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Article Published December 13, 1999 Vol. III No. 26

Gordon A. Watts POST-1901 CENSUS NEWS (Canada)
By: Gordon A. Watts,

Honourable (?) mention in Annual Privacy Report

Greetings Readers, and Members of Parliament

Our efforts to obtain Release of Post 1901 Census Records received mention in the Annual Report of Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips. For those interested in seeing the entire report, and reports for some previous years, they can be found at

The excerpt from the Annual Report is copied below. The emphasis is mine.

Committing a Social Science

That 1911 Census

News that the 1911 Census returns would not be made public travelled like wildfire through the historical and genealogical research communities. One of the parties blamed was the Privacy Commissioner and the letters and e-mail descended.

It is true that the Privacy Commissioner has serious reservations about Statistics Canada promising absolute confidentiality for census information, then releasing the results through the National Archives. Following his investigation into complaints about the 1992 census, the Commissioner suggested destroying the personally-identified returns to deal with growing public concern over the increasingly intrusive questions-particularly those posed on the long form. While Statistics Canada has no need for the personal returns-the information has all been verified and entered into electronic data systems (without names)-the National Archives balked at destruction of the returns.

But the Commissioner's reservation is not the immediate reason Statistics Canada is refusing access to the 1911 Census . In fact, the Privacy Act Regulations allow the National Archives to release census and survey results 92 years later for "research and statistical purposes". The barrier to access is the Census and Statistics Act of 1906 and several subsequent laws, all of which prohibit Statistics Canada from disclosing personal census information to anyone-including the National Archives.

The motivation for such stringent protection is clear: the law requires us to answer census questions. As society becomes more complex, the questions become more detailed, more sensitive and arguably well beyond those of a head count. Among the questions on the last census were those about personal wealth and income, religion, fertility, and physical and mental disabilities. The test version of the 2001 census includes a question on same-sex partners. And before each census, governments, academics and special interest groups line up to seek ever more information.

There is no arguing that census data is a huge and valuable resource for modern government and business. But when citizens are forced to disclose personal data under compulsion of law, government bears a heavy responsibility to protect the information. Failure to accept that responsibility courts the risk that individuals will refuse to answer, and damn the consequences, or that they will fabricate responses and corrupt the data. Successive governments have acknowledged that the trade of information for confidentiality is a fair one and have accepted their responsibility. The result is closing the census to public access.

The step is certainly not without precedent. Australia, a country with similar history and an equally healthy appetite for genealogical research, destroys its personal census returns to protect privacy-and the census bureau itself from pressures for unrelated uses.

Unfortunately, the sustained lobbying appears to be having some effect. The Industry Minister has asked Statistics Canada to develop options for amending the legislation to allow access to census records. According to StatsCan, there are two possibilities. The first is amending the Statistics Act to allow access to the 2001 and all subsequent censuses. The second is amending the act retroactively to override the confidentiality provisions under which all censuses beginning in 1911 were gathered.

Neither option is attractive. The first risks compromising the census process if substantial numbers of Canadians object. The second would break the legal promise Parliament made to Canadians in 1911-and every census year following. It would demonstrate to Canadians the fragility of government promises in the face of an organized lobby. That would be as undesirable as the intrusion into private lives. The Privacy Commissioner cannot support either.

Report recommends retention of Australia's Census records

It is interesting to note that in the report above, Australia has been cited as a country that destroys it's name-identifiable Census records following statistical complilation. This may have come to an end.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in Australia, in May 1998, presented a report titled Saving our Census and preserving our history. It was sub-titled A report on the inquiry into the treatment of name-identified census forms. (ISBN 0 644 52577 0)

The forward of this report stated:
    The Committee is pleased to present the report of its inquiry into the retention of census forms.

    Commonwealth censuses, supported by legislation, have been held in Australia since federation. The inquiry was the first major public examination of the practice of destroying name-identified census forms. The level of public response to the Committee's inquiry illustrates that the issues the subject of this inquiry are of interest not only to government officials and academics but to a large number of ordinary Australians.

    The aim of the Committee has been to consider the competing views of interested parties and to make reasonable proposals, in all the circumstances, for future censuses. The Committee believes that saving the census for future research, with appropriate safeguards, will make a very valuable contribution to preserving Australia's history for future generations.
During it's deliberations the Committee considered 289 submissions, 56 exhibits, and heard from 86 witnesses. Many of the arguments put forward by the bureaucrats in Australia parallel those put out by Statistics Canada and Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips. The result of these deliberations were five recommendations as follow:
    Recommendation 1

    The Committee recommends that name-identified information contained in forms from future censuses be retained.

