The 2011 Census, Civil Responsibility and You: Why Canada needs a Mandatory Long-Form Census

We all interact with our country in various ways. We access health care, religious services, social welfare programmes, and education. We pay taxes, we buy houses, we park our cars, we take public transit, we shop for food and we partake in recreational activities. We move to Canada from other countries, we move within Canada from other provinces and cities and sometimes we live in one place for our entire lives. We celebrate our cultural heritages, be they external to Canada or rooted in our Canadian identity. We have children and sometimes we do not. We buy things for our homes, our loved ones and sometimes just for fun.

All of these actions have something in common: the census cares about them.

I used to think that a census was just a counting of people in a country. However, when I started using census data, I realised just how much more such a tool could be used for. Knowing that there are 35 million people in Canada is fairly useless unless you know more about what that number means. Where are those people? Who are they? Why are they there? How are they living their lives? What services do they need from our government? All of this information is necessary in order to know whether or not government is fulfilling the needs of its citizens. Whether or not we can improve the way Canada operations as a nation.

Now for a bit of a statistics lesson. A very very basic stats lesson that may not have entirely accurate vocabulary so don’t quote me on exams and such! Statistics are based on the idea that a small proportion of a population can be representative of a bigger population. So, who exactly is answering your questions matters, from the number responding to where those responses are coming from. You cannot just wander off onto the street and ask a bunch of people some questions, then declare that your results are going to be accurate for your entire town. For this to be true, you’d need to calculate exactly how many people you needed to ask in order to be representative of the whole, but you’d also have to take into account bias. For example, did you move locations? Different areas of the city attract different people. If you’re in the business core, you will probably encounter a high representation of affluent individuals and potentially more men than women. If you are in the suburbs that will also potentially reflect income differences and gender gaps especially depending on what time of day it is. How are you going to guarantee that you can record responses from people of different ethnicities or economic backgrounds? What about age and careers? You need to plan how to reach these diverse communities before you head out, questionnaire in hand.

With the Canadian mandatory long-form census, this planning was carefully designed and implemented over the history of our country. The census is mandatory to help eliminate bias. Statistically, it is mostly people with free leisure time and curiosity who will fill out surveys. These people tend to be from specific segments of the population, such as homemakers, the elderly or the affluent. The census also uses data from previous years to determine which communities to send the long-form to in order to capture diverse data. While the census may impose a burden on certain households who receive it, it is part of our civic duty to be counted and help guide our country. Yes, there are justified reasons for not fulfilling this duty (such as a variety of ability issues), but for most Canadians, a little time yields massive results as a whole.

A second part of today’s stats lessons will counter one of the most common complaints being thrown around in this recent census battle: that the census is an intrusion into a person’s personal life and privacy. Statistics are aggregate data. No one at Statistics Canada cares what John and Jane Doe-Moe are doing on an annual basis for a career or education. No one cares what they buy or how many children they have. John and Jane became important only when part of the larger data set. When they are anonymous figures in a statistical whole. Statistics Canada information becomes available after 92 years, but it certainly isn’t a free for all in terms of access. Furthermore, statistically, you will probably be dead by this point, so you can calm down a bit. You certainly won’t care from beyond the grave. But the legacy you leave will make a great difference to your country.

And now for an interesting concrete example about what a census can show us, in this instance, the consistent shifting of our national identity. In a political science class on Canadian identities, we had a session on determining what Canadian national identity was in such a vast, regionalised country. One of the more fascinating factoids coming out of our readings and discussions concerned how Statistics Canada had been recording ethnic identity over the years. In the past, one could not simply call oneself “Canadian”. This has been a relatively recent development. Since Canada is a nation made of people who had to come here from somewhere else, it was assumed that you’d identify as British, French, Italian, Chinese or by whatever other country you had once called home or that your parents had called home. Over the years, people began to push for a Canadian option as they felt more tied to the country that they were born in (or had purposely moved to) and wanted their recorded identity to reflect that. While some might say this is useless information, I would say it is valuable to know how our national identity has developed. In more concrete benefits, however, it is useless to monitor just who feels Canadian and who doesn’t. Are there communities that we are failing at helping to integrate? Or are we seeing a resurgence of dual national identities (i.e. Bengali-Canadian) and what does that mean for Canada? In order to understand ourselves and react to our realities, we need information about ourselves. Voluntary forms and paid for research cannot offer anywhere near the same level of accuracy as the long-form mandatory census.

Thus far, a plethora of different Canadian interest groups have come out in support of a mandatory census, from medical associations to religious groups. Even the now retired Head Statistician for 23 years at Statistics Canada lambasted the government for what he saw as a foolish decision. I support all of them. We need census data in order to help make our country work for everyone. While some groups (I’m looking at you Fraser Institute) have come out saying that instead statistics should be gathered through privately funded research, this introduces bias. It will ensure that only certain questions get asked in certain ways and only certain groups in society will have access. This guarantees that vulnerable groups will be forgotten in our society or the data will imply incorrect social conclusions because it was never designed well in the first place. The census guides our government and we certainly do not want them acting without a coherent plan based on actual Canadian realities. After all, without data, what justifies governmental action?

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One thought on “The 2011 Census, Civil Responsibility and You: Why Canada needs a Mandatory Long-Form Census

  1. Pingback: datalibre.ca · Tuesday Census 2011 Media Roundup

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