As It Happens

Ex-StatsCan chief to Liberals: Act now to bring back long-form census

Munir Sheikh quit as the head of Statistics Canada in 2010 over the Conservative government's scrapping of the mandatory long-form census. He says, if the Liberals take quick action, it can still be reinstated in time for 2016.
Former chief of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh at the House of Commons Industry committee looking into changes to the long-form census on Parliament in Ottawa in 2010. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Every government has a first order of business. No doubt, there are already plenty of people who want to tell the newly-elected Liberals what it should be. So does Munir Sheikh.

Sheikh was the head of Statistics Canada until 2010. That's when he quit over the Conservatives controversial decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census.

We're going to actually have a win-win situation where it costs less money and we get better data.- Former head of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh

His message for prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau: if you act quickly, there's still time to restore the mandatory census for 2016.

During the election campaign, the Liberals promised to restore the mandatory census. Sheikh says all they need to do is give an order from cabinet when they take office in November. Then Statistics Canada will simply change the form to tell Canadians it is compulsory.

He says the move would save the government money. It cost an extra $22 million to replace the mandatory census with the voluntary National Household Survey.

"We're going to actually have a win-win situation where it costs less money and we get better data," Sheikh tells As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Shoppers make their way through the Eaton Centre in Toronto in 2013. Statistics Canada monitors retail spending, jobs and other important economic data. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Sheikh says the results of not having the mandatory census in 2011 have been disastrous. He says the data from the National Household Survey was so poor, it would have been better not to have it at all.

"You're better off not having bad data because that actually pushes you on the track of making bad policies, where, if you don't have any data, then, at the very least, one can use your brain," he says.

If you're making your decisions on ideology, rather than evidence, it's really not an issue for you.- Former head of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh

Sheikh notes that the decision to scrap the mandatory census was widely panned. But he doesn't think the Conservatives had any regrets.

"They were happy with it," he says. "If you're making your decisions on ideology, rather than evidence, it's really not an issue for you."

Tony Clement was Industry Minister when the Conservative government dropped the mandatory long-form census in 2010. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

He says his decision to quit Statistics Canada came after the government repeatedly told the public that he supported the decision to get rid of the mandatory census - which was untrue.

"I had a choice to make between being considered by the rest of the world to be totally incompetent as a statistician or preserve the reputation of Statistics Canada and my own and just walk away from my job."

He says he is not looking to return to Statistics Canada. He is now a professor at Carleton University and the University of Calgary. But he does miss his old workplace.

"It's one of the greatest jobs you can find."


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