    The Committee further recommends that specific legislation be implemented to provide for the retention of name-identified information from all future censuses.

    Recommendation 2

    The Committee recommends that name-identified census records be closed for a period of 99 years, and that no researcher have direct access to name identified records during that time. The Committee recommends that name-identified census records be made available in the 100th year.

    The Committee further recommends that appropriate legislation be implemented to give effect to this recommendation.

    Recommendation 3

    The Committee recommends that a stated purpose of the census be that name-identified information be available for possible future research.

    Recommendation 4

    The Committee recommends that during the 99 year closed access period the census records be able to be accessed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the purpose of certain epidemiological research.

    Access for the purpose of such research is to be strictly limited to applications put forward under protocols developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council. The applications must have received the prior approval of the ethics committee of the institution with which the researcher is associated.

    The Committee further recommends that the NH&MRC protocols take the form of disallowable instruments.

    Recommendation 5

    The Committee recommends that census information continue to be processed and handled only by officers of the National Archives of Australia or the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The Committee was not convinced that the retention and subsequent release of name-identified Census records would have a significant effect on the co-operation of the Australian public and their willingness to provide full and truthful responses to questions on Census. They felt that the Australian public was essentially law-abiding and knowledge that their information would be released in 99 years would have a minimal effect on the way respondents to Census answered the questions posed.

The Committee expressed concern that the Australian Bureau of Statistics had had undue influence in the formation of opinions of various government agencies. They stated:
    3.105 The Committee formed the impression that the submissions from these agencies were drafted principally at the impetus of a letter sent to them by ABS highlighting it's fears that data quality of the census would decline. 97 The Committee noted that many of the submissions used expressions like those contained in the ABS letter. While a similar practice was apparent to a greater extent amongst genealogical associations, the Committee was concerned that what it regards as virtually solicitation and collusion should occur amongst government agencies.

    Sound familiar? With the number of MP responses that have directly quoted much of what Statistics Canada has put out in their various releases, our Expert Panel should have similar concerns.

Senator Milne speaks on appointment of Expert Panel

On 16 November 1999 Senator Lorna Milne spoke in the Senate regarding the appointment by Minister John Manley of an Expert Panel to study Release of Historic Census Records. She stated, in part
    Minister Manley has listened to my lobbying efforts, has taken note of the correspondence of Canadian genealogists, historians and archivists, and has now taken the first step in responding to our concerns through the creation of this panel. This is the beginning of results for all the effort that genealogical and historical groups have put into bringing awareness and public voice to this issue.
Senator Milne rose again on 24 November 1999 to present another petition in support of Release of Post 1901 Census records. She stated
    Honourable senators, I have the honour to present a petition, with 190 signatures, from the Ontario Genealogical Society, petitioning the following: ...your petitioners call upon Parliament to enact legislation to preserve the Post 1901 Census Records, remove them to the National Archives and make these, as well as future Census Records, available to the public after 92 years as is presently consistent with the many provisions of privacy legislation and time limits now in force.

Updating of Canada Census Project Page

There has been little or no updating of the Census Project pages since early October due to a shortage of staff.

Just prior to my recent trip to Calgary Rick (at contacted me to see if I knew of anyone who had the time and expertise to volunteer to work on updating the pages, at least on an interim basis. While I am not very experienced in doing this I have decided to have a go at it myself.

I downloaded the source files for the Scoreboard and have done some checking of it (some 70 odd pages). I feel certain that I can make the necessary changes and download the file for Rick to put in the Project pages. I spent a good part of today going through my files, identifying and printing letters of MP responses so that I can keep an organized file of what has been done, and what needs to be done. Hopefully within a week you will start to see some changes made and I will endeavour to get it fully updated and subsequently to keep it that way. If I get stuck I have a few people I can call on for a little help.

One of the priorities in this work will be to update the Petition page and to add to it the new Senate petition for Canadian residents to sign. Until this is done, the Senate petition can be obtained from myself at or from Muriel Davidson at A reminder that all deadlines have been removed from the petitions and we will accept them for the foreseeable future.

Seasons Greetings

This will my last column before Christmas. The Gazette will not be published 24 December so my next column will be 31 December. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to wish each and everyone of you the very best of the Holiday Season. I would also like to thank all for their continuing support in the Census campaign. While it has been slow, we have made some progress.

Until next time. Happy Hunting.

Gordon A. WATTS

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