Lately, there’s been a lot of talk in the news about Harper’s decision to remove the long form of the Census when it returns to enumerate citizens in 2011. Many pundits, academics, and journalists agree with this move;  many don’t.  For what it’s worth, I agree with many people that it’s an ungainly document – it’s long, the questions within it are clumsily worded, and its size intimidates a lot of respondents. As a former Census employee, I agree that there are many faults with the way that the long-form survey is currently composed.

But the long form’s relevance to Canadian society is precisely because of the length and depth of information that it attempts to gather. Now, let me back up for more context:

In 2006, I was in the middle of my Bachelor’s degree and looking for a summer job. I managed to get one working at a call centre that StatsCan was renting temporarily near Bay and Dundas in downtown Toronto. Census Help Line Operators were taught about the history of the Census, learned the answers to the FAQs that would be posed by incoming callers, and trained on how to assist callers with completing their forms over the phone.

I learned several things while working as an agent at the call centre:

  1. Call centre work stressed me out.
  2. The general populace had a remarkable lack of knowledge about what the Census was for, and how it affected their lives in the long-term.
  3. This lack of knowledge was often, but not always, accompanied by suspicion about the government’s “meddling” in regular affairs.
    • To which I say: huh? Um, don’t you buy products that have been brought into the country under the auspices of Canada’s import/export laws? Don’t you take advantage of subsidized health care? Don’t you receive your mail from Canada Post?
  4. Like some grim parody of the stages  of reacting to someone’s death, people’s reactions to the length of form 2B (the long form of the Census, easily topping a few dozen pages) ranged from fear, to confusion, to anger, to acceptance.

Lesson 1 led to me eventually quitting that job and finding another part-time gig for the rest of the summer.  Lessons 2 through 4 fed rather nicely into lesson 1 – imagine picking up the phone constantly, with no control over the flow of incoming calls, not knowing knowing the mood of the caller on the other end. Would they be neutral, curious, accommodating, upset?

Reading out the 2B form to people who requested assistance over the phone was a lesson in patience and required mastery in both proper diction and the technique of discreet water-bottle-sipping. That form was loooong. It asked some garden-variety questions regarding age, sex, name, marital status, and so forth, but to that, it added questions about:

  • work history, commutes and incomes
  • ethnic and cultural background
  • the health of Census respondents, including information about chronic conditions
  • languages spoken within the home
  • the size, market value, and bedroom distribution of the home

Helping citizens answer these questions ranged from pleasantly easy to tooth-pullingly difficult. But one thing I did notice was the gratitude in people’s voices when I took the time to explain questions, repeat them, and rephrase them into simpler English.

And it is precisely because of this gratitude that I think the long-form Census should continue. Making the long form voluntary only eliminates those respondents who would be scared to answer these questions without assistance. Let’s face it: it’s a document containing over 50 questions, many of which contain subtle variations that may be difficult to detect. Making the long form voluntary means that those who would be put off by such a document – those with poor literacy skills, those who do not use English as their first language, those who know little about the support systems the government has in place, and many more – are less likely to fill it out.

There’s a simple term for this sort of phenomenon: sample bias. More specifically, it’s sample bias arising from self-selection into a group – the group in this case being those who, in the 2011 Census, would fill in their long forms voluntarily. Sample bias is an introductory concept in sociology and statistics courses, and I learned about it myself in my introductory philosophy course in logic and practical reasoning, way back in my first year of undergrad.

Which leads me to wonder: what sort of trick does Harper think he’s pulling? This is stuff that thousands of young, enterprising minds are being taught to prevent and avoid every day! Can he seriously think that abolishing the long form so suddenly would go by unnoticed?

This blog has been rather short on political commentary, and it probably will be in the future as well. But here is one thing I’m not shy about saying: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s social policies have bordered on the exclusionary for far too long. This is an issue I’m familiar with, in a level that few academics and pundits have been. I’ve been on the ground floor. I helped hundreds of Canadian citizens themselves answer these questions on a daily basis, and heard how they reacted when I explained to them, in simple language, how the Census affected urban planning and education. Many of them want to help make these changes a realty. No one, not even the Prime Minister, should deny them that chance.