Category Archives: economics

Bring back the mandatory Canadian long form census: a long shot private member’s bill in Parliament

It’s been over four years since I last mentioned the mandatory Canadian long form census, a topic which seems to be enjoying some new interest. For those unfamiliar or whose memory of the controversy is foggy, here’s a brief description of the situation. The mandatory aspect of the long form census was abolished by the Conservative government despite serious opposition from core Conservative supporters in the business community and at least two of the Prime Minister’s own cabinet members. There’s more about the discussion at the time in my July 20, 2010 posting (scroll down about 25% of the way).

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s Feb. 1, 2015 post cleverly titled, Counting The Impact Of How A Government Counts, on his Pasco Phronesis blog, I can update the situation (Note: Links have been removed).

Back in 2010, the Canadian government opted to make the long form portion of its 2011 census voluntary.  Researchers who use the data in their work, and policymakers who use the data to make decisions were concerned about how a voluntary survey would impact the resulting data.

As expected, the early analysis suggests that the lower quality data will lead to higher spending. …

Ted Hsu, Liberal member of Parliament (MP), introduced Bill C-626 An Act to amend the Statistics Act (appointment of Chief Statistician and long-form census in Sept. 2014 when it received its first reading. Last week, Jan. 29, 2015, the bill received its second reading and was referred to committee according to this Bill C-626 webpage on the website. I’m excerpting portions of Ted Hsu’s Jan. 29, 2015 (?)  comments from the House of Commons floor, (from’s Bill C-626 webpage; Note: Links have been removed),

Today I rise to present my private member’s bill, Bill C-626. It is a bill that reflects the belief that people must have trustworthy information about themselves to govern themselves wisely.

Indeed, the Prime Minister himself said in his recent speech to the United Nations:

…vital statistics are critical.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

We parliamentarians should aspire to safeguard the integrity and quality of fundamental information about the people of Canada, whom we endeavour to serve. Is that not what we seek when we pray at the beginning of each day in the House of Commons: Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all, and to make good laws and wise decisions?

However, the quality of national statistics has been compromised. In 2011, the voluntary national household survey replaced the long form census. Researchers have publicly called that survey worthless.

What are some of the effects? In May 2014, the Progressive Conservative premier of New Brunswick said that the elimination of the long form census makes it hard to track the outcomes of the province’s poverty program. That is, it is hard to figure out what New Brunswick got from the money spent to help the poor.

National household survey data were too meaningless to be published for 25% of Canada’s towns and cities because of low response rates, rising to 30% in Newfoundland and Labrador’s and 40% in Saskatchewan.

All levels of government and the private sector have been handicapped by bad data here in Canada. What is worse is that the one mandatory long form census forms an essential anchor that is needed to adjust for errors in many other voluntary surveys. We have lost that data anchor.

Why is the voluntary national household survey so poor? The problem is that certain groups of people tended not to fill out the voluntary survey. Rural residents, single parents, one-person households, renters, the very rich, the poor, and younger people all tended not to complete the national household survey. The result is a biased and misleading picture of Canada and Canadians. This is what scientists call a systematic error. A systematic error, unlike a random error, cannot be corrected by sending out more census forms.

This systematic error is eliminated if everyone who receives a long form survey fills it out. Not filling out the long form census is a disservice to the country. That is why filling out the census should be considered a civic duty.

In 2011, the government went ahead and sent out more voluntary surveys to compensate for the lower response rate. This inflated the cost of the census by approximately $20 million, but it gave us poorer information. Avoiding such waste is another reason we should restore the mandatory long form census.

More importantly, making business and investment decisions and managing the economy and the affairs of the people all require trustworthy information about the people. That is why, just this past summer, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce passed a policy resolution calling for the restoration of the mandatory long form census. That is why, in 2010, groups such as the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade opposed the elimination of the mandatory long form census.

Let me say this again. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade want the mandatory long form census.

