Next year, Statistics Canada is going to be asking 250,000 Canadian households some personal questions it has never asked before — and answering them honestly is mandatory.
The agency is conducting what it calls a “pilot” census next May and June to road-test questionnaires and procedures for the next full-scale census, set for 2021.
After more than a year of consultations with data users, Statistics Canada has decided to add detailed personal questions – and needs to be sure they are properly answered to ensure the test is valid.
That’s why Canada’s chief statistician, Anil Arora, has invoked a little-used power in the Statistics Act to declare that the pilot census next year is a “mandatory request for information.”
Anyone who refuses to complete a mandatory census questionnaire, or “knowingly gives false or misleading information or practises any other deception,” can be fined up to $500. (In late 2017, Parliament eliminated the former penalty: up to three months in jail.)
Arora justified his decision to make the pilot census mandatory in a September notice he sent to Industry Minister Navdeep Bains. “Voluntary tests in 2019,” he told the minister, “could yield inaccurate or inconclusive findings for many of the proposed changes to questionnaire content.”
CBC News obtained the notice under the Access to Information Act.
Statistics Canada canvassed academics and other users of census data from September 2017 to February 2018 on the new questions to be added in 2021. A report on the findings is to be published in the fall of next year.
Agency spokesperson Peter Frayne declined to provide the new questions to CBC News, calling them a “work-in-progress.”
But Arora’s notice to Bains indicates they deal with sex and gender, among other topics.
“Many of the content changes proposed for 2021 affect smaller population groups (transgender, non-binary, same-sex couples; language rights-holders; ethnic groups; residents with work or student visas; Indigenous populations, etc.),” he wrote.
Frayne said the new questions will also deal with veterans, general health status, religion, skills related to digital technology, and small changes will be made to questions asked in previous census years.
Under the Statistics Act, the federal cabinet must approve the final set of questions for the 2021 census but the questions for the 2019 pilot need only be approved by the agency itself.
Statistics Canada has conducted similar pre-census tests before, but a much wider range of personal questions is slated for 2019.
The agency recently stoked controversy when news emerged that it planned to collect banking and credit information from banks on some 500,000 Canadians — part of another pilot project slated for 2019.
Arora later suspended the project while Canada’s privacy commissioner investigated, a process that office says will take months. The stalled financial data pilot was not a direct survey of Canadians, unlike a census.
A spokesperson for Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said the office has been alerted to the 2019 census pilot.
“We have had some very preliminary discussions with Statistics Canada about the 2019 census test and they have undertaken to get back to us with more information,” Corey Larocque said in an email.
Answers are collected under the authority of the Statistics Act and are kept strictly confidential.– Statistics Canada spokesman Peter Frayne
In the last year, Arora authorized three other mandatory surveys — two of them compelling businesses to provide data on mineral production and another related to global-supply chains.
On Jan. 25, 2018, the agency published its standards on definitions and usage for sex and gender, which will inform its coming census questions.
“Gender refers to the gender that a person internally feels … and/or the gender a person publicly expresses … in their daily life, including at work, while shopping or accessing other services, in their housing environment or in the broader community,” says the standard for gender of person.
“Sex and gender refer to two different concepts. Caution should be exercised when comparing counts for sex with those for gender. For example, female sex is not the same as female gender.”
The last census in 2016 did not give Canadians the option of responding to the sex question in a non-binary fashion: the only acceptable answers were ‘male’ and ‘female’.
Frayne said the 2019 pilot census will employ electronic and paper formats, and some households will receive personal visits. The results will be kept “strictly confidential,” he added.
CBC News reported earlier this year that Statistics Canada lost hundreds of sensitive files during the 2016 census process. Incident reports obtained through the Access to Information Act detailed 20 cases of information and privacy breaches by Statistics Canada.
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper in 2010 cancelled Statistics Canada’s long-form census, scheduled for 2011, for which some households were required to provide more detailed information than in the standard census questionnaire.
“We do not believe it is appropriate to compel Canadians to divulge extensive private and personal information,” Tony Clement, then-industry minister, said at the time in justifying the move.
“We do not believe Canadians should be forced under threat of fines, jail, or both to divulge the answers to questions such as these: How many sick days did you take last year? Were you paid for those? What were your total payments for your primary dwelling last year? Do you have any broken floor tiles in need of repair in your bathroom?”
The Liberal government reversed the decision and reinstated the long-form census for 2016.
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