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Changes to census would be extremely difficult under new law, Bains says

OTTAWA _ The federal minister in charge of Statistics Canada says newly tabled legislation to give the agency greater independence would make it difficult, but not impossible, for a future government to make changes to the census

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the bill introduced last week would force the government to be open about what it was doing, forcing it to take the heat for any decisions instead of being able to point the finger at the statistical agency.

That’s what effectively happened when the previous Conservative government turfed the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary survey in the 2011 count. Then-chief statistician Munir Sheikh resigned in protest, saying he hadn’t made the recommendation at all.

In a roundtable interview with The Canadian Press, Bains said the proposed law, had it been in place six years ago, would have made it “extremely difficult” for the Tories to replace the mandatory survey with a voluntary one because it would have had to publicly reveal any orders it gave the agency.

Bains said the bill would give Statistics Canada a say over how data is collected.

He said the government would decide what issues are studied, be it clean technology or innovation spending.

“I mean it: we don’t want ideology to trump good quality data,” Bains said. “With respect to how data is collected, now (it) is entrenched and enshrined in law that that is the responsibility of the chief statistician.”

The bill introduced last week also proposes to eliminate the threat of jail time for anyone who doesn’t fill out a mandatory survey, but retains fines of up to $500 for anyone who doesn’t fill out the census.

Earlier this year, Statistics Canada proposed the government craft legislation that would impose fines to discourage companies and other levels of government from stalling on handing over information. The agency can ask for any information held by governments and businesses, but officials have long found it hard to get information like point-of-sale transactions that could give a more detailed and accurate picture of household spending.

The bill Bains introduces doesn’t propose any kind of corporate fines.

Bains said the onus falls on the chief statistician to show that the agency needs any data it requests.

“I think that’s what Canadians want. They want the experts to decide how best to collect the data, not the politicians,” he said.