OTTAWA—A tiny community in Saskatchewan will be placed back on the statistical map of Canada after it was accidentally turned into a ghost town in the 2011 census.
Industry Minister James Moore offered reassurances last week that Davin, Sask., will no longer appear in the census with a population of zero — a mistake that was threatening to cut off the hamlet from provincial grants for municipalities.
Davin , about a half-hour’s drive east from Regina, actually has a population of 49 citizens, and the struggle to prove its existence to StatsCan has been going on for some months.
Statistics Canada is currently investigating how the error occurred and “will adjust the population count for the Hamlet of Davin as required, as quickly as possible,” Moore wrote in a letter to Ralph Goodale, the former finance minister and MP for the Wascana riding, which includes Davin.
The news will come as a relief to Davin’s municipal officials, who had even gone to the trouble of getting the hamlet’s 49 residents to sign a statement attesting to their own existence.
“How did they miss it? That is the question,” said Rod Heise, administrator in the rural municipality of Lajord, which includes Davin. “My council was kind of joking one day, and they said: ‘Well, everyone in Davin must be on the witness-protection program.’ ”
The error wasn’t entirely a joking matter.
With an official zero-population count, Davin had been ineligible for provincial grants that amounted to about $100 to $120 per person each year — funds that help pay for local services. On the plus side, its statistical non-existence meant that the hamlet didn’t have to pay levies for the library and the RCMP, which came to about $50 a person, annually.
Once StatsCan fixes the error that came about due to problems with the mandatory portion of the census, the grants and the levies will kick in again.
But while Davin’s existential crisis is over, there are still many other small communities in Canada that are vanishing from the statistical landscape, thanks to the ongoing fallout over the federal government’s decision to end the mandatory, long-form census.
The vanishing towns problem is particularly acute in Saskatchewan, according to Doug Elliott, a statistical analyst who has been warning about the big holes in the data of the National Household Survey.
The NHS is the name that StatsCan has given to the data and analysis it is releasing on the 2011 census, and the agency itself has warned repeatedly that the new, voluntary process for filling out the forms means that some results are flawed or non-existent.
If fewer than 50 per cent of residents of a community responded to the 2011 census form, for instance, StatsCan “suppresses” some information from that community as unreliable or incomplete. It turned out that a full one-third of the census divisions in the Western provinces had this problem: not enough response.
“That means, for example, the age, sex, language and living arrangements for the residents are known but the education, employment, income, housing condition, immigration status, and aboriginal identity are not,” Elliott wrote earlier this year in an academic publication on the looming trouble with the new census data.
Elliott, who calls himself Saskatchewan’s “resident number-cruncher,” said that he now no longer has reliable data on communities in the province such as Melville (population 4,500) or Newell County (population 6,785). as well as many other towns of roughly that size in other provinces out west.
It means when it comes to making decisions over urban planning and business futures in these places, analysts like him won’t have any data to contribute to the decision-makers.
Elliott says that the only solution is to restore the mandatory long-term census before any future damage is done. If it isn’t restored, he says he plans to retire.
“There won’t be anything to analyze,” he says.
Opposition MPs have been sounding the alarm too about the flawed StatsCan and census reports, especially since the final chapter in the National Household Survey was released earlier this month with all kinds of warnings about the data.
“There’s a real void. We’re not going to know how the growth is happening, where we’re going to have to have certain benchmarks for the future,” Judy Sgro, the former immigration minister and MP for York West, said in an interview last week.
The Conservative government’s decision to end the mandatory census is only now being felt over the long term, Sgro said, and will get worse over time.
Clarification - September 30, 2013: This article was edited from a previous version to clarify that the hamlet of Davin, Sask., was accidentally excluded from the census because of problems with the mandatory portion of the census. Other smaller communities mentioned in the article are missing from the report on the voluntary, long-form version of the census.