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Article Published February 25, 2000, Vol. IV No. 05

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

Greetings Readers, and Members of Parliament

Bill S-15 Receives Second Reading.

Second reading of Senator Lorna Milne's to obtain release of Post 1901 Census records received second reading in the Senate on 17 February 2000. The extract from the Debates of the Senate follows. It is expected that further debate on this Bill will take place shortly.

Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
2nd Session, 36th Parliament,
Volume 138, Issue 29

Thursday, February 17, 2000
The Honourable Rose-Marie Losier-Cool, Speaker pro tempore

Statistics Act National Archives of Canada Act

Bill to Amend-Second Reading-Debate Adjourned

Hon. Lorna Milne moved the second reading of Bill S-15, to amend the Statistics Act and the National Archives of Canada Act (census records).

She said: Honourable senators, the purpose of Bill S-15 is to allow for the public release of post-1901 census records. The bill is intended to make reasonable and workable amendments to both the Statistics Act and the National Archives of Canada Act to allow for the transfer of the census records from Statistics Canada to the National Archives of Canada where the records will be released to the public, subject to the Privacy Act.

I believe that Bill S-15 achieves an acceptable compromise of the concerns and goals expressed to me by the various interest groups involved - Statistics Canada, the National Archives of Canada, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, genealogists, historians, medical researchers and the Canadian public.

There has been considerable debate surrounding the supposed promise of confidentiality that the Chief Statistician is presently honouring, the intentions of the government of the day, and the legal interpretations taken from all of this.

As the debate is encumbered with several diametric positions, I have undertaken to propose Bill S-15, which recognizes all the arguments and offers a solution to the debate, allowing Statistics Canada to uphold their promise of secrecy while deeming consent to have been given to the National Archivist to permit access by the public to utilize these vital research tools.

Honourable senators, I was first made aware of the situation in the summer of 1998 by a group of genealogists from the Upper Ottawa Valley. As someone who has used census records extensively for family research purposes, I can tell you from firsthand experience the imperative need for the census records from the 20th century to be released to the Canadian public. I ask honourable senators to reflect upon Canada during that time. Think about what the country has experienced since 1901 - the vast mass immigrations and migrations; the settlement of the western provinces; the wars; the change from an agricultural society and a natural-resource-based society to an industrial society; the altered economic conditions. That is what I thought about, when my roots from the Upper Ottawa Valley alerted me to the fact that a piece of Canadiana, the 1906 Western Census and subsequent census records, would never be seen by Canadians.

Clause 1 of the bill makes amendments to the Statistics Act by adding a new section after section 21. Under this new section, Statistics Canada would conserve the records while they are in the care of the department.

In addition to ensuring the conservation of these records, the bill requires the Chief Statistician to obtain the consent of the National Archivist of Canada before administering the destruction or disposal of any census records, including individual census returns, and ensures that this can only be carried out once all of the information has been transferred onto another recording medium. This proposed section also details when the transfer from Statistics Canada to the National Archives of Canada should occur, first, for population censuses taken under section 19 and agricultural censuses taken under section 20, and, second, all the population and agricultural census data taken prior to 1971.

Bill S-15 recommends 30 calendar years following when the census was taken but leaves the window open for the transfer to take place sooner if the two departments are in agreement.

For the pre-1971 records, the transfer is to occur before the expiration of two years after this section comes into force or at an earlier time agreed upon by the two departments. This is consistent with section 6 of the National Archives of Canada Act.

The solution I referenced earlier comes through changes the bill makes to the National Archives of Canada Act. It reaffirms that the census records will be transferred to the National Archives, as was clearly stated in the original bill but has been treated by Statistics Canada as an optional move.

Once the records are transferred to the care and control of the National Archivist, the Chief Statistician will no longer be responsible for the records. The information contained in the records and the release of the census records would then fall solely under the responsibility of the National Archives of Canada and the National Archivist.


Bill S-15 amends section 7 of the National Archives of Canada Act. Under Bill S-15, section 7.1 would recognize the permanent historic and archival importance of census records and thus the necessity to ensure the security of the permanence of these records through specifically prohibiting the transfer, destruction or disposal of the records unless all of the information is saved on an alternative recording medium.

Section 7.2 would recognize the promise of confidentiality. Once the records are in the control of the National Archivist, prior to 92 years after the census has been taken, the archivist could only disclose the information in the records to the Chief Statistician of Canada and persons authorized by order of the Chief Statistician under subsection 17(2) of the Statistics Act or as authorized by this section. After the 92 calendar years have elapsed since the census was originally taken, the National Archivist would provide public access to the records of the census. This does not touch any provision already providing access to the information under the Statistics Act prior to 92 years since the taking of the census. The access provided by the National Archivist after 92 calendar years would be subject to such reasonable terms and conditions as the archivist may establish that are consistent with the purposes of the National Archives of Canada Act.

