Getting the Small Things Right: How data suppression distorts Northern realities

July 18, 2016 - Northern Policy Institute recently released a briefing note about how data is (or isn’t) being collected in Northern Ontario, and how this can impact our knowledge and perception of important public policy issues in the region. The first part of the report focused on the perils of the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), and the second part zeroed in on a new idea: creating a set of regional economic accounts for Northern Ontario.

As we have all heard by now, there were many issues when Statistics Canada introduced the voluntary NHS to replace the mandatory long-form census in 2011. Naturally, most of these issues stemmed from the fact that, because it voluntary, less people responded to the survey. And when less people respond to the survey, Statistics Canada is more likely to suppress the data.

This is exactly what happened in many small, rural communities in Northern Ontario.

Out of the 278 census subdivisions (otherwise known as communities) in our region, 107 (or 38%) of them were suppressed in the NHS. Conversely, in the South, only 13% of communities were suppressed. In other words, 74% of suppressed communities in the province were in the North.

This means there was no data on the labour market, education levels, income levels, immigration, and many other indicators.

Making matters worse, is that the census/NHS was just about the only source of consistent and reliable data that these small communities had access to. The NHS created a data gap in the North, and it’s not surprising that many passionately supported the return of the mandatory long-form census.

While the reinstatement of the long-form census will help remedy some issues, another data gap remains in Northern Ontario: a set of regional economic accounts. Currently, Statistics Canada publishes economic accounts for each province and territory – the idea here is that the same should be done for Northern Ontario. Yes, a region within a province.

Our region needs it’s own set of economic accounts because Northern Ontario is fundamentally different from the rest of the province in many ways. The industrial and occupational structure in the North is very different. The demographic make-up is very different. Governance is different. These and many other differences are well-known.

Creating a set of regional economic accounts for Northern Ontario would formally recognize these regional differences in our public statistical reporting, leading to more informed and regionally-tailored policies.

A set of regional economic accounts could include indicators such as: local, provincial and federal government revenues and expenditures in Northern Ontario, regional imports and exports, regional gross domestic product (GDP), and other macroeconomic indicators.

Right now we have rough ways of estimating some of these indicators. In fact, Northern Policy Institute’s briefing note estimated regional GDP in Northern Ontario, and found that the region’s trajectory of economic growth is fundamentally different than Ontario. In the last decade and a half, Northern Ontario experienced six years of negative GDP growth from the year before. Ontario had two years of contraction during the 2008-09 recession. This is startling because GDP is a headline economic indicator that we look at to understand how our economy is faring, and to implement informed public policies.

By not formally recognizing these regional differences in our public statistical reporting, we assume that Northern Ontario is on the same path as Ontario. And this leads to one of the biggest complaints from Northerner’s: that one-size-fits-all policies do not conform to the needs of Northern Ontario.

Take for example, the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) – which includes province-wide policies on land use planning in Ontario. Many Northerner’s argue that the PPS is largely reflective of the concerns in Southern Ontario, and as a result, it’s policies can restrict much needed growth in our region. The one-size-fits-all policy assumes that the North has the same challenges and needs as the South, and inevitably misses the mark.

On the other hand, the federal government recently announced an interesting new approach for delivering extended employment insurance (EI) benefits. In a nutshell, they use regional Labour Force Survey data to determine which regions within provinces have persistently high unemployment rates, and then deliver extended EI benefits accordingly. There are some criticisms of this approach, but overall it is a step in the right direction because it recognizes the need for different regional policy prescriptions. And this is only possible because of formal sub-provincial statistical reporting on the labour market. Regionally-tailored data leads to regionally-tailored decision-making.

A set of regional economic accounts for Northern Ontario that monitors fundamental macroeconomic indicators will enhance our ability to understand and perceive regional challenges and opportunities, and subsequently, allow decision-makers to implement informed policy decisions in Northern Ontario. It’s worth a shot – and it’s doubtful that Northern Ontario would have a problem volunteering as the guinea pig region.

 James Cuddy is the in-house Economist at Northern Policy Institute. First published in Northern Ontario Business, July 2016.

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1 Reader Comments

  • Info

    Posted By Ralph Bullough on 7/18/2016 9:51:53 AM

    it would be nice to see the lack of information that is available to the LSBs and LRBs in the north. As well many LSBs are not covered by Planning Boards so they have almost no ability to sever or expand.

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