It’s well worth reading all of the comments as they run both pro and con. BTW, kudos to the website for making information about legislation and the legislative process so accessible!

The Globe & Mail newspaper ran a Nov. 6, 2014 editorial about six weeks after the bill was first introduced,

Bill C-626, a private member’s bill that would restore the mandatory long-form census and shield the Chief Statistician of Canada from political interference, has no chance of becoming law. It was introduced by a Liberal MP, Ted Hsu, and has limited support in Parliament. Even more foreboding, its adoption would require the Harper government [Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, Canada] to do something it loathes: admit an error.

But an error it was – and a now well-documented one – for the government to eliminate the mandatory long-form census in 2010 and replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey.

To be fair, I don’t know of any government that admits its errors easily but, even by those standards, the Harper government seems extraordinarily loathe to do so.

More of the new National Household Survey’s shortcomings come to light in a Jan. 29, 2015 article by Tavia Grant for the Globe & Mail,

The cancellation of the mandatory long-form census has damaged research in key areas, from how immigrants are doing in the labour market to how the middle class is faring, while making it more difficult for cities to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, planners and researchers say.

Statistics Canada developed a voluntary survey after Ottawa cancelled the long-form census in 2010. Many had warned that the switch would mean lower response rates and policies based on an eroded understanding of important trends. Now researchers – from city planners to public health units – say they have sifted through the 2011 data and found it lacking.

Their comments come as a private member’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census will be debated in the House of Commons Thursday [Jan. 29, 2015]. The bill, expected to be voted on next week, has slim odds of passing, given the Conservative majority. But it is drawing attention to the impact of the switch, which has created difficulties in determining income-inequality trends, housing needs and whether low-income families are getting adequate services.

The impact isn’t just on researchers. Cities, such as Toronto, say it’s become more expensive and requires more staffing to obtain data that’s of lower quality. …

Sara Mayo, social planner at the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton [Ontario], says the result of the census changes has been less data for more money. “In terms of fiscal prudence, this made no sense. Why would any government want to pay more for worse-quality data?” [emphasis mine]

Many, many people noted in 2010 that we would be paying more for lower quality data. Adding insult to injury, the cancellation was not made due to a huge public outcry demanding the end of the mandatory long form census, In fact, as I noted earlier, many of Stephen Harper’s core supporters were not in favour of his initiative.

Moving on to Ted Hsu for a moment, I was interested to note that he will not be running for election later this year (2015) according to an Aug.7, 2014 article on website. For now, according to his Wikipedia entry, Hsu is the the Liberal Party’s Critic for Science and Technology, Post-Secondary Education, Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario and Federal Economic Development Initiative in Northern Ontario. By training, Hsu is a physicist.

While no one seems to hold much hope for Hsu’s bill, there is a timeline provided for its passage through Parliament before the final vote (from’s C-626 webpage),

First reading: September 22, 2014
First hour of second reading debate: November 7, 2014
Second hour of second reading debate: January 29, 2015
Second reading vote to send the bill to committee: February 4, 2015
Committee hearings: March-April (expected)
Report Stage to vote on any amendments and the report from committee: April 2015 (expected)
Final hour of debate and third reading vote to send the bill to the Senate: April 2015 (expected)

According to the website the Jan. 29, 2015 reading was the one where the bill was sent to committee but Ted Hsu’s site suggests that today’s Feb. 4, 2015 reading  is when the vote to send the bill to committee will be held.

ETA Feb. 4, 2014 1420 PDT: Apparently, city governments are weighing in the discussion, from a Feb. 3, 2015 article by Tavia Grant and Elizabeth Church for the Globe & Mail,

The debate over the demise of the mandatory long-form census has reached the city level in Canada, where mayors and local officials say the cancellation has hampered the ability to plan and support the needs of their communities.

Toronto Mayor John Tory told The Globe and Mail he plans to raise the issue at the big city mayors’ meeting this week.

Across the country, cities are feeling the impact of the census changes, said Brad Woodside, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and mayor of Fredericton [New Brunswick].

