Canadian Urbanists weigh in on Census Controversy

Brent Toderian's picture

 Canadian city planners and urbanists have been active in the discussion and debate over the last few weeks, regarding the Federal government's decision to change the mandatory long form census to a voluntary approach. As un-sexy as the census might seem to many (I myself never thought I'd be writing a post about the census), the national media has been all over this, giving extensive coverage to the numerous experts and professional organizations who have been unanimously critical of this move, and the effects it will have on the planning and management of cities and communities. Statisticians have pointed out clearly and consistently the effects the changes would have on the representativeness and reliability of the census, and the head of Statistics Canada has even resigned in protest over the controversy. Here are a few key articles to get you up to speed, if you haven't been following the debate. I suspect it's of greatest interest to Canadian readers, but perhaps international urbanists might also share their thoughts. 

Count on it: long-form census basic to decision-making in Canada

Census Chaos Looms as Stats Canada Chief Resigns in Protest  

I commend the many organizations who have weighed in, including the Canadian Institute of Planners, who were one of the earliest. Planners have not been silent on this, and that's very important as we have significant credibility on this issue. 

Now added to the many voices calling for reconsideration, is the newly incorporated Council for Canadian Urbanism, which has sent the letter reproduced below to the Minister and others. Watch for up-coming posts with more information on the history and forming of this group, which has gone from movement to organization over the last many years, culminating in its incorporation in 2009 as a non-profit advocacy organization for a better and more sustainable Canadian Urbanism. Referred to as CanU for short, the Council has a Board made up of leading urbanists from the public, private and academic sectors across the Country - and I have the honour of being its first President.  

Although we are growing slowly, this is already CanU's second foray into National advocacy - our first, linked here was a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, big city mayors, and the media regarding Canada's participation in last year's COP 15 climate change event in Copenhagen. Although the meeting of Nations appeared to bare little fruit, the overlapping Copenhagen Summit of Major City Mayors called by Copenhagen's Lord Mayor (that Vancouver's Mayor Robertson participated actively in, and I joined a handful of other key city's representatives in helping to organize on Vancouver's behalf), illustrated and strengthened the role of cities in climate change leadership, under the banner "cities act". 

We hope this letter to the Federal Government on the census, has greater success than our first letter in influencing a change of path - particularly when joined with the countless others that have been flowing to the Minister. I encourage all urbanists who recognise the critical value of a representative census, to add their voice to the debate. Future planners will thank us for our trouble. 


With that, here is the letter:   


July 28, 2010 

Honourable Tony Clement,P.C., M.P.

Minister of IndustryHouse of Commons

Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6 

cc: The Right Honourable Prime Minister Stephen Harper Dear Minister Clement: 

RE:      Cancellation of the Mandatory Long-Form Census    T

The Council for Canadian Urbanism (CanU) is a national non-profit information and advocacy group incorporated in 2009, made up of many of Canada's leading urban experts, from the fields of city planning, urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, development and related disciplines. Our Board of Directors is comprised of key public, private and academic sector leaders from major cities across Canada. 

Our role is to actively promote better, more sustainable and healthy Canadian cities and urban areas, and to strengthen the role and ability of cities to address Canada's critical urban and community challenges.  

We are writing to add our voice to the many respected professional experts and organizations that have called for the reconsideration of your decision to eliminate the mandatory long-form census. The consensus from all those experts who understand the value and proper methodology of the census is both clear, and remarkable.  Like so many others, we are deeply concerned by the proposal to replace this critically important, irreplaceable data-gathering tool with a voluntary survey.  

The mandatory long-form census questionnaire provides regions, cities and communities across Canada with valuable and reliable information about the changing nature of the city and its neighbourhoods that is not available from any other source. It is not an exaggeration to say that this data is the single most important source of information, and the basis of most important decision-making in cities relating to land-use, community change-management, services and infrastructure, transportation and transit, schooling and children's services, services to marginalized populations including social housing, policing, recreation and other civic facilities, economic planning and development.  

The private sector equally relies on census information for retail planning, investment and economic planning, real estate development and so on, often basing investment decisions on census, and census-derived intelligence over time. 

We support the position of statistical and survey experts, including those at Statistics Canada, who state clearly and without professional knowledgeable contradiction, that the intended changes will significantly reduce the effectiveness of the work of cities in countless areas. A voluntary survey, despite its higher cost and larger mail-out, will result in poorer data quality, reduced ‘reach' into vulnerable communities, and an inability to conduct trend-related analysis involving previous censuses.  The validity of material produced from the voluntary survey selection bias will be compromised. 

This will significantly affect all Canadian cities' ability to make informed and well-considered decisions regarding the management of Canadian cities and communities, in countless ways that will significantly affect Canadians.  

We strongly urge you to reconsider your decision, and follow the advice of experts within and outside of government to reinstate the mandatory long-form census in time for the 2011 census year. 

With respect, 

CanU Board of Directors


Cc:       Canadian City Mayors and selected media          

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian



Couldn't agree more

I agree this is a key issue. As unsexy as it is, we should all encourage the government to continue with the mandatory census. I can't believe they would shoot themselves in the foot like this. A voluntary census will cost us all, government included, so much more in the long run.

Tim Barton

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