The picture painted by Statistics Canada's 2011 census and the new national household survey -- a second-rate stand-in for the former mandatory long-form questionnaire axed by the Harper government -- is clear, to a degree. Almost 15 per cent of Canadians, for example, are living on after-tax low incomes -- less than $39,000 for a family of four. And, almost 70 per cent of households owned their home.
But sorting through what that means -- who are they, exactly where are they living -- gets tough the further one tries to drill down in a province, city, town or neighbourhood. Some neighbourhoods don't even show up.
That's because the voluntary survey, which was sent to a third of Canadian households last year, had some really low response rates and was unreliable in spots.
The Harper government in 2010 eliminated the mandatory long-form questionnaire, citing concerns about privacy that were never well illustrated. The national household survey was sent to many more homes, but the response rate was 68 per cent, compared with 94 per cent for previous mandatory questionnaires. The results are telling. Or, rather, not. In 2006, the results from about 200 communities were suppressed due to unreliable data; this year, the numbers on more than 1,100 communities didn't show up. In Saskatchewan, no information appeared on 43 per cent, or 500, of its communities.
Census data do not simply allow governments to respond to need and businesses to plan for growth. They write the evolving story of the country for Canadians to understand each other and, in turn, themselves better. The Conservatives have muddied, severely, a chapter in one of the longest-running narratives Canada has had. It was a big mistake. The Harper government should begin now to reintroduce the mandatory long-form questionnaire so subsequent censuses can continue to piece together the story.
- Winnipeg Free Press