“We’ve heard from our members that the change to the new National Household Survey [NHS] is impacting their ability to effectively plan and monitor the changing needs of their communities,” he said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe. “We support all efforts to increase the reliability of the data from the census.”

A website that lobbies for more accessible data, called, lists 11 individuals and organizations that supported the government’s decision to scrap the census and 488 who oppose it. Those who were against the move include 42 cities – from Red Deer to Montreal, Victoria and Fredericton.

Regina’s mayor said the loss of detailed data is a concern. He wants the long-form reinstated.

In Vancouver, city planner Michael Gordon said the end of the mandatory census is a “significant issue,” hampering the ability to analyze infrastructure needs, such as transportation planning, along with housing, particularly affordable housing. Mr. Gordon, president of the Canadian Institute of Planners, has found some data from NHS “fishy,” and says there has been a “very disappointing” impact in the ability to provide sound advice based on factual information.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any information as to whether today’s vote to send this bill committee was successful or not.

ETA Feb. 5, 2015 0840 PDT: The bill did not make it past the second reading, from a Feb. 4, 2015 news item (posted at 2000 hours EDT) on the Huffington Post,

Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s drive to resurrect the long-form census has come to an end.

His private member’s bill to bring back the long-form census and bolster the independence of the chief statistician was voted down on second reading in the Commons on Wednesday.

Canada’s barley crop needs a little help to adapt to climate change

“Building better barley” is the title for a Dec. 12, 2012 news release from the University of Alberta (by Bev Betkowski) on EurekAlert. They might have wanted to add the phrase “in the face of climate change” but that ruins the alliteration. From the news release,

As one of the top 10 barley producers in the world, Canada faces a problem of adapting to the ‘new normal’ of a warmer, drier climate.

The 2012 growing season was considered an average year on the Canadian Prairies, “but we still had a summer water deficit, and it is that type of condition we are trying to work with,” said Scott Chang, a professor of soil science in the University of Alberta’s Department of Renewable Resources in Edmonton, Canada.

The Dec. 5, 2012 article (which originated the news release) by Betkowski for the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta provides more detail about the why and the how,

Chang began teaming up with fellow crop scientist Anthony Anyia of Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures in 2006, following a severe drought in 2002 that dropped average crop yield in Alberta by about half. They are exploring the genetic makeup of barley and how the grain crop—a Canadian staple used for beer malt and animal feed—can be made more efficient in its water use and more productive. One of their latest studies, published in the journal Theoretical and Applied Genetics, explores how to increase yield in barley crops while using less water.

…The latest study was led by lead author Jing Chen, a former PhD student in Chang and Anyia’s lab. The group planted and harvested two common types of barley plants in test plots around Alberta, then analyzed the plants for genetic traits and other factors such as height, days to maturity and yield.

By studying the carbon isotope compositions of barley plants and their relationship with water-use efficiency, the researchers developed tools that plant breeders can use to improve selection efficiency for more water-efficient varieties. The latest findings stem from an ongoing collaboration that is ultimately aimed at bringing farmers a more stable breed of the plant that has less reliance on water and is less vulnerable to climate change.

Coincidentally (or not), the Canadian federal government in the person of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, within a week of the story and news release by Betkowski, congratulates itself for previous funding and new programs in two separate news releases.

The Harper Government Supports Canadian Barley Industry news release of Dec. 7, 2012 had this comment for the Alberta Barley Commission’s annual general meeting in Banff,

“As the one-year anniversary of the adoption of the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act approaches, western Canadian grain farmers are already enjoying the economic potential of an open market,” said Minister Ritz. “I would like to thank the Alberta Barley Commission for its long-standing leadership in support of marketing freedom, innovation and a strong future for barley producers.”

