The Canadian census debate—a background
On June 26, 2010, Canada Gazette published an Order in Council dated June 17, 2010. The order contained questions for the 2011 Canadian census. The short document that would normally be of interest only to statisticians caused a national debate—not because of what it contained, but because of what it lacked. 53 detailed questions sent to 20% of the population in the past were not in the government’s order. Only seven or so questions previously put on the short form will be sent to Canadians next year.
The Canadian government runs a census of the population every fives years on the authority of the federal Statistics Act (s. 19(1)). Under this statute, it is the job specifically of Statistics Canada to “take the census of population of Canada” (s. 3(c)). The Statistics Act gives the federal cabinet the power and discretion to appoint and remove the Chief Statistician of Canada (s. 4(1)). He and his office are not independent. The Chief Statistician must carry out his duties “under the direction” of the designated minister, which is currently Minister of Industry Tony Clement. Section 7 of the Act empowers the minister to set “rules, instructions, schedules and forms” for Statistics Canada, including for taking a census. Section 21(1) requires the federal cabinet to prescribe census questions by order in council. That is exactly what the cabinet did on June 17 causing the Statistical Society of Canada to criticize the scrapping of the long form.
The Act also empowers the minister to authorize voluntary surveys (s. 8). The Minister of Industry apparently used this power to introduce the voluntary National Household Survey to be taken at the same time as the census. According to Statistics Canada, the Survey will contain questions from the scrapped long census form, but precise questions are not yet available.
Answering statistical questions asked on the authority of the Act is mandatory (s. 31) unless they are specifically voluntary under s. 8. Not answering, lying, or not filling out a form are summary offences punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to three months in jail. Census questions are always mandatory under the Statistics Act, regardless of any additional voluntary surveys the minister may initiate (s. 8). The minister cannot make the census voluntary, but he can manipulate the number of questions. The Act does not require the census to contain more than one question. Presumably, zero questions would make the census impossible and would therefore be unlawful.
- Statistics Act
- The 2011 census order in council (includes the census form)
- The letter from the Statistical Society of Canada to Minister Clement (July 9, 2010) [pdf]
- Minister Clement’s statement on 2011 census (July 13, 2010)
- The 2006 census long form [pdf]
- The 2006 census short form [pdf]