Munir Sheikh

Munir Sheikh

What Happened

In the summer of 2010, Munir Sheikh resigned as the head of Statistics Canada, claiming that Industry Minister Tony Clement had misrepresented Sheikh’s and Statistics Canada’s position on the mandatory long-form census. Minister Clement had claimed that he had been advised by Statistics Canada that the mandatory long-form census could be abolished in favour of a voluntary survey without impairing the integrity of the data collected.


Background

On June 28, 2010, the Harper government replaced the mandatory long-form census with a National Household Survey. The abolition of the mandatory long-form census contradicted the advice of most experts and professionals across Canada, including statisticians, economists, business-people, doctors, lawyers, police officers, faith groups, anti-poverty groups and advocates for linguistic minorities.

Tony Clement implied that the decision was supported by Munir Sheikh, resulting in a public outcry. Economists and statisticians were openly critical. For example, David Green, an economist at the University of British Columbia, wrote on July 17th: “Decades ago, we established that the Bank of Canada needs to operate at arm’s-length from political interference. The same should be true of the national statistical agency. If statistical collection changes with the ideological whims of the government, the very basis of government decision-making, transparency and trust is shattered. We need a chief statistician who is willing to stand up for Statistics Canada as an independent institution. Where is Munir Sheikh?”

On July 21st, Shekh resigned. He said that knowing the government’s new survey would be essentially useless wasn’t the reason. Rather, he resigned because the Harper government misrepresented his position: “...when doubt began to be expressed about the nature of the advice we gave, which to any statistician would come across as not the work of a statistician, I came to the conclusion that I cannot be the head of an agency whose reputation has suffered.”

Sheikh’s actual position on the virtues of the mandatory long-form census and the flaws of the voluntary survey had remained consistent. E-mails from Munir Sheikh’s office to Industry Minister Tony Clement’s office stated that even a 70 per cent response rate on the census would not be enough to ensure unbiased data.

Essentially, the issue was one of professional integrity, as reflected in a new comment by David Green two days after Sheikh’s resignation: “He was put in such a hard place – either stand up and defend the government, in which case he’d lose all credibility as a chief statistician ... or the alternative (to leave).”

To appear to support the government would have compromised the independence, integrity and reputation of StatsCan. Yet, as a civil servant, Sheikh was not able to openly contradict the federal government. Don McLeish, president of the Statistical Society of Canada, said: “I think it was the only way he could say anything.”

In fact, Deputy Ministers – in this instance, Munir Sheikh as Head of StatsCan – are subjected to such limitations on their freedom of expression in general, because the ruling party may be assumed to speak for their departments or organizations. There is no official mechanism through which they can defend their points of view or correct erroneous interpretations of what they think.

Once Sheikh’s real opinions on the value of the mandatory long-form census became known, the government was criticized for having misrepresented his views. Mel Cappe, then-president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, articulated, “I would urge the committee [on industry, science and technology] not to play partisan games with an important institution of governance.”

In the end, 69.3% of respondents filled out the optional survey, confirming that Statistics Canada would not have the information necessary to conduct critical assessments of Canada’s economic and social circumstances. (See our page on the mandatory long-form census here.)

Relevant Dates:

  • June 16, 2008: Munir Sheikh is appointed as Chief Statistician of Canada.
  • June 28, 2010: The Harper government announces cessation of the mandatory long-form census, replacing it with the voluntary National Household Survey
  • July 16, 2010: Industry Minister Tony Clement claims that Statistics Canada supports the voluntary survey instead of the mandatory long-form census.
  • July 21, 2010: Munir Sheikh resigns as head of Statistics Canada.
  • September 2011: Voluntary Household Survey results are released, confirming the survey’s inadequacy.

Role or Position

Chief Statistician of Canada from June 16, 2008 until his resignation July 21, 2010 following a 38-year career as a public servant.

Implications and Consequences

  • Free speech: Munir Sheikh’s inability to communicate with the public as a civil servant made him vulnerable to partisan games and misrepresentation when the government’s public discourse was attributed to him as Chief Statistician. This exceeds the normal restrictions placed on civil servants, let alone one whose position is supposed to be independent and in the public interest.
  • Transparency: The government misrepresented Sheikh’s opinions on the value of the mandatory long-form census with impunity.
  • Democracy: The government’s attempt to obfuscate the debate about the merits of the long-form census by misrepresenting Munir Sheikh’s opinion did not meet any standard of good governance.
  • Democracy: As a Canadian citizen and civil servant, Sheikh was entitled to be treated with respect and in good faith.