The last addition Bill S-15 makes to the National Archives of Canada Act would implement an objection process whereby the National Archivist accepts written objections from individuals who wish the information they submitted in the course of a census to remain confidential. The archivist will receive these written objections in the final year before the information would otherwise be released. Bill S-15 sets a number of requirements for those written objections. In addition to when it should be submitted, the objection must contain sufficient information for the archivist to locate the information and, in the opinion of the National Archivist, the disclosure of the personal information would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the person to whom it relates. Upon satisfying these requirements, the archivist would not disclose the personal information referred to in the objection.

When 92 calendar years since the census was taken have elapsed, the archivist will make public all census records of individuals recorded in the census who have not made a valid objection to the archivist, who would, therefore, be deemed to have given irrevocable consent to public access to this information in the census.

Honourable senators, I have had numerous consultations, both verbal and written, on this piece of legislation with the Chief Statistician, the National Archivist, the Privacy Commissioner and others to try to arrive at a workable solution that would give genealogists and other researchers the access they require to these records, while making some concessions to the officials whose jobs are to protect the integrity of their departments. The bill before you has evolved from numerous drafts, countless discussions and extensive research. There is a considerable voice from the Canadian public that wants continued public access to these records, as they have always had. I am trying to represent that voice while appreciating the concerns of others. I know some of you here in this chamber share those concerns. It is my hope that this bill will be recognized as a legitimate and thoughtful approach to recognizing and protecting the rights of confidentiality, as promised in the 1906 regulations, while granting family and academic historians the access to these vital records that document 20th century Canada as no other source does. It will extend to all Canadians equally the same right to explore their personal history, as is presently enjoyed by the citizens of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Honourable senators, I request leave to table over 500 electronically transmitted letters of support, e-mail, that cannot be recognized as petitions under our present rules and regulations. In substance, these e-mails are petitions to Parliament from residents of Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Switzerland that I have received over the course of the past 12 months. The non-Canadian electronic petitions in this bundle of over 500 come from foreigners who are researching their Canadian family ties.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

On motion of Senator LeBreton, debate adjourned.

Canadian Historical Association Presents Brief.

The Canadian Historical Association presented their brief to the Expert Panel on Release of Historic Census records. Permission to re-distribute was given.

The Canadian Historical Association
brief to the Expert Panel on
Access to Historical Census Records

February 9, 2000

Getting Hooked on History

On January 19, 2000, the University of Saskatchewan hosted a special program for more than 100 elementary school students enrolled in the public schools' ACTAL program (for children tested to be exceptionally bright). Wanting to make itself more attractive to some of Saskatchewan's youngest and most promising students, the university held a series of workshops in several subject areas -- from engineering, commerce, and law to archaeology, history, and music. The Grades 5 to 8 students who participated in the History session spent the morning researching a particular family using a set of specially prepared records based on Canadian census materials. The instructor could have used letters, diaries, or related kinds of documents for the session, but deliberately chose to follow the life history of one particular family to demonstrate to the students that Canadian history is more than the story of the elite and the well-to-do and that ordinary Canadians should have a presence in our history. The response was better than anyone could have expected. "It made me want to look at my history," one student remarked. Another reported, "The course was cool and made me interested to trace my family tree."

The Need for Access to Census Data
Just as young students in Saskatoon used census materials as an introduction to Canadian history, professional scholars, genealogists, and other researchers have been accessing raw census data to tell the story of Canada in the late nineteenth century. Historians and others have analyzed name-specific census returns to reconstruct family and local histories, employment patterns, mobility across place and time, medical history and disease occurrences, marriage and fertility, boarders staying with families, and much more. Such data from the censuses now open to 1901 have allowed researchers to put average men, women, and children, and ethnic, occupational, and community groups back into our history. Research using 1901 census materials, for example, has found that the incidence of divorce in Quebec was much higher than reported in the aggregate data, that first-generation immigrants in 1901 earned more on average than did the Canadian-born, and that the percentage of single-parent Canadian families in 1901 was almost equal to the percentage in 1996. In the end, then, thanks to census data, we have learned about our history and identity as a people, as well as challenged common assumptions.

Some have questioned why researchers cannot be simply satisfied with the anonymous aggregate information published by Statistics Canada, in addition to surviving personal letters and diaries found in the nation's archives. It has also been suggested that the release of census material would be done largely to privilege an elite group of professional historians. Our history and identity as Canadians, however, is not just the story of the elite in positions of power, or those conscious enough or rich enough to create and leave behind a body of personal records and be influential enough to get them stored in the nation's various archives. If researchers are going to tell the past lives of everyday people who made up the fabric of this country, then they must have access to raw census data to track and interconnect the life cycles of average Canadians over time and place. Census data, moreover, are absolutely essential for genealogical research, a pleasure enjoyed annually by thousands of Canadians seeking to find their own roots in Canada's past. This passion for discovering personal and family "roots" typically attracts people aged 55 to 75. The large "boomer" generation is about to enter this demographic profile and discover the pleasure of genealogy -- through the census.

