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OpEd: Without a Canadian census we’re all left guessing

Every level of government and organizations from coast to coast can no longer rely on data from a full census.
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Nevil Hunt, October 8, 2013 8:54:05 AM

When the Conservative government pulled the plug on the census program, experts said the data from its replacement– a voluntary household survey – would be useless.

Now that the data is coming out, the predictions have proven to be true. The chickens are coming home to roost, although we don’t know if there are a few dozen chickens or four million.

And if we don’t understand our own nation today, we can’t tell what policies might work in the future.

The census Canada used to carry out allowed all levels of government to plan for the future. Anything other than accurate information means we’re all left guessing.

The data from the 2011 household survey is skewed because the people who complete it aren’t a decent cross-section of the entire population. As an added bonus, we got to pay more for the useless survey than a real census would have cost.

Spending more money on a real census would be defensible if we came up with even better data. Spending more and getting less is not sound fiscal management, Mr. Harper.

If your financial adviser told you they didn’t need accurate data about you, your needs or the economy, and they’d just put your investments into a few companies on a whim, you’d go shopping for financial advice elsewhere. We can’t do that with a federal government, at least not until the next election.

It begs the question: why doesn’t our government want accurate data before making a decision?

I’m not one to stand on the top of grassy knolls, but it’s a fair guess to say that Harper doesn’t want facts to stand in the way of policy decisions. Inconvenient truths get in the way of right-wing, knee-jerk pronouncements; ones like “jail fixes crime,” and “fossil fuels are good for you.”

How does a pile of useless numbers affect you?

Everyone in the country will be affected if macro decisions are based on faulty data, but you’re more likely to come face to face with bad decisions right on your street.

Imagine your city or town is trying to figure out where new bus routes should run. For the most part, neighbourhoods with less money will have fewer cars and therefore greater demand for bus service. Knowing where the transit customers live is key to setting up a bus system. Bus drivers steering empty buses through neighbourhoods where few people are willing to get on board is not a happy image.

Then imagine if it was a new subway – a transit option that costs much more than buses and drivers – and then imagine a city that digs tunnels right where they would do the least good.

Even if you’re not a public transit user, it’s in your best interest to see buses and trains in the right place. If you choose to drive to work, wouldn’t you like fewer people on the roads?

It’s unlikely the Conservatives can climb down and put the useful census back in place for 2016 but there is one way it can be done. The federal government should remove StatsCan from Industry Canada and make it independent, and then let StatsCan restart a real census in 2016.

Only then will the numbers add up.

Image credit: Alan Morton-Smith/

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