Eliminating the census hurts research

Ted Hsu
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Since tabling my private member’s Bill C-626 to bring back the long-form census, I’ve heard lots of anecdotes about how census data has been used, and how the elimination of the long-form census hurts important research. If you have a story to share about how the elimination of the census has affected you, please let me know as early as possible.

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The census provided researchers with crucial data sets. Crucial, not only because they provided a comprehensive survey of the entire country of a certain accuracy, but because they could be compared to earlier census data in order to observe and analyze trends in Canadian society. The census was an excellent research tool that provided high quality, longitudinal data series.

We know now that the poor quality of the 2011 National Household Survey (which replaced the long-census) means that we can’t see clearly how the country is changing. But eliminating the mandatory long-form census has also had a significant impact on all sorts of research on Canadian campuses.

In 2010, Dr. Colin Soskolne, then President of the Canadian Society for Epidemiology and Biostatistics, explained that the long-form census provided researchers with “the basis of population-based research into medical conditions and diseases.” He went on to say that “effective health research, conducted across Canada by epidemiologists, biostatisticians and others, has been made possible thanks to the historically-reliable administrative data collected by Statistics Canada. Eliminating the mandatory long-form portion of the census will make such research impossible, resulting in far more harm than good, both to Canadians and to the international community.

Dr. Patti Groome, a professor of epidemiology at Queen’s University and former Canada Research Chair, has echoed these concerns, explaining that “these data inform our understanding of health care (including cancer care) inequalities in this country through linkages with healthcare data. If you replace the long form with a voluntary survey, we will no longer be able to defend the resulting picture of the Canadian people as representing ALL Canadians.” The federal government has offered significant financial support to Canada Research Chairs like Dr. Groome, and it is counterintuitive and short-sighted to eliminate the vital tools necessary to undertake world-class research.

Eliminating the mandatory long-form census has also affected social science research. One example is Dr. David Hulchanski’s Neighbourhood Change project at the University of Toronto. The ongoing project uses census data to track urban changes in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. The research looked at the changes these cities have experienced over the last 35 years, looking at trends in income distribution, housing, immigrant settlement and more, identifying disturbing evidence of increasing economic polarization in Canadian cities.

The project has been awarded over $2.5 million dollars from SSHRC. The research was well-supported by the federal granting agency largely because of its successful track record. The research group has been credited with developing “the most sophisticated tool to track urban poverty ever devised.

However, the Neighbourhood Change project has been significantly impacted by the elimination of the mandatory long-form census. As journalist Carol Goar notes, replacing the census with a voluntary survey was “a body blow [to Hulchanski’s project]. Without statistically accurate data, his methodology was useless. Hoping to keep his project alive, he tried to patch together other indicators — income tax files, immigration statistics, real estate data, municipal and school board records — but he could not come up with anything approaching the scope or depth of the census.”

These are just a few situations where the federal government has supported important, ground-breaking Canadian researchers, only to turn around and eliminate the census, one of the most valuable research tools available to Canadian researchers.

My private member’s bill, Bill C-626, will reinstate the mandatory long-form census so that Canadian researchers can work with accurate, reliable data for the good of our country.