What time do you leave for work? Ottawa’s never actually asked

Clement has been raising alarm about a question that wasn't on the census yet

If there’s one thing about the long-form census that apparently bothers Tony Clement, besides the way it asks folks about how many bedrooms they have in their homes, it’s the prying into what time honest Canadians leave for work in the morning.

The industry minister has red-flagged this particular census question repeatedly during the controversy of the past few weeks. On July 13, Clement said, “The government does not think it is necessary for Canadians to provide Statistics Canada with the number of bedrooms in their home, or what time of the day they leave for work, or how long it takes them to get there.”

He repeated the point the following morning on CBC Radio’s The Current. On July 20, Clement’s op-ed piece in the Calgary Sun opened with this rhetorical question: “Do you believe the government should be asking you what time you leave for work in the morning?”  And then earlier this week—in his statement responding to Munir Sheikh’s resignation as Canada’s chief statistician over the canceling of the long-form census— Clement again said the government doesn’t think Statistics Canada should ask Canadians “what time of the day they leave for work.”

Why this piece of information is deemed so sensitive I can only guess. But it’s been raised so often by Clement that I looked for it on the 2006 long-form census questionnaire, just to see how it’s phrased. When I couldn’t find it, I asked both Statistics Canada and the minister’s office to point it out for me.

I got two quite different replies. From Statistics Canada’s media relations office came this emailed response: “The census has not ever asked a question on what time a person leaves for work.”

But Lynn Meahan, Clement’s press secretary, sent me a more complex answer by email. “In the 2006 census,” Meahan said, “it was a combination of [questions] 34-37-39 and 46.  46 asks for the address of your work.”

So this requires a bit of triangulation. Let’s roll up our sleeves and lick the tips of our pencils. Question 34 asked, “Last week, how many hours did this person spend working for pay or in self-employment?” Question 37 asked, “Did this person look for paid work during the past four weeks?” And Question 39 asked, “When did this person last work for pay or in self-employment, even for a few days?”

Granted, my powers of deduction are limited, but even if I put on a deerstalker hat and an Inverness cape and lit a pipe, I  could not put the answers to these three questions together, add the person’s address, and tell you the hour the suspect departed for work.

So I’m forced to conclude that the answer from Statistics Canada is the accurate one—that the census has never, in fact, asked when we leave for work. And that Clement has repeatedly raised alarm over a purportedly invasive question that has never been put to Canadians on the long-form census.

There is, however, a footnote here. Meahan tells me that she has seen a “mock up” of the planned 2011 census and that draft would, indeed, have asked, as its Question 48, when the person filling out the form leaves for work.

It seems, then, that Clement has been raising a preemptive alarm about a question Canadians might have been asked next year, had he not cancelled the long-form census. But since he’s the minister in charge, you’d think he could have just ordered that question removed or changed, if it’s so objectionable, and we’d never have heard about it.


I’m told by Statistics Canada that the new National Household Survey, which will replace the long-form census, will ask those who voluntarily fill it out when they usually leave for work. The questionnaire hasn’t been released yet.

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