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The Return of Big Data in Canada

“We need good, reliable data,” said Navdeep Bains, newly appointed minister of innovation, science and economic development, as he announced the return of Canada's mandatory long-form census.

by Rachel Browne
Nov 5 2015, 8:22pm

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada will begin to get to know itself again as the Liberal government announced it was bringing back the long-form census that the previous Conservative government killed five years ago.

"We know the history of the past government and they very much focused on ideology," Navdeep Bains, newly appointed minister of innovation, science and economic development told reporters on Thursday. "We need good, reliable data."

For the long-form census, which had been mandatory for 35 years, Canadians had to answer a detailed list of questions for the government, which detractors claimed violated their privacy.

After a series of protests, spoiled censuses, and court cases against the long-form census, Stephen Harper's Conservative government replaced it with a shorter, voluntary survey, the National Household Survey (NHS), that was sent to less than a third of Canadians. It asks a few basic questions about the age and genders of people in a household. The response rate plummeted from 94 percent in 2006 to 68 percent in 2011.

The head of Statistics Canada quit in frustration over the loss of his department's survey that had been hailed internationally for its thoroughness and proficiency.

And there was a massive outcry from a wide range of sectors, from businesses to churches, who said they wouldn't be able to do their work properly without that valuable data. The Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities asked the federal court to void the decision and there were numerous attempts to pass private members' bills to bring back the census.

"Our feeling was that the change was to make a reasonable limit on what most Canadians felt was an intrusion into their personal privacy," a spokesperson for then-Industry Minister Tony Clement told reporters in 2010.

Critics also said the move provided further evidence that the Conservatives had waged a war against science and wanted to muzzle the voices of government scientists.

Groups working on urban planning and poverty were especially impacted because they couldn't get current information about Canada's poor and whether housing strategies and other programs were getting to those who needed them most.

"Poverty can be invisible and it is, in many ways, about metrics," said Megan Hoofs, deputy director of Canada without Poverty. "And when that census was gone, people were being left out. You had the fact that the new one was voluntary, and only 70 percent of people filled it out in the first place. And if Statistics Canada thought the data was unreliable, they wouldn't include it in the results."

She pointed to the example of Prince Edward Island, where a third of its communities were not included in the survey. "That didn't mean that poverty didn't exist there, but that could make it seem as though the poverty rate was changing there. When in reality, the numbers might not have changed. The results were skewed."

In addition to that, Hoofs said it was difficult for her group to determine whether certain policies were working or not. "And now it's exciting to think that the need for good data is being recognized again," she said of the Liberal announcement.

"The next question will be about what will happen with that data. Let's hope good data equals good policymaking… It will be interesting to see what's been happening in the meantime."

Bains wouldn't say whether the Liberal government would impose jail time or other penalties for Canadians who refused to fill it the new census, which is expected to be mailed out next spring, saying only, "The law is the law."

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