Canadian barley, known around the world for its high quality and superior characteristics, generated over $270 million in exports last year—a figure expected to continue to grow with the new marketing freedom options. The Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, which received Royal Assent on December 15, 2011, allows anyone to buy and sell wheat and barley. By unleashing the sector’s economic potential and entrepreneurial energy, the open grain market continues to usher in a new era of innovation and growth for Western Canada’s grain industry, helping attract investment, encourage innovation, create value-added jobs and build a stronger economy.

Additionally, the Harper government recently announced an AgriMarketing investment of more than $525,000 to enable the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, the Malting Industry Association of Canada, and the Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute to increase their competitiveness in new and existing markets through innovative marketing and communications and through the development of a Canadian Malt Barley Brand. [emphasis mine] Product testing and evaluations will also be done on new malting barley varieties, the current year’s harvest and cargo shipments to highlight the attributes of the current Canadian crop for international customers.

The Harper government’s long-term strategy to strengthen and modernize the barley industry includes renewing the mandate of the Crop Logistics Working Group, to improve the performance of the supply chain for barley and all crops, and to ensure that the agricultural sector can reap the rewards of a dynamic and growing global marketplace.

On the same day in Calgary, the Harper Government Announces Federal Growing Forward 2 Programs news release of Dec. 7, 2012 proclaims new programs and, presumably, there will be additional funding at some point,

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz today unveiled three new federal programs under Canada’s new agricultural policy framework Growing Forward 2 that will streamline investments in the agriculture and agri-food sector. The new programs will focus on strategic initiatives in innovation, competitiveness and market development to further strengthen the sector’s capacity to grow and prosper.

“These new Growing Forward 2 programs will build on the success of existing programs to provide more streamlined support to the sector to help it remain a world leader in agricultural innovation and trade,” said Minister Ritz. “We are making sure farmers and the entire sector have the tools and resources they need to stay ahead of the ever-changing demands of consumers.”

Three new federal programs will come into effect on April 1, 2013:

  • The AgriInnovation Program will focus on investments to expand the sector’s capacity to develop and commercialize new products and technologies.
  • The AgriMarketing Program will help industry improve its capacity to adopt assurance systems, such as food safety and traceability, to meet consumer and market demands. It will also support industry in maintaining and seizing new markets for their products through branding and promotional activities.
  • The AgriCompetitiveness Program will target investments to help strengthen the agriculture and agri-food industry’s capacity to adapt and be profitable in domestic and global markets.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is proactively providing information to farmers and the industry so that they are familiar with the kind of support that will be available and so they may plan their applications well in advance. The AgriInnovation Program will begin accepting applications immediately, while AgriMarketing and AgriCompetitiveness will begin accepting applications early in the new year.

Growing Forward 2 represents a $3 billion investment over five years in strategic initiatives for innovation, competitiveness and market development, in addition to a full and comprehensive suite of business risk management programs that will continue to help farmers withstand severe market volatility and disasters. Investments in the three priority areas are critical to facilitating the sector’s expansion and leveraging of provincial-territorial and industry investments to increase productivity, growth and jobs.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for those who do not know, is from the province of Alberta.

This is an interesting example, whether the announcements are coincidental or not, of the relationship between research taking place in the universities, government and its programmes, and the international marketplace. For those interested in Chang’s research, here’s the citation for the paper from his webpage,

Chen, J., Chang, S.X. and Anya, A.O. 2012. Quantitative trait loci for water-use efficiency in barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) measured by carbon isotope discrimination under rain-fed conditions on the Canadian Prairies, Theoretical and Applied Genetics 125: 71–90.

Springer, publisher for the journal Theoretical and Applied Genetics, is offering a free preview during the month of December 2012 so you can view the article or any other one in the journal ’til Dec. 31, 2012.

