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End of long-form census has cut deep into Surrey services, critics say

Essential social services are being improperly funded because of faulty statistical information, which in turn hurts the local economy, business leaders argue
Doug Tennant, chief executive officer of the Semiahmoo House Society in Surrey, says the abolishment of the long-form questionnaire on the census is bad for business | Dominic Schaefer

In 2010, the federal government eliminated the mandatory long-form questionnaire from the census, replacing it with a voluntary National Household Survey. The decision left a wide gap in statistical data when results of the census were released in 2011.

The compulsory long-form census in 2006 had a 93% response rate. The voluntary one in 2011 had a 68% response rate, even though more surveys were sent to more homes. When Statistics Canada released its 2011 data, it warned that the information was subject to “higher non-response error” than in previous years. Information gathered about more than 25% of all Canadian communities wasn’t subsequently released because too few people in those places filled out the voluntary form.

In a place like Surrey, statistics are vital. The city is growing by about 1,200 people per month and is expected to surpass Vancouver’s population in as little as a decade. Without the long-form questionnaire, which helps paint a thorough picture of people’s lives, including which languages they speak within the household and how much unpaid care-aide work they do, the picture of who’s inhabiting this fast-growing community is incomplete, said Doug Tennant, the chief executive officer of the Semiahmoo House Society.

Tennant said when the 2016 census is complete, his non-profit society, which helps people with disabilities and which is partially funded by the government, is going to suffer again. 

“It’s very unlikely that we’re going to be getting very good information about the lives of people,” Tennant said. “And that’s a real concern for us.”

Business owners should be taking note, he added, because a major component of the society revolves around providing affordable child care through the Peninsula Child Care Centre. Without proper statistics, the society can’t accumulate accurate information to make a detailed case to funding providers about its subsidized child care needs. Tennant estimates that, based on 2006 census numbers, there are more than 30,000 families that need licensed child care in Surrey that aren’t getting it, or are taking their kids to unlicensed child care operations.

“And when [licensed child care] is there, the mothers or parents are much more likely to be good employees. They’re much more likely not to call in sick. They’re much more likely to be at work and not be under stress and going to work and being much less productive.”
Tennant said the margin­­alized portions of Canada’s population, such as single mothers working full-time, are the ones who have suffered most after the long-form questionnaire was abolished.

“When you take the mandatory part away, it’s much more likely that people who are vulnerable or people who are low income … [won’t] fill in the long form. So you’re hearing from basically the middle class across Canada, and apparently also very wealthy people don’t fill in the form either. So you’re not really getting a true picture of what’s going on.”

This results in skewed funding outlooks for social services, which in turn stresses every corner of the economy, said Gregory Thomas, president and chief executive officer of G3 Consulting Ltd., a Surrey-based environmental science research and consulting firm. Thomas was at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s recent annual general meeting representing the Surrey Board of Trade when they passed a motion making support for reinstating the long-form questionnaire a policy position in September.

“So when [the policy position] happened, you’re basically saying there’s 200,000 businesses in Canada that think this should happen,” Thomas said.
“And that’s pretty difficult for the federal government to just say, ‘Well thanks very much but ….’ So it speaks directly to the federal government. It’s a very powerful statement to them.”

Thomas said the government’s response that robust private sector polling and statistical information gathering has filled the gap is short-sighted.
“Having the government do it really brings a real sense of impartiality that the private sector cannot bring.”

Ontario Liberal MP Ted Hsu recently brought forth Bill C-626, a private member’s bill that would restart the long-form questionnaire and shield the chief statistician of Canada from outside interference. However, it appears the bill has little chance of becoming law, especially with a federal election season looming.