Sunday, July 3, 2011


This interesting article appeared in the Vancouver Sun.

Here are nuggets about diversity in Canada:

. The fastest-growing religions in B.C. are Buddhism and Islam.

. B.C. has far more residents who say they have "no religion" than any other province.

. In Metro Vancouver, people of British ancestry still make up the largest group. But 42 per cent of Metro residents are visible minorities, led by Chinese, South Asians and Filipinos.

I find such chunks of information invaluable. And not just because I write about religion and immigration. It's because I, and countless others, want to do more than guess about what is going on in this changing, immigrant-rich country.

The main reason journalists and other researchers are able to put fairly accurate numbers on the dizzying array of religious and ethnic diversity we witness every day on Canadian streets and in offices and schools is the national census.

So I'm wishing well the thousands of census staff now spreading out across this vast country to ensure the people who received long-form questionnaires, which include questions on religion and ethnicity, complete the forms.

According to senior Statistics Canada official Tina Chui, the federal government has been asking about religion and ethnic origin since 1871.

Even though some countries don't include such questions in their census, Ottawa originally asked them because the country's two "founding" peoples were French (mostly Roman Catholic) and British (mostly Protestant).

It wouldn't have been possible more than a century ago for the federal government to respond fairly to the contrasting needs of these two ethnic/religious groups if it didn't have facts and figures about them.

Now that multicultural Canada, which has the world's highest immigration rate per capita, is home to people who speak more than 200 languages, it's more important than ever to track residents' ethnicities and religions.

Census officials ask Canadians about their religion, or lack thereof, every 10 years. In that way we're similar to Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia. The census inquires about ethnicity every five years -2011 is one of those big years in which Canadians are asked to reveal both.

There are many social, economic and educational reasons to do one's census duty in regards to these two diversity questions.

Still, we hear complaints that the Canadian government, which some insist on calling "Big Brother," is invading their privacy by asking about what they consider sensitive matters.

However, as Chiu says, Statistics Canada has a reputation for protecting citizens' confidentiality that is almost impossible to beat. Canadians have good reason to trust their government and its officials on the privacy score.

In addition, scholars often raise another concern about the census: They worry that Canadians who don't speak English or French, as well as those on low incomes, tend to balk at answering census questions.

However, Chiu said in an interview from Ottawa that Statistics Canada has no evidence these two groups are "resistant" to filling out census questionnaires, even though she admits it might take staff a bit more work to "catch their attention."

Whatever the case, this year's census questions have been translated into more than 30 languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Creole, Romanian and many aboriginal tongues. Moreover, census staff are always following up to encourage completion.

Why go to all the trouble? Chiu reminds us that solid ethnic and religious data will help school boards serve diverse students. They will aid ethnic community groups in supporting their clients. They will assist businesses in targeting customers, based on cultural backgrounds. They will lend a hand to researchers monitoring ethnic and religious discrimination, and governments creating effective training programs.

But has Ottawa thrown its own wrench into the effort to gather solid data on religion and ethnicity? What about the Conservative government's controversial decision to make it voluntary to fill out this year's long-form census with its questions on ethnicity and religion? In previous years it had been mandatory.

The businesses, government bodies, planners and scholars who rely on national census data have been virtually unanimous in decrying the switchover to voluntary responses, saying the inconsistency will throw off the reliability of results.

"It certainly poses some challenges to us," acknowledges Chiu. But, even though some will question the quality of information, Chiu said census officials believe they can do the necessary followups in the next couple of months that will ensure the diversity data remain useful.

I hope so. At the minimum, my future effectiveness as a writer about spiritual and ethnic trends depends on it.

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