rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Data crimes and misdemeanors: Why child care, too, needs the long-form census

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

In the first week of February 2015, the House of Commons will vote on Kingston MP Ted Hsu's private member's bill calling for restoration of Canada's long-form census. Although research methods and data analysis are not ordinarily popular or newsworthy topics, there has been considerable media and public attention to the details of how Canada has turned its data clock back to the year 1956, or 1871, or 1666, depending on how you look at it.

The deficits of the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) with which the Harper government replaced the respected long-form census are now glaringly apparent. Thus, Hsu's bill, An Act to Amend the Statistics Act, is supported by many commentators from health care, urban planning, poverty, business, the labour force, economics and other fields as well as experts in statistics and data analysis.

As someone who has worked on early childhood policy since Stephen Harper was in high school, I decry the new data deficit and support the call to restore the long-form census without delay.

In light of the inadequate data from the methodologically flawed NHS, today it would be hard to find anyone who knows much about data collection and analysis who would argue that the abolition of what was Canada's primary data collection instrument has been anything other than foolhardy. Indeed, many consider the abolition of the long-form census to be ideologically driven, especially in light of the clear evidence of the NHS' weaknesses.

As a result of the cancellation, Canadian policymakers, labour force forecasters, researchers and advocates are flying blind whether they're concerned with housing, public health, immigration, education, business, employment or the labour force. I've been among those monitoring the situation, shaking my head over what (several) columnists at Maclean's called the "statistical illiteracy" of the minister responsible and in despair about the implications of the new data deficit.

Last week child care was identified in the Globe and Mail by Tavia Grant as one of the policy areas damaged by Canada's post-2010 data void. She observed that "It's [now] more difficult to plan subsidized child care." I'm not sure that Grant knows (as many don't) how rare systematic planning is vis-à-vis Canadian child care where a free market model rules. Moving to a publicly planned approach at all levels of government from reliance on the market is a key piece of the national child-care policy for which my colleagues and I have been advocating for donkey's years.

Ironically, as a support to the coherent planning that would be part-and-parcel of the more publicly managed child-care system Canada demonstrably needs, we've also been advocating for more, better, and more focused data for many years. Thus, abolition of the long-form census in 2010, which produced all sorts of key demographic data supporting such child care planning as has been practiced by some local and provincial/territorial governments was a real shock and -- as Grant identifies -- damaging.

Data at the community and neighbourhood level about income and family composition is fundamental for child care planning as is reliable data about families with children in rural communities, young children with disabilities, Aboriginal children in remote communities and so on. Without this kind of fundamental information, it's difficult to identify need or demand for services, grapple with affordability issues or understand whether existing policy and services are "working" or not, thus whether public dollars are well spent or adequate.

As well, it should be noted that numbers aren't just numbers. Data becomes useful and meaningful when it is considered in context and can yield comparisons -- groups with other groups, regions with other regions, neighbourhoods with neighbourhoods. It is only when reliable data in which analysts have confidence is available to "slice and dice" that meaningful information emerges to support policymaking, research and advocacy. Thus, as US top executive Carly Fiorina has observed, "The goal is to turn data into information, and information into insight".

One good illustration of the new data deficit for child care: data no longer available about children with disabilities came from a survey called the PALS (Participation and Activity Limitation Survey). This "postcensal" survey was linked to the long-form census and was valuable for shaping, assessing and advocating for initiatives aimed at inclusion of children with disabilities in child-care services. StatsCan now guardedly admits that the survey that replaced the PALS -- based on the new National Household Survey -- may have issues of "data accuracy," "measurement error" and "under coverage." Oh, and as it isn't comparable to the PALS, there's no data continuity to help assess or understand change. Oh, and children aren't included in the new survey in any case.

Canadian conceptualization about child care has evolved a great deal in the last two decades. Today there is considerable knowledge to support the idea that families and children will continue to be badly served unless there is a commitment to robust public policy that builds a real system. A resurrected long-form census isn't the whole of the data package needed to inform building this system but it is an important fundamental source for some of the key information needed for good child-care policy-making.

Its cancellation leaves multiple gaps in our knowledge and nothing to build on if -- when -- a federal government turns its hand to working with provinces/territories to build the national child care program families from coast-to-coast-to-coast desperately need.

One reason to support resurrecting the long-form census is that -- depending on the outcome of the next federal election -- we could be as close as 2015 to finally beginning to build that national child care program. For this, we'll need good data, and good data should begin with a reliable, well-designed national census that includes all Canadians.


Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.