Tories call for immediate hearings to explain axing of long census

Federal politicians will have to interrupt their summer break to return to Ottawa and face off over the Tories’ cancellation of next year’s mandatory, long census.

Maxime Bernier in the House of Commons. Eighty per cent of Canadian don’t realize how invasive the long census is

Maxime Bernier in the House of Commons. Eighty per cent of Canadian don’t realize how invasive the long census is

OTTAWA — Federal politicians will have to interrupt their summer break to return to Ottawa and face off over the Tories’ cancellation of next year’s mandatory, long census.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberals are calling for emergency meetings of the federal industry committee to hash out their differences over how the 2011 census should be handled.

The Tories say they need hearings to better explain their recent decision to get rid of the compulsory long questionnaire that is normally sent to 20 per cent of households along with the short census form that is sent to all households.

The long census only goes to 20 per cent of the population during every census, so 80 per cent of Canadians don’t realize how invasive it is, explained Conservative MP Maxime Bernier.

“So they don’t know what we’re talking about. And so we have to explain what we did and why we did it, and we’ll use the committee,” Bernier said in a telephone interview Sunday.

The Tories also want to use the emergency committee hearings to put the opposition Liberals on the spot, said Bernier.

“The opposition will have to explain to Canadians why they want the state and the government of Canada to know lots of details from their private lives. They will have to answer that question.”

Bernier said that when he was industry minister during the last census period in 2006, he received an average of 1,000 e-mail complaints a day while the survey was going on.

The Liberals say they need the meetings to persuade the government to keep the census methods intact.

“They’re taking this really stupid approach, and making a really stupid decision as well. This really is saying we’re going to dumb down this country because we don’t want to intrude into the lives of people,” said Liberal industry critic Marc Garneau.

Instead of cancelling the mandatory long form, the government should put its efforts into showing respondents why their answers will remain strictly confidential, but are also very important to understanding changes afoot in Canada, Garneau said.

“Of course there are certain things that we don’t really like to do, but we also realize that we have a duty to do certain things.”

The committee hearings will show that the Tory decision places dogma over scientific research, Garneau added.

“It’s causing the Conservative government to frame its ideology. It makes a clear choice for Canadians.”

The 1,000 complaints a day that Bernier spoke of are the first mention of a paper trail that suggests any kind of significant opposition to the long questionnaire.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner says it has only received three complaints in the past decade.

The Conservatives axed the long form at the end of June, in a quietly published order in council.

The uproar since then has been anything but quiet.

Municipal governments, provincial governments, social scientists, religious groups, medical researchers, economists, minority-rights advocates and some business groups have all decried the move.

They say the long census is a crucial tool in policy-making and in understanding local population dynamics in Canada, and can’t properly be replaced by a voluntary survey.

That’s because a voluntary survey would contain a bias and omit groups that tend to object to or avoid answering questions from government agencies.

The Liberals have taken up their cause. They have also requested that the industry committee members interrupt their summer to come back to Ottawa and discuss the census issue.

The census decision was made by cabinet without broad public consultation, Industry Minister Tony Clement has said.

With the new edict, Statistics Canada will still ask the same questions as in the compulsory long form, but it won’t force people to answer. If researchers want more details, they can conduct the research themselves, Bernier said.

Four Conservative MPs plan to make an official request today that the committee meet as soon as possible, Bernier said.

He believes the committee hearings could take place within the week.

The MPs’ motion requests hearings to “examine the urgent public issue created by the Ignatieff Liberals’ threat to prosecute and jail law-abiding Canadians who do not wish to participate” in the long census questionnaire.

Committee hearings must be held if four MPs make a request. The industry committee was already poised to meet in the coming days anyway, to discuss the closure of an oil refinery.