APHEO: "Good governance requires good information"

Ted Hsu
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As I work to mobilize support for Bill C-626, my private member’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census, I have been asking Canadians how the elimination of the mandatory long-form census has affected their lives and their work. Cameron McDermaid, President of the Association of Public Health Epidemiologists of Ontario, responded to my request, and wrote about some of the concerns epidemiologists have with replacing the mandatory long-form census with the voluntary National Household Survey. Please help me. Please share your experience with census data by emailing me at [email protected]



The National Household Survey (NHS), which replaced the mandatory long form of the Census in 2011, is intended to provide data for small geographic areas and small population groups [1].

The Association of Public Health Epidemiologists (APHEO) is gravely concerned about the NHS’s ability to meet this objective and the consequences for informed decisions at the small area level. We request that Statistics Canada re-instate the mandatory long form census as a proven, cost-effective way to meet the critical data needs of small area decision makers. Failing this, administrative data should be made available to mitigate the limitations of the NHS.

APHEO is an organization of approximately 100 full members who practice epidemiology in Ontario’s public health units as well as more than 250 affiliate members. Epidemiologists analyze data to provide information to support evidence-based decisions by decision makers. In Ontario, this work is required of public health units to meet their obligations under the Ontario Public Health Standards [2].

In July of 2010, APHEO first expressed concern about changing from a mandatory long form census to a voluntary household survey in a letter to then Industry Canada minister Tony Clement and other political stakeholders. APHEO was concerned that a voluntary survey would fail to give local and municipal decision makers the high quality data they need to make informed decisions.

The concern is based on how non-response and changes in the population surveyed may affect the data. In general, as non-response increases, the bias in the data also increases if those who refuse to respond are different than those who do respond. This risk increases for small areas and smaller populations, the very groups for which NHS estimates are intended.

The NHS also excludes those living in communal dwellings or abroad, making the data less representative. For example, the possible bias due to non-response and the population change has made it difficult, if not impossible, to compare income estimates with previous censuses or other sources [3].

A recent presentation [4] by Statistics Canada identified possible effects of non-response in Aboriginal identity, ethnic origin, education, income, mobility, language, and housing. While Statistics Canada supports the general reliability of the data at the national, provincial, territorial levels, that is not the intent of the NHS nor is it any help to those making decisions in smaller areas or populations.

The Global Non-Response (GNR) indicator, a measure of the proportion of incomplete responses or complete refusals, has been provided by Statistics Canada. However, despite doubling the threshold for allowing release of data from a GNR of 25% in 2006 to 50% in 2011, many small area estimates are not available and even large areas have GNRs exceeding 20%.

Good governance requires good information. APHEO proposes that Statistics Canada reinstate the mandatory long form census, a cost-effective and effective means of gathering quality information. Statistics Canada should also make available and/or expedite access to supplemental data from administrative sources such as the annual tax file from the Canada Revenue Agency or citizenship and immigration statistics from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This supplemental data should include Aboriginal identity, ethnic origin, education, income, mobility, language, and housing to address the limitations of the 2011 NHS.

Cameron McDermaid MHSc

APHEO President 2014


[1] National Household Survey User Guide. Available from https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/ref/nhsenm_guide/index-eng.cfm. Accessed on March 5th, 2014.

[2] Ontario. Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Ontario public health standards. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario; 2008. Retrieved August 4, 2009 from:

http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/pro/programs/publichealth/oph_standards/docs/ophs_2008.pdf [PDF].

[3] Statistics Canada. 2013. Income composition in Canada. National Household Survey, 2011. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-014-X201100. Ottawa.

http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-014-x/99-014-x2011001-eng.pdf (Accessed March 6, 2014)

[4] Michalowski M. 2011 National Household Survey (NHS): Design and Quality. Presented at 2013 Fall Session of National Housing Research Committee (NHRC), November 5th, 2013. Available from: