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Government doesn't need raw data to make good decisions: Strahl

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl contradicted his own top bureaucrat Tuesday by suggesting raw statistics don't help the government make better decisions.

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl contradicted his own top bureaucrat Tuesday by suggesting raw statistics don’t help the government make better decisions.

Nicole Jauvin, the head of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, said in May that the agency needs better statistical data on the northern economy to build lasting investments.

“One of the things we need to ensure that we do is have good baseline data,” said Jauvin in an interview on May 6.

“We’re discovering that we need to do more work on that because we can’t use the same kinds of formulas they use in the south to measure progress because it’s not the same.

“It will help us measure the extent of development and the impact that we are having as well as a potential spinoffs.”

The long-form census, which was recently declared voluntary by the federal government, gathers raw data on housing and income across the country every five years. The decision to make it voluntary, reportedly taken by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has been opposed by top statisticians who believe collecting data that way is much less reliable.

But on Tuesday, while making a funding announcement on Mount Sima in Whitehorse, Strahl said Jauvin wasn’t referring to raw data.

“The long-form data is personal information that will tell you all kinds of things that may be of interest of government, but that’s not the kind of data that you’re talking about,” said Strahl.

“You’re talking about the number of visitors that come to the country, how long are they staying, how much money are they dropping, what are the kind of things that appeal to them - frankly, the kind of data that will drive this kind of operation into success will be gathered both privately through tourism societies, through border-crossing information and all kinds of business data.”

Research done for a business plan by private groups is more important to government than raw data, said Strahl.

But numerous fields covered by Cannor funding - housing, small business investments, energy - do cross over with data gathered by the census.

“Housing data collected by Statistics Canada as part of the long-form census is some of the most valuable information we have to gauge the rate of overcrowding in Inuit communities,” Elisapee Sheutiapik, the mayor of Iqaluit, told the Globe & Mail this week.

Strahl played up the importance of tourism-related numbers and other macroeconomic data when faced with questions over the census’ role in governance.

“We expect Statscan to come out with monthly growth numbers - GDP numbers,” he said. “That doesn’t come up in the long form. Every month we ask them to come up with employment numbers. That doesn’t come out from the long form. We ask them to come out with manufacturing numbers - doesn’t come from the long form.

“That comes from 20, 30, 50 different information givers that could come from school boards, could come from border crossings, manufacturing associations, they could come from housing developments and stats from local governments.”

But non-governmental organizations have criticized the government’s position on the census because they depend on the data.

The Francophone and Acadian Association of Canada, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association, and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce have all expressed minor to grave concern over the switch to a voluntary census, according to the Globe.

Many minority groups depend on the data to prove that their constituents require government programming or funding. There’s concern that underrepresented groups will fill out a voluntary form less often than a mandatory one, skewing the results.

But Strahl denied that could happen to First Nations.

“Most First Nation people will not fill out the form,” he said. “Most First Nations don’t want to fill out a form that will give them access to healing services through the Canada Health system because they do not trust the government with that information. That’s a fact.

“Ninety-nine per cent of First Nations - and that’s just a statistic I made up, by the way - I bet you almost all First Nations say, I’m not filling (the census) out. I don’t trust the government on this and I’m worried about it.

“We want you to participate, but it’s voluntary,” he said. “The Liberals say they want to make it a fine and a jail term if you don’t fill out. They can explain that to First Nations. How does that bring comfort to First Nations that say, ‘I’m concerned about this,’ and you say, ‘You either fill it out or I’m going to send you to jail or I’ll give you a fine.’”

Strahl returned repeatedly to the argument that because some people don’t like filling out the mandatory census, being more lax about filling it out will increase the number of people who do fill it out.

That’s something that the former head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, who resigned last week over the changes, disagreed with during committee hearings in Ottawa this week.

“It really cast doubt on the integrity of the agency,” he told parliamentarians, according to the Globe. “And I, as the head of that agency, cannot survive in that job.”

Still, Strahl pressed on with anecdotal examples of how a mandatory census doesn’t work.

“I know of people that fill out that form, and they brag about it back home, and they say, ‘They wanted to know how much money I make. I said I make $10 a year,’” said Strahl.

“They say, ‘It’s just none of their business, so I tell them I have three wives. And then someone comes along and says. ‘Are they same-sex partners or are they opposite sex?’ I told them I have a mix. Like, what’s it to ya?’”

“I’m convinced lots of people fill out that form and they make it up as they go along.”

He gets a lot of calls from terrified seniors at census time, he said.

“The little old lady is trembling on the other end of the phone saying, ‘What do I do?’ and I just say, ‘Ma’am, fill it out the best you can.’ But you know, I just think it’s not fair to make it something that will fine or send you to jail for,” he said.

Contact James Munson at