Attracting creatives and economic opportunities

The Canadian 2012 federal budget was presented today (Mar.29.12) and so a discussion about creativity and economic opportunities seems à propos. I’ll start with Amsterdam (Holland/The Netherlands) and THNK. Neal Ungerleider, in his March 27, 2012 article titled, The THNK Tank: Why Amsterdam Wants Your (Creative) Brains, for Fast Company notes,

Amsterdam is embarking on an ambitious experiment to attract foreign creatives: An invite-only, public/private-funded school and accelerator for international creative minds, leaders, and entrepreneurs. THNK: The Amsterdam School of Creative Leadership opened several weeks ago with an initial class of 30 drawn from across Europe, the United States, China, India, Israel, Mauritius, and South Africa. Classes and mentoring at THNK are held both in Amsterdam–in a home base inside a converted gasworks–and via telecommuting once participants return to their home countries.

For Amsterdam, THNK is a slick business development project that simultaneously doubles as soft diplomacy. The thinkers and doers who will be joining in THNK’s activities will be connected with local entrepreneurs, artists, and firms–whom the city is doubtlessly hoping will be back in the future.

The partnership behind this initiative includes the Dutch federal government, the province of Noord-Holland, Stadsregio Amsterdam (a regional conglomeration of 16 municipalities in what is dubbed as the ‘Amsterdam region’, The Netherlands Chamber of Commerce, and I amsterdam.

These organizations certainly seem to be modeling leadership. Here’s more about their initiative, from the About THNK page,

Of course the world is changing. That’s what it’s done since time began. Evolution is natural. Sometimes it happens slowly. And sometimes it rocks the world like a fiery volcano, suddenly transforming entire landscapes.

Our world has reached that point now. Social inequality, our love/hate relationship with technology, dwindling resources, climate change, the collapse of financial institutions…

Organizations of all types, shapes and sizes are struggling with this new reality. Some are so involved in daily operations – and keeping their heads above water – they are blind to the future. Others recognize the challenges around them, but lack vision.

THNK believes the answer is passionate, visionary and creative leadership.

Creative leadership according to THNK means: public, social and business worlds coming together to create and realize new and innovative solutions to major issues of societal relevance that will have great meaning and impact – either nationally or internationally.

This isn’t just about generating ideas. It’s also about making it happen.

About Amsterdam

Although our focus is international, THNK is firmly rooted in Amsterdam. We’ve made the Westergasfabriek our home. This 19th-century former gas factory has been transformed into one of the city’s most exciting cultural centers, with old industrial buildings now housing trendsetting cafes, cinema, festivals and other events. Not to mention the surrounding city parks – with everything from hidden waterways to bike paths reaching from the countryside to the heart of Amsterdam.

Thanks to its highly diverse culture – with more than 175 nationalities – and an inventive and tolerant mentality, Amsterdam has grown into an important international hub for creative thought and industry. The city’s unique DNA of creativity, tolerance, diversity, collaboration and trade is reflected in THNK’s highly pragmatic and open culture.

It’s not surprising that such diverse influences have brought forth such creativity. Three of our local scientists have been awarded Nobel prizes. Fashion designers Viktor & Rolf have wowed the world. Droog designer Marcel Wanders has changed the way we look at interior design. Architects such as Ben van Berkel are reshaping our skylines.

Amsterdam’s unique DNA of creativity, tolerance, diversity, collaboration and trade will be reflected in THNK’s highly pragmatic and open culture. Reaching beyond its borders, Amsterdam serves as a major gateway into continental Europe. With two major seaports within a 50-kilometer radius, strong international railroad connections and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol close by, you’re always close to anywhere in Europe and the world.

They do invite applications (perhaps the invite-only applications were a feature for the first cohort). You can get more information here or go here to apply immediately. The 18-month program costs  € 39,500 (approx. $52, 520 CAD) and there are periods when you are required to be in Amsterdam, so you may want to include some housing and travel costs as well.

Meanwhile in Vancouver (Canada), Simon Fraser University (SFU) is about to host BCreative 2012 from May 10 – 12, 2012. From the BCreactive 2012 conference/showcase About page,

… designed to bring together government, business, the creative sector, and researchers to stimulate thinking, policy, and action directed at developing a strategy and levering resources to further build the creative economy and to help British Columbia BC become a leader in the creative sector in the twenty-first century.

