Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Censuses, Bedrooms and Bathrooms

Could a journalist or two please start pointing out the absurdity of the Conservatives' "bedrooms and bathrooms" talking point in their articles about the census fiasco?

To wit: at least one level of government ALREADY KNOWS how many bedrooms and bathrooms are in your home. They know, because the plans for having your dwelling built and/or renovated were submitted to a government authority for approval and/or inspection at some point in the past.

The nice thing about providing this information again in the census is that this information can then be cross-referenced en masse with other anonymized data collected by StatsCan and stored in the same place to allow for public policy planning. The manuscript census data of individual records is not released outside of the government for at least 91 years, so in many respects the census data is more secure than the data that is already on record.

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Munir Sheikh resigns. Plus a bit of perspective about the historical evolution of the long-form census.

If anyone had any doubts about what Statistics Canada thinks of the decision to get rid of the mandatory long-form census, then today's resignation of the head of that institution should leave no more doubt.

The announcement is here, but I'm reposting it verbatim in case it gets removed:
ETA 22 July 1:30 PM: It's been removed.


Media advisory: 2011 Census

July 21, 2010

OTTAWA — There has been considerable discussion in the media regarding the 2011 Census of Population.

There has also been commentary on the advice that Statistics Canada and I gave the government on this subject.

I cannot reveal and comment on this advice because this information is protected under the law. However, the government can make this information public if it so wishes.

I have always honoured my oath and responsibilities as a public servant as well as those specific to the Statistics Act.

I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

It can not.

Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister.

I want to thank him for giving me the opportunity of serving him as the Chief Statistician of Canada, heading an agency that is a symbol of pride for our country.

To you, the men and women of Statistics Canada – thank you for giving me your full support and your dedication in serving Canadians. Without your contribution, day in and day out, in producing data of the highest quality, Canada would not have this institution that is our pride.

I also want to thank Canadians. We do remember, every single day, that it is because of you providing us with your information, we can function as a statistical agency. I am attaching an earlier message that I sent to Canadians in this regard.

In closing, I wish the best to my successor. I promise not to comment on how he/she should do the job. I do sincerely hope that my successor’s professionalism will help run this great organization while defending its reputation.

Munir A. Sheikh


Now would be a very good time for the Conservatives to back off of this ill-advised policy, and refuse to accept this resignation.

ETA: So much for that faint hope. It looks like Tony Clement is digging in.

Among the many things that really bug me about this entire process is the fact that the "how many bathrooms" talking point is being beaten to death. The actual questions on the long form census are frequently changed or modified from census to census, with new ones added, and old ones removed or altered. For example, it's only recently that the census started asking about gay partnerships. The option of "Canadian" was added as a possible response for the ethnicity question a couple of decades ago. Questions about language usage have been tweaked over the years. Many of my colleagues in the Canadian historical profession could provide other examples. It would have been a simple matter for the government to remove a number of the questions that they find more egregious. Instead, they are using a couple of questions that they think an uneducated cohort of voters will find particularly intrusive as an excuse to kill the entire mandatory census form. It's extremely duplicitous.

ETA @ 8:42: From Kady O'Malley of CBC (in the comments), here's Tony Clement's pitiful reply - you'll note that he admits that the voluntary form was never the option that Statistics Canada wanted:

I acknowledge with regret the resignation of Munir A. Sheikh the Chief
Statistician of Canada.

There has been considerable commentary about the federal government's
decision to replace the 2011 mandatory census long form with the
voluntary National Household Survey.

The Government took this decision because we do not believe Canadians
should be forced, under threat of fines, jail, or both, to divulge
extensive private and personal information. We believe it is not
appropriate to compel citizens to divulge how many bedrooms they have in
their houses, or what time they leave for work in the morning. The
Government's approach is about finding a better balance between
collecting necessary data and protecting the privacy rights of

As I have noted previously, Statistics Canada's preferred approach would
have been to maintain the mandatory long form census.

However, after the Government's decision to replace the mandatory long
form census Statistics Canada was asked to provide options for
conducting a voluntary survey of households. One of the options provided
- the voluntary National Household Survey - was chosen.

A voluntary long form survey offers challenges that do not exist in the
case of a census that uses coercion to compel completion. Nonetheless,
by working together with the professionals at Statistics Canada I
believe we can compensate for these challenges and offer data-users
high quality and accurate information.

I have relied throughout this process on the frank and open advice of
Statistics Canada and the Chief Statistician. I would like to take this
opportunity to thank all employees of Statistics Canada for the hard
work and dedication that has made Statistics Canada one of the best
national statistical organizations in the world.

Until a permanent successor can be found Wayne Smith, Assistant Chief
Statistician, Business and Trade Statistics, will act on an interim

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Monday, July 19, 2010

The "voluntary census". Lies, damn lies. Now over to the statisticians...

