Justin Trudeau, Canada's new prime minister

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Updated: Canada reinstates mandatory census, to delight of social scientists

The new Canadian government today announced it would restore the country’s mandatory long-form census.

"Our plan for open and fair government starts today with restoring the long-form census," said Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, speaking in Ottawa alongside Jean-Yves Duclos, minister of families, children, and social development. "We're focused on good evidence-based policies."

Bains said that Statistics Canada would be able to meet the 2 May deadline to roll out the 2016 census, which is conducted every 5 years, and that there would be no additional costs to making it mandatory. He confirmed that residents who fail to fill out the census could face criminal prosecution, an issue that contributed to the decision by the Harper government to make the 2011 census voluntary.

Our previous story:

The new Canadian government seems poised to fulfill a wish of social scientists by bringing back the country’s mandatory long-form census.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was sworn in this morning, and members of his Liberal Party expect him to act promptly to meet one of his campaign promises. Such a move would also signal his commitment to reversing many of the policies of the former Conservative government under longtime Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper’s government cancelled the mandatory long-form census in 2010 and replaced it with the voluntary National Household Survey. The move was deeply unpopular with social scientists, as well as municipal and provincial governments and business groups. But last February the Parliament voted down a bill by former Liberal Member of Parliament Ted Hsu to reinstate the census.

The voluntary survey had a much lower response rate—68% versus more than 90% for the previous mandatory questionnaire—making the data collected of much lower quality. Voluntary surveys also tend to exacerbate sampling bias. Response rates are lower among certain groups, including immigrant populations, aboriginals, and low-income families. When it released the results in 2013, Statistics Canada (StatsCan) included a disclaimer that researchers should be cautious when comparing the survey with previous census data.

Social scientists took that warning seriously. “I haven’t seen people using data from the survey in their research,” says Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa and former StatsCan employee. “I stop at 2006 for my own work, and haven’t even made the effort to check if the survey data are valid.” Corak predicts that researchers will probably just skip the 2011 survey if the government reinstates the mandatory long form, or include it with the caveat that the information cannot be trusted.

But Corak hopes that StatsCan will retain some of the innovative approaches it adopted to deal with the poor data. For example, the agency became more adept at using administrative data from other government departments, such as tax records, to gather information electronically. “I don’t want a closed mindset that it should just go back to what it was before,” he says. “The world is evolving.”

Supporters of the mandatory census are keeping up the pressure until the government acts. “Data from the census is the cornerstone of informed policymaking at all levels of government,” says Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, a science advocacy group based in Ottawa that has sponsored a write-in campaign.

Hsu says he expects the new government to act “immediately” after today’s event. But he warns that Trudeau cannot wait if he wants the next census, scheduled for May 2016, to be mandatory. “The big question in my mind is not political, but whether StatsCan went far enough in their transition planning before [the election] so that they now have the flexibility to quickly switch over to a mandatory questionnaire,” he says.

Munir Sheikh, the former head of StatsCan who resigned in 2010 over the cancellation of the long-form census, has said that he thinks it should be possible to make the change as long as the government moves quickly. The change back to a mandatory census could also prove to be a money-saver. In addition to producing suspect data, Sheikh says the voluntary survey also cost $22 million more.