Canada’s languages watchdog launched an investigation Monday into the axing of the mandatory long census form, fearing the impact of the change on the country’s English and French minority communities.
Graham Fraser, commissioner of official languages, said he would examine whether the government respected its obligations under the Official Languages Act when it made the decision late last month. The mandatory long census form is being replaced with a voluntary survey next year.
Critics from a wide range of sectors say the voluntary survey will not be a reliable source of detailed data because certain groups are unlikely to respond, creating a strong bias in the statistics.
“This credible national source of data has been a critical tool for the government to assess the vitality of official language communities,” Fraser said in a statement.
“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.”
The Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities had filed a complaint with Fraser’s office about the census change. It noted that the short census form, which will remain mandatory, does not feature questions about knowledge or use of official languages in households.
Opposition to the Conservative cabinet’s decision has been growing steadily since it was revealed by The Canadian Press two weeks ago. Industry Minister Tony Clement said the decision was a response to Canadians who found the mandatory long form intrusive and coercive.
An online discussion about the issue on a consultative website sponsored by his department was suddenly branded “off topic” and public links to it erased over the weekend.
Industry Canada had been leading a wide-ranging consultation on the digital economy for the last two months. With only a few days left for Canadians to register their views, a debate on the census had become the second most popular topic.
Last week, the census was featured on the Digital Economy Consultation home page as one of the top three “ideas,” under a video message by Clement.
“The census long form provides us with critical labour market information that is necessary to carry out long-term human resource planning,” Lee Jacobs of the Information and Communications Technology Council posted to the discussion.
“It is, in our opinion, paramount to save the long form.”
But by the weekend, all obvious links to the discussion thread were gone. The only way to access the page was to input the precise Internet address separately.
An Industry Canada spokesman said Monday that the discussion was moved to an “off topic” section because it was not deemed relevant.
“While the changes to the census are important, they are not directly related to the development of a digital economy strategy for Canada,” Michel Cimpaye said in an email.
Peggy Taillon, president of the Canadian Council on Social Development, began contacting the department on Friday to ask about the lost links.
“It was interesting that it was removed as it was gaining momentum,” said Taillon, who had posted the first comment.
“Apparently it is becoming par for the course for the government. They don’t want your opinion, even when they do consultation. They really only want to hear from people who are supporting their direction.”
The Canadian Marketing Association was the latest organization to publicly oppose the move, saying Monday that its 800 members depend on the census when making key business decisions.
“This information, by neighbourhood and postal code, supports the growth of the Canadian economy, jobs, and its tax base,” said association president John Gustavson.