BCreative 2012 conference/showcase has four specific objectives:

  1. To make the case for the creative economy to have a commanding presence in government economic and cultural policy;
  2. To build bridges between the general business community and this new and dynamic business sector with distinctive infrastructure needs from which all British Columbians can benefit both socially and economically;
  3. To encourage information sharing among the creative sub-sectors and to sensitize the creative sector to the contribution of the creative economy to job creation and overall economic growth;
  4. To bring forward useful information, analysis, training, and research resources that can assist in building BC’s creative economy.

Speakers include the co-author of the two UN Creative Economy reports, Edna dos Santos-Duisenberg, creative cities theorist Charles Landry, Canada Council CEO Robert Sirman, representatives from creative cities: Berlin and Paris. Partners with Simon Fraser University in this enterprise include the BC Business Council and the Vancouver Board of Trade, with Tourism Vancouver helping behind the scenes.

There’s an early bird registration fee until March 31, 2012. You can find a copy of the schedule (presumably a draft) here.  I hope the participants will develop ideas as fresh and innovative as THNK.

BTW, I notice that Amsterdam’s THNK mentions scientists while the BCreative conference does not whether that omission reflects organizational difficulties or a blindspot is a mystery.

Scientists as thieves

The movies tend to portray scientists as naïve fools/hapless pawns or villains. There is a little bit of truth in these portrayals, at least for the villains, as Sarah Rose’s new book about Robert Fortune, For All the Tea in China, makes clear.

Previewed in an article by Jenara Nerenberg on Fast Company, the book lays out the means by which the British government got its hands on the tea plant and secret to producing to tea. From the article,

Sarah Rose is the author of For All the Tea in China, which tells the true story of how tea and industrial espionage fueled the great expansion of the British Empire and the East India Company in the 1800s. The book focuses on one central character, Robert Fortune, who was a scientist sent by the British government to literally steal the secret of tea production from China, plant the Chinese tea in Darjeeling, and thus make the British Empire less reliant on trade with the Chinese and more self-sufficient by harvesting its own tea in colonial India.

Rose, in response to a question about contemporary as opposed to 19th century industrial espionage had this to say (from the article),

The vast majority the microchips for computers in America are manufactured in China–including those for the U.S. military. This creates a ridiculously high risk of espionage. Those circuits are just too small for us to know how really bad it might be, but from what I understand from the defense and trade communities, it’s a top worry. Meanwhile, the US’s relationship with China is thoroughly interdependent, as was Britain’s in the 19th Century. China owns a lot of our debt, so it loans us the money to buy the stuff China needs to export as it manufactures its way out of the poverty cycle. The two countries don’t necessarily like each other, but they need each other. When each player is so suspicious, it multiplies the competitive advantages of espionage and secrecy.

Most of the article is about tea and Robert Fortune who apparently dressed up as a Chinese Mandarin and fought off pirates in his pursuit of the plant. The focus for the book is on an adventure story and I haven’t seen any mention yet of the ramifications this theft might have had on China’s (nor for that matter India’s) economy and subsequent history.

The Wikipedia essay on Robert Fortune offers a far less colourful story,

Robert Fortune (16 September 1812 – 13 April 1880) was a Scottish botanist and traveller best known for introducing tea plants from China to India.

While the essay goes on to mention his exploits and makes it clear that he obtained the tea plants illegally, it stops short of accusing the British government and Fortune of theft and industrial espionage.

If you’re interested in Rose’s book, there’s a video trailer where she describes the story,

There’s more at Rose’s website.

This all reminds me of a course about technology transfer taught by Pat Howard (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada). We spent a fair amount of time talking about agriculture and seeds which surprised me mightily as I expected to be talking about computers and stuff.

Amongst other tasty tidbits, Pat mentioned that the Dutch burned out islands they didn’t own so they could destroy specific species of plants and retain control of the trade in spices that grew in their own territories.