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Canada Next: researchers explain what the return of the long-form census means for Canada

Alan Walks: “It was actually harming Canadian business, harming the competitive aspect of businesses and entrepreneurs not to have this data”

The long-form census is “extremely critical” in determining demographic trends, says Timothy Chan. “The more granular the data, the better.”

The new federal Liberal government is bringing back the long-form census for 2016 and no one is more grateful than University of Toronto researchers. 

The 61-page census was killed by the former Conservative government in 2011 prompting outrage from urban planners, health care advocates, scientists and demographers.

On Nov. 5, one day after being sworn in as minister of innovation, science and economic development, Navdeep Bains announced the return of the mandatory census, saying “we need good, reliable data.” Most Canadians receive the short census of about six pages but 2.9 million households will get the longer one in May.

There is a financial penalty for not filling it out, but Bains did not specify what it would be. In 2006, 93.5 per cent of the population filled out the forms.

Professor Michael Carter in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering said “we are very grateful, so pleased to know it is back. We were very upset about” not having it. 

The long census had substantial practical benefits, he said. Carter is founder and now co-director of the Centre for Research and Healthcare Engineering. He has worked on projects with hospitals, on home care, long-term care, medical labs and mental health institutions.

One area where the long-form census provided value was in the department’s work with Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) in Ontario, particularly with a project that took in Scarborough and parts of eastern Ontario.

His department used data from the census to produce maps showing where the demand for services was the greatest, allowing the LHINs to work with their respective suppliers to meet those demands.

“One of the major concerns with health care,” Carter said, “is that it is relatively easy to measure utilization but how do we measure the true demand for it? The long-form census is a valuable asset for that.”

Carter said “people are panicking about the baby boomers” reaching old age and the data from the long-form census will be invaluable in assessing their needs.

Associate Professor Alan Walks in the department of geography's program in planning said he used the long-form census “all the time. I’ve done a number of studies – inequality in Canadians cities; neighbourhood inequality and my current project is looking at the relationship between rising Canadian household indebtedness and inequality in Canadian cities.”

He has also looked at gentrification in cities and commuting patterns and the implications of using different modes of transportation.

“As a geographer and planner I have been interested in not only looking at these issues in kind of a macro perspective but looking at neighbourhoods. The long-form census has been absolutely integral to all of that” because of the high quality of the data at the neighbourhood level, he said.

When the long form was killed, “we couldn’t do a lot of things we normally do,” and had to rely on the 2006 census. It meant not being able to update Statistics Canada data at the neighbourhood level. The 2011 census was of little use to researchers, he said. 

Re-establishing the longer form will allow his department to update previous research, Walks said, “and provide us with significant new data to find out how things are on the ground in Canadian cities today.”

The census “absolutely” has practical benefits, Walks said, and “it’s kind of ironic because the previous government was arguing against having the long form on privacy grounds, but municipalities, provinces, businesses, civil society organizations, universities said the data was useful, and there were very few reported cases of people complaining because of privacy issues. [Not having the long form] didn’t make any sense; it was actually harming Canadian business, harming the competitive aspect of businesses and entrepreneurs not to have this data.”

Timothy Chan, associate professor in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering, and director of the Centre for Healthcare Engineering, said he used the long-form census in a study to determine where defibrillators should be used in public places, examining population densities and high risk areas for cardiac arrest.

The long-form census, Chan said, is “extremely critical” in determining demographic trends. “The more granular the data, the better.”

Read more about Chan's research and defibrillators

The return of the long-form census is something Professor David Hulchanski of U of T's Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work had urged. Renowned for his work on income polarization within cities, Hulchanski told U of T News earlier this year that the death of the long-form was “a big loss, in that the census provided us with cross-tabulations of everything, not only what the income is, but the income by diversity, by age, by type of job, by renting or owning – allowing all kinds of analysis.That’s what we lose. We can’t do that with the voluntary National Household Survey – it undercounts so many groups that it’s just flat-out inaccurate. We cannot use it.”

Read more about Hulchanski's research

Special Series

November 10, 2015