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Munir Sheikh… Does the name ring any bells?

No? I didn’t think so.

It is a terrible shame that so few people still recall the former Statistics Canada director who was once the greatest voice of resistance against Stephen Harper’s efforts to do away with the mandatory long-form census back in 2010. Citing concerns that “it is an unreasonable invasion of privacy to compel 20 per cent of households to complete a mandatory long-form census with more than 50 questions about home life, work and ethnicity”, the Conservative Party sought to replace the mandatory census with a survey that appeared to be made in less than 10 minutes on SurveyMonkey.com. Needless to say, the motion was universally panned by experts around the country.

Despite winning the hearts of doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs, as well as the support of entire provinces—not to mention every single StatsCan nerd on the agency’s 6,000 employee payroll—Mr. Sheikh eventually lost the battle for data transparency. Starting with the 2011 census, the mandatory long-form questionnaire would be replaced with a mandatory short-form questionnaire along with the newly inaugurated National Household Survey (NHS), a voluntary survey designed to be as useless as a lobotomized sloth.

Having already staked everything on the line, Mr. Sheikh eventually decided to walk out rather than becoming another one of Stephen Harper’s lap cats. Before leaving, he decided to post one final statement on the StatsCan website, ”I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion … the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census…” (Dramatic pause)

It can not.

Just in case it needs clarification, those last few words amount to a huge wagging middle finger. Without a doubt, Mr. Sheikh is a rare but admirable example of a career politician who preferred to commit hara kiri rather than to follow the order in the parliamentary food chain. Yet, even with a martyr on the cross, Stephen Harper still managed to abolish one of the most useful collections of data for public policy professionals and non-governmental organizations.

“Blah, blah, blah. Old news,” one might reply. “None of this matters anymore.”

Wrong!

Abolishing the mandatory long-form census not only set a dangerous precedent for future federal interventions in the realm of data, but the resulting lack of reliable data is causing all kinds of headaches for Canadians. Aside from the recent controversy over temporary foreign workers, this “data deficit” faced by the government is already threatening to cause disastrous spillover effects across the whole spectrum of public policy.

Here is a sample of the conversations now going on between departments on Parliament Hill that aptly illustrates this point:

“Hey Jim, I need to know how many new jobs were created this month so we can start working on the auto industry report.”

“I have no idea.”

“Well, then… How many employment insurance cheques were sent out this month?”

“Beats me.”

“Do we even know how many households are living below the poverty line?”

“Somewhere between 50,000 & 2,000,000?”

It seems as if nobody saw through the data pitfalls awaiting statisticians when the word “voluntary” was added to the NHS.  Households cherry-picked which parts of the questionnaire to answer. After all, when was the last time anyone completed anything “voluntary” with regards to paperwork? The mandatory long-form census was effective because there were dire consequences behind the failure to answer the probing questions outlined within the questionnaire (in a country where most people get taxed at practically 50%, “fees” are a serious business). Honestly, it’s like going to the clinic for a rectal examination — most people don’t do it for fun.

In an age where governmental institutions, non-profit organizations, and everything else from business start-ups to university administrations rely on big data, transparent information is a key to success. Unfortunately, the reliable data which gives transparent information its meaning does not just fall out the sky like manna—it needs to be dutifully collected. Then again, given the high degree of ineptitude that most politicians are inclined to employ when carrying out their responsibilities, perhaps going with “let’s flip a coin!” is not such a terrible idea.