Amidst the howls of outrage at the Harper government's arbitrary decision to axe the mandatory long form census, condemnded by virtually every major association in Canada except the Fraser Institute (but including the National Post and the C.D. Howe Institute) there has been virtual silence from Statistics Canada. The most recently retired head statistician, Ivan Fellegi, decried the decision, but the current one has been silent. This is not a surprise. Good bureaucrats aren't permitted to speak to the public without government authorization, and they're certainly not allowed to voice opinions contrary to government policy in an official capacity.

So this announcement is interesting. There will be an internal departmental town hall held on Wednesday by chief statistician Munir Sheikh to respond to questions from Statistics Canada employees. The town hall will also be broadcast internally over the departmental intranet to accomodate the large number of employees that are anticipated to have concerns.

I am hoping against hope that this portends well. The chief statistician is completely within his rights and his job description to communicate with his employees. I can't imagine that many of them are happy at the Harper government's attempt to sabotage the quality of the data that they work with, and that most policy-makers rely upon to make decisions and plan for the future. So... he's going to communicate with them.

And who wants to place bets on how many reporters will find themselves with access to a StatsCan employee's intranet feed on Wednesday? I certainly hope that the answer is "a heck of a lot", and I hope that Sheikh is up front with his staff about having major concerns about the wisdom of this decision. If he spouts platitudes or blindly defends the decision, he will lose all credibility within the department.

And if Harper forces Sheikh to axe the meeting, then the press should rightly jump all over him for being an authoritarian dictator who won't even allow a department head to meet with his staff.

UPDATE 21 July 1:15 PM: The town hall has been cancelled by Statistics Canada. No explanation has been given as to why. Presumably this Globe story or this Canadian Press story will have updates today.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Plus ça change...

As some followers of our top court are doubtless aware, there is a bill currently making its way into the Senate, initiated by NDP member Yvon Godin, that would require bilingualism of our Supreme Court justices.

So, with that prelude, any guesses as to who said this:

“Competency in the law is, of course, a most important criterion for the appointment of persons to the Supreme Court, but surely in this day and age it should be possible for us in Canada to pick nine men who are not only good lawyers but who are also bilingual. If we cannot do this, or at least aim toward it, there must be something wrong with this country. I do not expect we could have nine bilingual judges overnight but certainly we could work toward this goal.”

Any idea?

Ok, it was a trick question. This particular quote is from Warren Allmand, the Liberal member for Notre-Dame-de-Grace, in 1969 in a debate in the House of Commons about bilingualism on the Supreme Court. The fact that he said "men" and not "individuals" should perhaps have tipped you off.

Overnight, over forty years, over another century perhaps...

Unfortunately, the vehemence of the debate about Godin's bill shows just how poorly certain aspects of Canada's official languages policy have been implemented. The emphasis of the policy has been on providing government and legal services in both official languages. However, in order to really do this effectively and efficiently, you need to have a good-sized cadre of bilingual people to staff these positions, at all levels of government and the legal system, and they need to come from all across the country. Until the resistance of Canadians to learning (or making sure that your children are effectively taught) both official languages starts to break down, these conflicts are going to continue to repeat history, and we'll keep hearing the refrain of "we're not ready yet, but perhaps sometime in the future..."

And now, back to my research notes, as I pore through decades of Hansard reading the parliamentary debates about official languages.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

143 years of Canada

Happy Canada Day everyone!

After years of researching and publishing about the history of Canada Day, I'm really pleased that my article Fireworks, Folk-dancing, and Fostering a National Identity: The Politics of Canada Day has appeared in the latest volume of the Canadian Historical Review. This is also a special day for me, because my promotion to associate professor becomes official today! (My legal wedding anniversary is on St-Jean-Baptiste Day. Perhaps I should lay off having major events in my life tied to politically-charged holidays.)

The article itself is by subscription only, but as I've done in past years, I'll share some fun facts from the history of the day. Fifty years ago, in 1960, the CBC put together a special documentary to air on July 1st. Entitled "Dominion Day: A Day to Remember", it traced the stories of six new Canadians, who would be receiving their citizenship at a special ceremony on Parliament Hill. This ceremony kicked off the events taking place on the Hill that day. Somewhat ironically, this also re-launched official Dominion Day observances in Ottawa. The Diefenbaker government had tried to start this annual tradition of celebrating Dominion Day in 1958, but the visit of the Queen, which would take her out of Ottawa on the 1st, led to changes of plans for 1959. For those who are interested, she was helping out at the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Attaching citizenship ceremonies to the events of July 1st rapidly became a popular aspect of both national and local events. Indeed, this was the only official event organized by the federal government in Ottawa in 1976, after the rest of the budget for the "Show on the Hill" was cancelled as part of wide-ranging budget cuts.

Enjoy your Canada Day, however you may be celebrating it!

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