Why the census matters just about everywhere

The Globe and Mail

View of apartment buildings from Sherbourne St. in the St. James Town area of downtown Toronto located in the vicinity of Sherbourne St. and Wellesley St. East. (Louie Palu/Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)

Few Canadians would think about the mandatory long-form census when they're ordering a no-foam latte at Starbucks, but Grant Kosowan knows there's a double shot of census data in that morning beverage.

A Calgary-based location scout with Orange National Retail Group, Mr. Kosowan crunches census data in search of demographic sweet spots for expansion-minded clients such as Starbucks.

Story continues below ad

"We spend an enormous amount of money purchasing that information on behalf of clients so we can do research, so they know where to position themselves," said Mr. Kosowan, director of Orange's Prairie division. Losing the long-form data, he said, "will impact our business, I can tell you that."

His work shows how census data, rather than being the preserve of statisticians and policy wonks, is embedded in daily life. It drives everything from corporate fundraising drives in Toronto to the deployment of B.C. lunch programs for school kids; and from the layout of suburban subdivisions to the prescriptions of think tanks of every ideological bent.

The implications are even wider, says prominent demographer David Foot. He notes the structure of the census surveys form the basis of much of Statistics Canada's other analyses, including vital labour force measures such as the unemployment rate. His criticism of the government's plan is pointed: "I find it a little disturbing that the Industry Minister doesn't seem to understand that knowledge is essential in the knowledge economy."

Some executives say census information isn't essential because their companies can acquire strategic commercial information through their own surveys and focus groups. Perhaps for that reason, some of Canada's leading business groups - the Canadian Bankers Association, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives - have chosen to sit out the census fight.

Others are speaking out. Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, which represents 33,000 businesses, said he has canvassed members and they are worried about the proposed changes. Restaurants use information from the long form to help determine where to locate and how to target their marketing. "There's concern - over how abrupt the decision was, how it was made, and what the backup plan is if [a voluntary long-form]doesn't work," Mr. Whyte said. "This is not research that should be gambled with."

Home builders and condo developers say they increasingly turn to market research firms run by economists who pore over census long-form data so they know who potential buyers are, the distances they're willing to travel between home and work, how many bedrooms those customers want, even the optimal location of the neighbourhood parkette.

Jim Ritchie, a senior vice-president at Tridel Corporation, a Greater Toronto builder, says the company uses census trends to do its long-term strategic planning. A few years ago, the firm's market research team noticed that singles and childless couples were increasingly settling in Toronto's downtown west end, a scrap of demographic reconnaissance that led to the development of "Rev," a 305-unit condo project now under construction.

"It was census data that drew us into [the King West]area," Mr. Ritchie said. "To us, it's a very useful business tool. We wouldn't support something that would diminish the accuracy."

For other business people, census information turns out to be an unexpectedly effective fundraising tool.

Procter & Gamble president Tim Penner recalls how United Way of Greater Toronto officials began to scrutinize trends in Toronto census data a few years back and discovered, to their surprise, poverty had quietly migrated from the downtown to the immigrant-heavy postwar suburbs. That revelation lay at the heart of the UWGT's 2004 study, Poverty by Postal Code.

When Mr. Penner went out to drum up donations on behalf of the UWGT (he chaired the 2007 campaign), he was able to "tell a story" to other corporate leaders and wealthy benefactors about the changing face of poverty in Canada's biggest city. "The research studies that the United Way have done have been absolutely pivotal in engaging donors in what needs to be done to help the city," he said. "This data has been the difference maker, and it would be a shame to turn back the clock."

Municipal economic development offices from Halifax to Victoria all publish local census data to help businesses looking to invest. City planners also monitor census patterns so they can make decisions about local services.

In the 1980s, for instance, such data revealed a rising number of low-income families and immigrants settling in St. James Town, a dense cluster of Toronto apartments originally targeted for young singles. In the mid-1990s, that insight prompted the city to develop a new library, recreation facilities and childcare spaces to serve a fast-growing neighbourhood of 15,000 people.

Census data such as mother tongue and family income also allows provincial education officials to target resources for services such as B.C.'s breakfast programs for schoolchildren and English-as-a-second language instruction in Ontario cities with large numbers of newcomers. In Penticton, B.C., two elementary schools receive extra funds for a hot-lunch program thanks to census tract data that reveals which neighbourhoods have relatively high concentrations of poor families, says Okanagan-Skaha School District trustee Connie Denesiuk.

In an ironic twist, the Fraser Institute - one of the education system's fiercest critics and the only public-policy think tank to back the government's decision to make the long form voluntary - relied on census data in preparing its latest "report card" on Canada's public schools.

Follow on Twitter: @taviagrant