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By the Numbers: Welcoming the Return of the Long-Form Census

November 15, 2015 8:58 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman


(Census image via Shutterstock)

NEEPAWA, Man. — I’ll be honest, I don’t really like the idea of the government knowing that much about me. Though neither myself, nor anyone that I know, have ever faced hardship at the hands of government, I still feel uneasy.

Despite this sense of uneasiness, I am happy to hear that the mandatory long-form census will be returning next year. A day after taking office, the Liberal government announced that the long form census would be returning for 2016.

Even though I don’t really like sharing personal information, I accept that this information is needed to provide an accurate picture of Canada and Canadians.

For the 2011 census, the mandatory long-form census was replaced with the National Household Survey (NHS). The major difference was that the NHS was voluntary and this had a profound impact on the data collected. While the 2006 mandatory census had a response rate of 93.5 per cent, the response rate to the NHS was just 68.6 per cent.

The problem with such a low response rate is that for many smaller communities, the results don’t meet the threshold for reliability and therefore, can’t be used. While Statistics Canada has short-form census data about the people in these communities, there is nothing beyond this basic information. There is no information about characteristics such as country of birth, aboriginal identity, mobility, level of education, income or how much they spend on shelter. We know nothing about their work: whether they are employed or not, how many hours they work, whether they own a business, their occupation or the industry in which they are employed.

Nationally, the low response rate has meant that there is no NHS data for 20 per cent of the country’s 4,556 census subdivisions. This means that not only do local governments and organizations not have this information to better serve the needs of their communities’ residents, but information from these communities isn’t aggregated into national data on employment, poverty or divorce.

Close to home, there is no data available about the RM of Rosedale. In other communities, while they have NHS data reported, the non-response rate is close to 50 per cent, the cut off at which the data is considered useless and not reported. For example, the RM of Elton had a non-response rate of 48.3 per cent while the RM of Woodworth had a non-response rate of 46.8 per cent.

Ending the long-form census was supposed to save money, but instead, the NHS cost $22 million more than the long-form census. Because fewer Canadians responded to the NHS, it had to be sent to more households to get statistically significant data. While the long-form census was sent to one in five households, the NHS was sent to about one in three households.

A voluntary census also tends to skew the data, as certain groups, such as the very wealthy, the very poor, aboriginals, immigrants and rural Canadians, tend to have lower response rates. The problem is that we are trying to help many of these Canadians through programs and policies, but don’t have accurate data about them.

The lower response rate also leads to questionable data when communities are undergoing rapid change, as ours has been. Many in Neepawa questioned the 2011 population and immigration numbers, feeling they were too low. The NHS showed that Neepawa was home to 3,400 residents, 185 of whom had immigrated to Neepawa between 2006 and 2011.

Even for communities with enough NHS data to publish results, the changing nature of some communities means that the data provides misleading results.

Realistically, “the government” already knows a great deal about me: Vital Statistics knows my age, where I was born and parents’ names; Revenue Canada knows how much I make; Citizenship and Immigration knows when I last left the country and for how long; my municipality knows where I live, how long I’ve lived there and approximately how much my home is worth and CSIS might be watching my Facebook page and know what I ate for breakfast. Helping Stats Canada aggregate this information into one source is the price we have to pay if we want an accurate picture of the needs and challenges facing Canadians.


Tags: Canada