume said. "We are hopeful that we can move forward on removing the threat of jail time for not completing the census."

A spokeswoman in Dykstra's office said he wasn't available for an interview and referred CBC News to the Standard story.