If twentieth century census records are kept closed, as some have proposed, it would deliver a blow to humanities and social sciences research in this country from which it would never recover. Their closure would also deprive future researchers, perhaps even some of the young Saskatoon students, of engaging in genealogical and local community research -- thereby effectively preventing ordinary Canadians from having a presence in our history. Without detailed census data, studies of communities, neighbourhoods, and families would be greatly hindered, if not rendered impossible.

This is not idle speculation or exaggerated rhetoric. Federal Information Commissioner John Reid has repeatedly complained over the past year that record management and information management practices within the federal government are simply scandalous -- in a state of crisis. He recently told the Hill Times: "Departments don't know what information sources they have, they can't find things in the timely way they want, information simply disappears" <<(>>. Such poor information management means identifying and protecting archival records from among the chaos will become increasingly difficult. If this situation persists, census records could become, by default, even more significant as a source of material on twentieth century Canada.

Balancing Access and Privacy
The Canadian Historical Association recognizes the need to place safeguards and time limitations on the availability of personal information while it is still sensitive to the individuals involved. We are not advocating a free-for-all, carte blanche approach which would override existing privacy restrictions on the release of personal information. At the same time, the Association believes that legitimate privacy interests must be balanced by the right of Canadians to conduct research into our past -- something that has been a hallmark of government policy for two decades.

Indeed, it is worth noting that Canadians, through their elected representatives, have already debated and resolved the question of access to census materials and other confidential records. In the early 1980s, the government of the day passed the Privacy and Access to Information acts in a determined effort to strike a balance between the right to privacy and the right to access. MPs who participated in the House of Commons debate not only acknowledged that the legislation represented "a dramatic turning point" in Canadian democracy and showed "Parliament at its best," but embraced the idea of a balance between privacy and access as both laudable and achievable (Canada. House of Commons Debates, 29 January 1981, 6689-6690). This principle was nicely captured in regulation 6D of the Privacy Act, which provides for the release of census material 92 years after the census was taken.

Respecting the Sensitive Balance
The Canadian Historical Association has no desire to upset the sensitive balance between the right to privacy and the right to know that the Privacy and Access to Information acts achieved in the early 1980s. It continues to support the present 92-year release rule for census materials. Canadian census material collected in 1921, for example, would not become available to researchers until 92 years later -- in 2013! The most recent census (1996), on the other hand, would not be made available until 2088. The CHA considers this position to be reasonable and responsible -- and so do many others. Information Commissioner John Reid believes that the CHA position "meets the needs of the citizens whose information it is" (Reid to CHA, 4 June 1999). The Government Caucus on Post Secondary Education and Research also supports the release of all post 1901 census data "in the same fashion that earlier census material was released. At stake for all Canadians is a true understanding of ourselves as a nation" (Peter Adams to Paul Martin, 8 December 1999). Finally, the Globe and Mail, in a lead editorial on 12 November 1999, observed, "Making [census] information available to legitimate researchers after the passage of 92 years is an opportunity, not a problem...Change the law."

The CHA position is also reasonable, especially when compared to the situation in the United States and Great Britain. The United States government releases name-specific or raw census data, with much public fanfare, after only 70 years. American scholars are able to examine issues in early twentieth century history (such as the impact of government welfare spending on family structure) in ways that are currently impossible in Canada as long as post-1901 name-specific data remain closed. The British Public Records Office, meanwhile, is planning to digitise the 1901 census returns for England and Wales; 32 million names on about 1.5 million pages are to be made available for public consultation at the Family Records Centre on the first working day of January 2002 <<(>>

There is also the mistaken impression in some circles that researchers who use census materials are rummaging through people's pasts searching for potentially embarrassing information. Census material represents a national treasure, and those who consult the information contained in past census returns are governed by established ethical codes of research conduct. It is worth emphasizing that the release and widespread use of name-specific census materials from the 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 or the various pre-confederation censuses has not resulted in a single word of protest from any Canadian over the violation of their privacy. In fact, just the opposite has occurred -- hundreds of Canadians have expressed to Industry Minister John Manley the value of raw census date for genealogical, historical, and other research. Despite the silence over the release of old census data, Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips called for the destruction of census materials in his 1994-95 annual report.

