Well-funded, expansive agency is an important tool in helping governments plan in a pandemic. StatCan needs increased funding for our recovery.

Since the onset of this pandemic, the work of Statistics Canada has never been more integral to public policy in this country.

The unfolding crisis, starting in March 2020, caused almost every aspect of our lives to change at breakneck speeds: the economy, our social lives, our public healthcare system. You name it. Everything in our world was no longer the same. To respond effectively and appropriately, policy-makers needed to know exactly what was happening in real time.

Statistics Canada immediately made quick work of meeting the country’s urgent data needs, and in the process enlarged the size of Canada’s statistical infrastructure. Aside from the usual reporting on a handful of critical economic indicators such as inflation and unemployment rates, by the early spring, the agency had introduced a variety of statistical programs aimed at generating data and analysis about the COVID-19 crisis.

To understand the path and the impact of the rapidly spreading virus, Statistics Canada was instrumental in helping track confirmed COVID-19 cases, death counts, as well as the demand and supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) while aiding government contact tracing efforts. When the government needed to understand the scale of the economic toll on businesses, Statistics Canada’s Canadian Survey on Business Conditions leveraged responses from the Chamber of Commerce’s network of 120,000 companies. And as the pandemic measures disrupted our way of life, Statistics Canada’s crowdsourcing initiative, the Canadian Perspectives Survey Series, provided a clearer picture on the state of citizens’ social conditions, mental health, personal finances, domestic situations and many other pressing concerns.

This surge in Statistics Canada’s data collection and dissemination demonstrates the all-around value of this publicly funded federal statistical agency, especially in a time of rapid and dangerous changes. Yet, a larger government mandate to fix an emergent crisis necessitates an expanded statistical infrastructure effort. In fact, Statistics Canada’s COVID-19 response mirrors, in many respects, the role played by the agency’s predecessor, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics (1918-1971), in previous crises such as both world wars and the Great Depression. But the value of a substantial statistical agency and data infrastructure is not always accepted or obvious.

In the not-so-distant past, the Harper Conservative government scrapped the 2011 mandatory long-form census and raised questions about the value of Statistics Canada and the need for a robust data collection process to support government decision-making.

Yet, while they did more than the Conservatives to support Canada’s federal data-collection capacity, this by no means suggests that the Liberals have done enough.

By contrast, the Trudeau Liberal government restored Statistics Canada’s institutional prominence and the long-form census with it. This Trudeau government’s investments in Statistics Canada certainly helped the agency, including during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, while they did more than the Conservatives to support Canada’s federal data-collection capacity, this by no means suggests that the Liberals have done enough. Just as we have seen the expansion of Statistics Canada’s output, this pandemic has also shone a light on the critical data gaps that impede government policy-making. Case in point, the constitutional conflicts over healthcare jurisdiction that meant slow and inconsistent reporting on healthcare data from the provinces, including the reported COVID-19 cases and deaths.

As 2021 brings Canadians the vaccination roll-out, further efforts to recover our broken economy, and (hopefully) a relaxation of physical-distancing measures, it is clearer than ever that Statistics Canada will need to take on a larger role in managing data and informing the government’s policy response to COVID-19. To support these extraordinary efforts, the newly appointed minister of innovation, science and industry, François-Philippe Champagne, must commit to a co-ordinated intergovernmental national data infrastructure, which includes funding for Statistics Canada to develop modern, real-time software for collecting data from the various provincial and territorial governments. Additionally, the federal government must set and enforce critical national standards for the collection of public health data. On the eve of the forthcoming 2021 census, these measures are crucial, especially as we plan to attack the enormous challenges ahead of us.

Looking toward a potential yet still highly uncertain return to normalcy in a post-pandemic world, future federal governments may come to question the importance of a well-funded, expansive federal statistical agency. Given what we have observed from this crisis, let this serve as a lesson that our greatest need for a dependable statistical agency and data infrastructure may only be revealed at the depths of our country’s lowest of lows – when jobs are being lost by the millions, when lives are being lost by the thousands. During these moments, governments will be most rewarded for pre-emptively investing in their country’s data-collection capacity and statistical infrastructure. Let us not make the mistake of being unprepared next time.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by Ronnie Chua