Wednesday, July 21, 2010

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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At 10:50 am, Anonymous Eamon said...

One thing that actually annoys the hell out of me is the term "special interest groups". WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? It always seems to be the defense for stupid decision-making in the Harper government.

"Someone is complaining? It is just those special interest groups that don't represent Canadians"

I just got off the phone with the CAO of one of the biggest municipalities in Canada, and he discussed how removal of the long form will be terrible for his municipality. I suspect this is the same for other municipalities. Provinces too. Are governments now special interests? What about the entire private sector?

I could understand the "special interests" argument if Greenpeace was the only group opposed to a policy, but they aren't. It just seems like the term "special interest groups" is being used more and more to sell terrible and irresponsible policy. I mean, where the hell does this policy come from?!? No rational human being would jump to the conclusions like this government does on a regular basis (ask Helena Guergis)...


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