What about "the Laurier Promise" of Confidentiality?
One of the stumbling blocks to the release of post-1901 census material is the apparent promise which the Wilfrid Laurier government made before the 1906 special western census that the information would remain confidential. Some have suggested that this pledge was made in perpetuity -- consequently, the release of post-1901 census data, such observers contend, would be morally wrong since it would break a promise made to Canadians.

The archival record about the actual taking of the census, however, suggests a different interpretation. The intent of the so-called confidentiality promise is made clear in the instructions for the 1911 Census (published in the 29 April 1911 Canada Gazette). They indicate that the confidentiality provision was aimed at census enumerators and was designed to assure citizens that census information would not be passed along to tax collectors or military conscription personnel (instruction 23). The 1911 instructions also state that "The Census is intended to be a permanent record, and its schedules will be stored in the Archives of the Dominion" (instruction 36). Releasing post-1901 census data would therefore not break a promise to Canadians -- since the promise applied only to the census workers. Instead, the failure to transfer census records to the National Archives for archival purposes would break faith with the original intentions of the Laurier government.

What about "Informed Consent"?
Some privacy advocates have suggested that the census impasse can be best resolved by providing a box on census returns which people could check off for their consent for the future release of census information, relating to themselves, case by case. Such a box, however, would not constitute informed consent, unless there were pages of accompanying documents explaining such things as the nature of archival appraisal, data linkage, sampling techniques, privacy release regulations, passage-of-time guarantees, and research methods and ethics. Besides, other jurisdictions, most notably our closest partners in political and historical development, the United States and the European Economic Community, have recognized that the use of census records for future historical and statistical research is a use consistent with the purpose for which the material was originally collected. The European Parliament even adhered to this principle when it recently enunciated new tougher privacy principles for the world of electronic commerce; it decided that the future archival retention and historical use of records collected by electronic commerce is not a violation of privacy, as long as privacy regulations governing the release of the material are respected. Why should Canadian census records be treated any differently?

If securing so-called 'informed consent' was applied to other sensitive banks of government-collected personal information, which number in the thousands and are now safely housed in the National Archives, then few Aboriginal persons would be able to pursue claims for residential school abuse or Japanese Canadians would not have been able to receive compensation for wartime relocation. Such a requirement would not only silence and warp the past, but it would disadvantage many Canadians from holding their government accountable by having incomplete archival records. As no one can predict the future, asking Canadians at the time of record creation to check a box is asking them to destroy records that decades later might be essential to themselves or their descendants or communities in seeking fundamental justice.

Much has changed in the last quarter century with the introduction of Access to Information and Privacy legislation. There are all kinds of records of a personal nature, some of which contain far more sensitive personal information than census data, which have been transferred to the National Archives and which in due course and respecting the Privacy Act, will be released for research -- without any public outcry. Military medical records are but one example. So too are RCMP and CSIS records, which although acquired from Canadians in confidence, have been transferred to the National Archives to be released according to Access to Information and Privacy

Act regulations Amend the Statistics Act
. Census material will be absolutely fundamental to our understanding of twentieth century Canada -- in the same way that released census data for the nineteenth century has been. And it must be made available so that researchers can critically address and explain many of the significant themes, trends, and issues in Canadian history over this past century, as well as conduct research into their families' past. Indeed, our history will be less complete and our identity as a people significantly compromised without regular and continuing access to census records.

The problem today is that the 1918 Statistics Act remains at odds with the 1983 Privacy and Access to Information acts over the release of census materials and the 1987 National Archives Act requiring the transfer of all records, including census, which have been identified as having archival and historical value. That's why the Canadian Historical Association, in cooperation with the Institute d'histoire de l'Amerique francaise, the Writers' Union of Canada, the Association of Canadian Archivists, and a number of genealogical, archival, and heritage organizations, is seeking an amendment to section 17 of the Statistics Act so that census materials can be transferred to the custody and control of the National Archives of Canada and released on a regular and continuing basis according to existing regulations.

We therefore urge the Census Panel to recommend to the Hon. John Manley, minister of Industry, that section 17 of the Statistics Act be amended to make it consistent with existing legislation. It is time to restore the sensitive balance between access and privacy that has been a hallmark of government policy for the past quarter century.

Irving Abella, President        Bill Waiser, Chair, Archives Committee


Keep up the pressure.

As I am currently working full time on my own submission to the Expert Panel this issue of my column is necessarily short. I expect that when it is finished I will include my submission in this column for all to see.

In the meantime, however, I urge everyone to continue writing to their Member of Parliament and to gather signatures on the various petitions being circulated. Until we have obtained our goal, we must keep our elected officials aware of our concern.

Updated petitions are available on the Post 1901 Census Project website at:

Readers are invited to join the Canada Census Campaign mail list. Send an email to

with only the word Subscribe in the subject line and body of the message.

Until next time. Happy Hunting.

Gordon A. WATTS

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