Elimination of census long form prompts QCGN complaint

Photo: Patrick Doyle, The Canadian Press Images

Industry Minister, Tony Clement

The federal government's decision to discontinue mandatory completion of the long form in the Canada's next census has drawn widespread opposition, provoking an investigation by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, a complaint from a high-profile Quebec organization, and even inspiring a song from a Toronto-based volunteer social services outfit.

The Quebec Community Groups Network last week filed an official complaint with the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, asking him to use his powers to investigate.

It generally takes a couple of weeks for a complaint to be assigned to an investigator in cases such as these, according to a QCGN spokeswoman, after which the actual investigation can continue for an indeterminate amount of time.

QCGN President Linda Leith, in a statement issued last week, said that information collected during the census and collated by Statistics Canada, is key data upon which evidence-based policy is developed.

"Evidenced-based policy allows community groups like the Quebec Community Groups Network, which support the English-speaking Community of Quebec, to work with the Government of Canada to enhance the vitality of the English linguistic minority communities in Canada," Leith explained.

Leith said that under Part VII of the Official Languages Act, the Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the vitality of English and French minorities in Canada and supporting their development as well as fostering the full recognition of the use of English and French in Canadian society.

Leith has heard similar sentiments from francophone organizations regarding the new policy.
"By making the long form voluntary in the next National Census, Industry Minister Tony Clement fails to fulfil his ministry's obligations to ensure that positive measures are taken for the implementation of the commitments that enhance the vitality of the English-speaking Community of Quebec and support and assist in its development," the QCGN statement said.

"The results of making completion of the long form voluntary will be to undermine the credibility of the data collected, and prevent the creation of a validated representative population, skewing the type of trend analysis critical to the development of sound evidence based policy," said Leith.

"Moreover, data collected on the long form is used by Statistics Canada to derive the first official language spoken (FOLS) for Canadian citizens."

Monday, Leith expanded on her earlier statements, saying the government's new policy would affects those most in need of having the additional information in the government's hands would be least likely to complete the optional form.

"Unfortunately, it's certain to happen," she said. "The people who won't fill out the long form are the ones who will be hurt by (the new policy) the most. The process is certainly flawed."

"I find myself somewhat mystified," she said. "Governments depend on accurate information about the services that will be provided."

John Campey, executive director of the Toronto-based non-profit organization Social Planning said eliminating data obtained from the long form would hurt Canadians of all backgrounds.

"It's hard to imagine a public policy that would be more damaging to Canada," Campey said.

The long form census, he said, is the basis for virtually all federal government decisions regarding services, from the location of hospitals and police deployment to the construction of roads and the development of bus lines.

Campey called the move an "ideological one" aimed at a small portion of its conservative base on the part of the federal government, which he said is ignoring both the needs and desires of the population.

"They've put their fingers in their ears and are going la-la-la-la-la," said Campey, who has been with the organization for seven years. "It's like tossing a bomb in the navigation system of an airplane. It would be like flying in the dark. Without all that information, all those decisions would be made in the dark."

In addition, he said, the restructured census will cost taxpayers $35 million in additional funds to collect what he called "worthless data."

John Campey has formed an impromptu musical ensemble called the Data Hounds who sing about the need to keep the long-form census intact, to the tune of a Gary Lewis and the Playboys' hit called "Count Me In."

"We're just adding another voice to the chorus," Campey said.
Commissioner of Official Languages Graham Fraser, meanwhile, said recently he is launching an investigation into Industry Canada's decision to eliminate the long-form questionnaire from the 2011 census.

"It is extremely important to see whether the government respected its obligations under the Official Languages Act when it made this decision," Fraser said in a statement issued from his office this week.

The Commissioner expressed concern about the possible impact this decision could have on the vitality of official language communities and on the application of the Official Languages Act.

"When it comes to making decisions on offering services in both official languages and to evaluating the size of official language communities, information about people's mother tongue, language spoken in the home and knowledge of both official languages are all used," said Mr. Fraser.

"The short-form questionnaire asks only about mother tongue, which would see some people, especially newcomers, effectively counted out."

Fraser said replacing the long-form census questionnaire with a new, voluntary National Household Survey might not allow federal institutions to determine adequately the size of official language communities in small, rural municipalities or produce data consistent with census information collected over several decades.

"This credible national source of data has been a critical tool for the government to assess the vitality of official language communities," Fraser said. "Federal departments and agencies, along with the communities themselves, have used this information to evaluate how they have evolved and determine where services need to be provided in the language of the minority community."