Viewpoint (August 01, 2010)

Most Canadians will have experienced the media’s recent coverage of the intense anger expressed over the Conservative government’s decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census and replace it with a voluntary one comprised of a few basic questions. Unless the proposal is reversed or drastically altered by the end of August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s stubbornness will yield a meaningless information-gathering exercise that will deny statisticians, economists, charitable groups, municipal governments, developers, urban planners and architects a critical resource to accurately gauge the ways in which Canadian society is evolving. A voluntary census will hinder the decision-making processes relating to future design projects such as parks, community centres, hospitals and health-care facilities, schools, commercial and residential developments, and specialized mixed-use facilities. Without an adequate census, formulating important and intelligently programmed city-building initiatives will be radically compromised.

Currently, there are two methods for accurately tracking a country’s population: a mandatory long-form census and a registry system. Registry systems are common in most Scandinavian and some European countries. They typically involve a cross-referencing system that gathers data from its tax, employment, education and population registers. In these countries, registers are constantly updated because citizens are obliged to report matters such as any change of address, job, vehicle or marital status. A recent article in The Economist noted that these countries consider census-taking obsolete, preferring to gather information from centralized government databases, in addition to periodic polling.

Registers have an advantage over censuses in that they allow countries to evaluate their demographic structure at much shorter intervals. This is very useful, given the increasingly global nature of society, and the fact that today, Canadians switch jobs and change addresses much more frequently. The government’s lame excuse for eliminating the long-form census in Canada is that it is an invasion of privacy, but they already keep considerable amounts of detailed information on Canadians. If we follow the reasoning that a census isn’t the best way to gather data, then our government should make a concerted effort to leverage the existing information available, improving it as required.

Sadly, Stephen Harper has already been reducing the budget and eliminating surveys on various aspects of Canadian society–one being the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, which collects data on people with disabilities. In this instance, the government seems to believe that it is sufficient to collect information only from disabled people who receive welfare, given that Canadians with disabilities are more likely to be either unemployed or low-income earners. As Susan Ruptash, a principal at Quadrangle Architects and expert on barrier-free design noted at a recent seminar, architects still have not fully addressed the needs of users who have physical or cognitive impairments. Clearly, if we no longer track this segment of the population with accurate and complete data collection, then how can we ever make informed decisions regarding changes to building codes and by-laws so that our built environment becomes fully inclusive?

Complete census data can also enhance a design practice’s ability to produce presentation and working drawings. Tools like Geographic Information Systems and Building Information Modelling are becoming increasingly prevalent in contemporary practice. They rely upon spatial and demographic data to create impactful visualizations that clients can understand. Current software is able to integrate geographic and census data with a range of impressive mapping tools, allowing architects to zoom into different areas across Canada and obtain population and dwelling counts, thematic maps and a number of additional data characteristics. Today, it is practically mandatory for architecture students to incorporate sophisticated census information into their studio projects.

Should he continue with his foolhardy plan to abolish the long-form census, let us hope that our Prime Minister realizes that there are preferred alternatives to replacing the current form of census-taking with a voluntary questionnaire, but this is unlikely to happen. As a progressive society, we require complete demographic data to make informed decisions about the future of our built environment.

Ian Chodikoff