EnGendering Changes in Unpaid Work in Canada

Thursday, August 5, 2020

Kathleen Lahey, Queen's University
Guest Contributor

As discussions about reasonable ‘compromises’ around census issues coalesce, the government actually may end up ‘winning’ on its drive to exclude all non-business-related unpaid work from the 2011 census. Only unpaid activities relating to travel, to work and helping in someone else’s business will be counted.

With the removal of just one question (33) – pertaining to unpaid activities with seniors, children, and for self and household – Canadian policymakers and the Canadian public are losing valuable knowledge about how Canadian society changes.

This change will happen whether the mandatory long-form census or the optional National Household Survey (NHS) unveiled on July 26, 2020 ends up being used. Because of the proposal to replace the mandatory long-form census with an optional NHS, Canadians never got to see a draft of the 2011 long-form census questionnaire that would have been used.

During the initial debate over the switch, all the government ever said was that all census questions would still be asked on the NHS – the only change would be to replace the usual mandatory long-form census questionnaire with an optional household survey. But it is now clear that Question 33, which was used in 2006 to collect data on all aspects of unpaid household activity not relating to business activities, was never going to be part of the 2011 census process.

A few census-watchers had flagged this possibility back in July 2008, when Statistics Canada (StatsCan)  stated in Chapter 11 of its 2011 Census Consultation Content Report: “Given the demand to collect information on other subject areas and the availability of alternative data sources, careful consideration is being given to excluding household activities from the 2011 Census questionnaire.”

Whatever the outcome of the mandatory versus optional questionnaire issue, the government already had decided sometime in 2007 or 2008 that it was not going to allow StatsCan to collect data on certain forms of unpaid work.

Did StatsCan make this decision, or did the government?

When and if this issue does come under public discussion, the government will no doubt point the finger at StatsCan’s own pre-census consultation process. However, those familiar with the nature of StatsCan’s  consultations and with how statisticians shape survey questions may well conclude that it was not StatsCan statisticians, but their political bosses, who decreed that 2006 Question 33 would be dropped.

Consider the facts:

First, in its 2007 pre-2011 census consultation survey, StatsCan received only a tiny number of comments on 2006 Question 33 – only 72, in fact. Giving 72 people this much ‘voting power’ over an issue of vital national interest does not make sense in a democracy – that is approximately 0.0003 percent of all eligible voters in Canada.

Second, 2006 Question 33 was scarcely the ‘hottest’ or most contentious issue considered in this pre-census survey. The 72 responses StatsCan appears to have relied upon were only a tiny minority (5.6 percent) of the 1,276 responses received on the entire set of 2006 census questions surveyed.

Third, of those 72 who did give StatsCan any feedback on any of the unpaid work issues addressed in Question 33, only 54 comments had any bearing on whether non-business unpaid work should be kept or dropped in the 2011 census. And of those 54, 30 percent urged that Question 33 be kept or even expanded.  StatsCan’s summary of those comments is as follows:

‘Participants reported the data are used to analyse gender equity, understand economic divisions, measure the volume of volunteer work and develop policies. The increasing importance of information on unpaid care to seniors for planning and program delivery was also emphasized in a number of the submissions.’

Fourth, it was not as if the other 38 members of that group of 54 all made stronger comments in favour of removing Question 33. StatsCan says that another 30 percent of those 54 comments expressed some dissatisfaction with Question 33. But in fact, if the following summary of these comments is at all accurate, this group of comments could just as easily be read as suggesting that Question 33 should be made more detailed or improved in other ways:

‘Arguments in favour of eliminating the question include the following: the household activities categories are too broad and don’t provide sufficient context, the question would need to be improved to make the results meaningful – especially as it relates to the time references, and, there are alternative data sources.’

And the reference to ‘alternative data’ does not take into account the fact that Question 33 would still be needed to benchmark the validity of such other data, which would be based on surveys of much smaller groups.

Fifth, there is something very strange about StatsCan’s 2007-8 consultation process. In the past, these consultations have been carried out with a wide range of provincial and territorial governments and agencies, other federal departments, and civil society groups ranging from non-profit organizations and academics to advisory committees and private citizens. In none of these previous consultations has StatsCan treated comments from StatsCan employees as consultation comments – it has not ‘consulted’ with itself. Yet in the pre-2011 census consultations, 10 percent of all the ‘consultation’ comments came from StatsCan itself, bringing the combined input of federal departments and agencies to an average of 27 percent – and accounting for 43 percent of the comments on the unpaid work question.  (This was the highest level of federal input into the review of any of the questions.)

Sixth, StatsCan’s accounting of these comments sheds no light on which sectors provided which types of comments, and whether the 54 comments in question all came from civil society groups, or from federal departments, or even from StatsCan itself. The 21 tables accompanying this consultation report give absolutely no indication of the sources of comments, treating anonymous federal departments and private individuals as interchangeable equals, as if this were part of the ‘confidentiality’ mandate of StatsCan instead of part of government accountability.

