Long live the mandatory census! or maybe not?

[This post is based on my comments at “Celebrating the Census,”  a panel discussion organized by the McGill University Centre on Population Dynamics held in Montreal on April 29th, 2016. Other members of the panel were Jean-Yves Duclos, Sebastien Breau, Ian Culbert, Ariane Krol, Mary Jo Hoeksema, and the moderator Celine LeBourdais.]

The Census is built block-face by block-face. It is built sub-division by sub-division. Village, township, city, municipality, it is built until the entire country is perfectly and completely tiled.

The Census is a machine, complicated and intricate. And the public servants working at Statistics Canada should be rightly proud of the hard work and dedication devoted to the development, maintenance, and management of this machine. Even the most jaundiced among us, regardless of political persuasion, should recognize and acknowledge this accomplishment.

RH Coast looking north over Jean Talon S0001
The Jean Talon building, in the bottom right, was originally called the “Census Building.” Photograph by Philip Smith.

The value of this machine is that it lets us see ourselves in detail more precise than any other mirror, and the return of a mandatory long form, in which Canadians are required to offer up a description of some of the most private aspects of their lives, is hailed by many as a major turn in public policy that will allow this picture to stay clearly focused.

But the Census is more than a machine. Jean Talon knew that. The very first Census he conducted, beginning in the later part of 1666, was clearly an act of nation building. He used it to help him, and France, develop and build a viable colony extending from the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, transforming the countryside into a prosperous agricultural region that would prepare the way for waves and waves of more immigrants. The Census is an act of political imagination.

And the public servants who work at Statistics Canada are not well placed to exercise that imagination, even if at times what they do in managing the machine casts them in that role.

There is still much to be done for Canadians to accept and appreciate the benefits of the Census, and for the federal government to give them ownership of the results. The Census is mandatory—by law it must be filled out—but we should strive to think of it as voluntary, our participation to be both exercised and celebrated as an act of citizenship in a way that fosters each Canadian’s political imagination.

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Some less than supportive comments on my Temporary Foreign Workers article make me wonder about economic literacy

Some comments on an article I published in The Globe and Mail about Canadian immigration policy,  Canada’s version of the guest worker programs used in some European countries, are just astounding.

My analysis is based on nothing more than a simple demand and supply model of the labour market to argue that this program amounts to a wage subsidy. Since it does not seem to address any clear market failure it likely promotes both inefficiency and inequity.

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Trade between Canada and India is dominated by a few commodities

Here is a quick snapshot of trade patterns between Canada and India, that may offer a bit of context given that the Canadian Prime Minister is currently in India.

Trade between the two countries is only a very small fraction of their overall exports: in 2009 total Canadian exports amounted to about $308 billion, but only about $2 billion went to India.

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Children of immigrants make more progress in Australia and Canada than in the UK or the US

Young children whose families immigrate to Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States are as prepared and capable of starting school as their native-born counterparts, with one exception: vocabulary and language development.

But the resulting disadvantages in reading skills are overcome to a much greater degree as they progress through school in Australia and Canada than they are in the United Kingdom and the United States.

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Immigration policy should make children a priority

The Obama administration has offered a temporary reprieve from deportation for up to 1 and 3/4 million immigrants who came to the United States as children.

Whatever the immediate merits of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, it signals a much broader principle all immigrant receiving countries should recognize: children experience migration differently than adults, and  public policy can create both great opportunity and great risks for their long-run capacity to become independent and successful adults.

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Immigrants face challenges in finding jobs that are not of their own making

The challenges immigrants face in finding jobs have to do with not just the characteristics and skills they bring to the labour market, but also the state of our economy and the barriers put in their way. More and more tinkering with the selection rules used to admit immigrants will not on its own address these challenges.

In a post on my blog I called for lower rates of immigration during business cycle downturns, and a reader commented by saying:

I arrived in Canada in July 2011 with my family and was called for exactly one job interview a couple of weeks ago. To say I am scarred is putting it mildly. I left a very successful career with the knowledge that it will be difficult to get a similar position but I never anticipated that I would end up feeling invisible and a non-entity with absolutely nothing to offer. Since coming here I have been shelling out money for everything, university fees for my kids and so on. Other than contributing to the Canadian economy through our expenses, I feel immigrants are not considered to be of any particular value.

It struck me how odd and incomplete the public policy response by Canadian opinion makers and governments is to this kind of concern.

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