Why were no other 2006 census questions removed?

Strangely, unpaid non-commercial work is the only item that has been removed from the list of well-established longform census questions used in 2006.

On topic after topic, StatsCan reviewed the main comments it had received, summarized the arguments for and against removal, but ended up recommending either ‘keep existing language without change’ or slight expansion of questions to increase their precision.

Comments about the need for more details on transportation questions asked in 2006 resulted not in the removal of the transportation issue completely in 2011, but in the creation of two additional questions designed to pin down commuting schedules and commuting times. Similarly, criticism of the general nature of some of the education questions resulted in four specific changes to that set of questions, making it possible for StatsCan to elicit more detailed answers from respondents.

The closest precursor to the removal of unpaid non-commercial activities from the census is the 1991 removal of fertility questions. But even then, StatsCan gave far more information on why that issue was removed from the longform census, citing the ‘delicate nature’ of such questions. In contrast, there is no way questions about the range of unpaid household activities can be considered to be of such a ‘delicate nature’ that they should be withdrawn.

Exactly what is being lost with the removal of 2006 Question 33?

As 2006 Question 33(c) indicates, ‘providing unpaid care or assistance to one or more seniors’ includes, for example, ‘providing personal care to a senior family member, visiting seniors, talking with them on the telephone, helping them with shopping, banking or with taking medication, etc.’ Similarly, 2006 Question 33(b) states that ‘looking after one or more of this person's own children, or the children of others, without pay,’ includes ‘bathing or playing with young children, driving children to sports activities or helping them with homework, talking with teens about their problems, etc.’

These questions on unpaid activities, changes in labour market activities, education, unpaid work in someone else’s business, and incomes will have to be interpreted in the absence of information on how they affect respondents’ lives overall. Efforts to optimize labour productivity, work-life balance, or healthy aging will have to be based on supposition, assumptions, and beliefs about what people do in their non-paid non-commercial hours, and policy-makers will have to guess whether Canadians are better or worse off as the result of such policies.

Major demographic shifts like the aging population, major economic events like the 2008 economic crisis, among others, cannot be analyzed fully from a policy perspective without holistic data. Yet that is what the current government has decided to do.

Loss of Question 33 is also the destruction of valuable public capital

In its 2011 Census Consultation Report, StatsCan seemed to be intent on understating the significance of household or non-commercial time use data, identifying just three federal programs – the Immigrant Settlement and Adaptation Program, the National Advisory Council on Aging and the Women’s Program – in which unpaid work content is used.

Compare this with a 1999 tabulation of policy applications of time use data compiled by independent policy researchers. According to such experts, time use data is critical to accurate composition of economic accounts, labour force analysis, measurement of total work effort, changes in economic conditions, changes in social conditions, particularly as they affect demands on government programs, and every dimension of quality of life, ranging from the health and education of the workforce to the social quality of leisure activities.

This time use data, which has been collected on both non-commercial unpaid work and unpaid work relating to business and employment activity, is valuable public capital that has been created by StatsCan since 1981. The history of the first decades of this contribution is posted on the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada website. In that history, the authors concluded as follows:

‘Statistics Canada is a world leader in the field of measuring the volume and value of unpaid work done in the home and in the community. Given the intellectual capital that it has invested in this field in the form of a solid methodology base, and given the commitments that it has made to expand this program in the future, the Agency is likely to retain this leadership position for many years to come. This is being accomplished in an environment of fiscal restraint, which means that continued progress can only be achieved by judiciously selecting the most suitable and cost effective data collection methods. The objective is to ensure that frequent, credible and meaningful data are made available, both to guide government policy formulation, and to further the goals of members of the public and their organizations who wish to influence the direction that such policies take.’

Classic economic theory sends the message that the potential for economic growth is limitless (that is, until societies run out of inputs).  But human time is a ‘zero-sum’ resource.  Everyone has just 24 hours in the day, and that is where innumerable tradeoffs dictated by personal endowments, social circumstances, and ‘markets’ are often made. To shroud some of those effects from view while enumerating others creates a skewed picture of life in Canada.

Time spent on unpaid non-commercial work is as much a part of the overall picture of human production as is paid work and unpaid commercial activity. Keeping monetized unpaid work in either the proposed NHS (or in the 2011 census, if the longform is reinstated) without putting 2006 Question 33 back into the census (or NHS) as well will diminish Canadian policymakers’ ability to make relevant economic and social policies for the 21st century.

Kathleen Lahey is professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University in Kingston.



Excellent comment! Thanks for providing such a thorough analysis of the long term implications of the erasure of question 33 from the long form census.

Ellen Faulkner