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Article Published March 24, 2000, Vol. IV No. 07
POST-1901 CENSUS NEWS (Canada)
By: Gordon A. Watts, email@example.com
My Submission to Expert Panel Continued...
(click here for part 1)
PRIVACY - and SELLING THE CENSUS
Statistics Canada maintains that they do not provide name-identified information from Census or Surveys which they conduct. A Survey of Household Spending recently sent out by Statistics Canada Atlantic Region stated: (italics mine)
Your information is kept strictly confidential. No one, not the courts, Revenue Canada or even the RCMP, can access your information. Your information cannot be made available under any other law such as the Access to Information Act.
Statistics Canada is careful to keep your information strictly confidential. All Statistics Canada employees are required by law to take an oath of secrecy, and there are legal repercussions if the employee breaks that oath. Only those employees who need to see questionnaires have access to them. We never release any information that could identify a particular individual or household."
On 30 January 2000, the CBC television program Undercurrents aired a segment entitled "Selling the Census". Undercurrents has an internet website located at
"We go out of our way to reassure them that the data are confidential - cause we need people confident in Statistics Canada," states Susan McMillan of Statistics Canada.
But how confident would people be if they knew it wasn't just the government that had its hands on this information --- that Statscan sells nearly everything it collects about you except your name and exact address. Businesses love it. It is the kind of comprehensive, private data they can't get anywhere else.
Scott Cornell of Vancouver, British Columbia got so upset after being asked to take part in a Statscan survey that he started to ask questions and discovered that his answers would be sold.
"I would assume that the only information that a country would seek that is so important that they take away my right to refuse is information which is purely of use to government," Cornell says, "And if you look at the breadth of the surveys that they do, it makes you wonder who guides the questions."
Businesses can purchase information directly from Statscan or go to companies like Compusearch, which as Statscans' largest corporate client, specializes in data mining for business. When Compusearch purchases information from Statscan it is already broken down into 45,000 neighbourhoods, as small as 125 homes, with information such as income level, age groups - all the characteristics of each neighbourhood. Compusearch's clients include car companies, banks, and most national retail chains.
"You try to end up with maybe 50, 60, 70 group; they've got to be something that a marketer can work with," says Compusearch's Jan Kestle, "Then we have a bunch of people who sit around and name them and we come up with names like Canadian Establishment, the Affluentials, Mortgaged in Suburbia, Boomers and Teens, Suburban nesters. So the data itself drives the classification scheme.
"I think what's happening now, with the ability to do enormous computations with large amounts of data and large computer systems, it's possible to maintain simultaneously that your not releasing uniquely identifiable information," states University of British Columbia Science Professor and privacy advocate Richard Rosenberg. "But with other information added into the picture, you can almost uniquely identify people."
Developed with the precision of CanMap and GeoPinpoint, DMTI's Total Address File is an excellent database to help you carry out accurate geocoding, data matching, or to form the basis of a customer/prospect file for database marketing.
This comprehensive database provide you with the following attributes:
The different types of property included in this file are: residential, commercial, industrial, government, institutional, special purpose, agricultural and vacant land.
This database is a rich source of information to the Province of Ontario. Benefits include:
Information on these pages is extremely interesting. It is eye-opening to realize the extent of private, personal information that can be "reverse engineered", so to speak, from the supposedly anonymous data that Statistics Canada sells to these various companies.
It is enlightening to realize that by using current information from Census that StatCan sells, in combination with unrestricted information freely available from other sources, it is possible to pinpoint an address down to it's latitude and longitude, municipality, name of the property owner, address, property type, use and size, legal description, tax assessment, and school support.
The comment of Professor Richard Rosenberg, i.e. "I think what's happening now, with the ability to do enormous computations with large amounts of data and large computer systems, it's possible to maintain simultaneously that your not releasing uniquely identifiable information …….but with other information added into the picture, you can almost uniquely identify people" is particularly interesting.
This would appear to make the position of Statistics Canada, in refusing to allow release of 92 year old Census Records for Historical and Genealogical research, somewhat hypocritical. Statistics Canada can point with pride to the fact that they have not released name-identified information. The information they have supplied, however, has been used in data-matching to provide a great deal of personal information that might be considered an intrusion on the privacy of citizens in the present time.
Release of Historic Census is Not a New Issue
In researching this subject one becomes aware that Release of Historic Census records has been a subject of some discussion for at least thirty years. While apparently not widely known to the public, the discussion has been going on since at least the early 1970s. As early as 1977, David H. Flaherty, in his report Access to historic census data in Canada: a comparative analysis (Canadian Public Administration, Fall 1977, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp 481-498) recommended release of Historic Census records after seventy-five years. In his summation Professor Flaherty stated: (italics mine)
In England and Wales the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys had operated under a one-hundred-year rule on access even before the Lord Chancellor made a formal rule under the Public Records Act of 1967 providing for the permanent preservation of census records, but forbidding their utilization by outsiders until the passage of one hundred years, despite all the previous unqualified pledges of confidentiality. From 1966 to 1971 this rule was not even applied to bona fide historical and sociological researchers, who were able to establish a legitimate interest in individual returns from the less recent censuses, anonymized in part by the removal of names and addresses. Scotland subsequently followed the lead of the Lord Chancellor in adopting a one-hundred-year rule. But under previous Scottish practice, the censuses up to and including the year 1891 had already been opened. During the 1920s the Registrar-General for Scotland had made available the census records of 1871 to bona fide researchers. The 1881 and 1891 censuses were opened in 1955.
It seems unlikely that Statistics Canada will be unwilling to follow the lead of other Western nations in permitting access to census records after a period of seventy-five or at most one hundred years. The proclamation by the Governor General for the 1911 Canadian census instructed enumerators to keep 'clear and legible records,' because 'the Census is intended to be a permanent record, and its schedules will be stored in the Archives of the Dominion.' This would appear to be a clear recognition that at some future date users would be granted access to the individual census schedules. For certain types of research involving the linkage of data from one census to another, historians require access to individual census returns in identifiable form. Even an expensive public use sample from historic censuses would not satisfy this particular need. Since the Canadian censuses taken prior to the first Statistics Act in 1918 did not enjoy the protection of a secrecy clause, Statistics Canada should make available the pre-1918 censuses after the lapse of seventy-five years. This will allow time to fashion a solution for opening up the post-1918 censuses when the appropriate time arrives; the simplest solution may be an amendment of the secrecy clause of the 1971 Statistics Act. If Statistics Canada continues to ignore this particular issue, the research community in Canada may have to take strong initiatives toward a reasonable solution. This will have to be in line with the trends in English-speaking countries in recent years toward freedom of information, as well as reductions in periods of absolute secrecy to thirty years or so, even for military and intelligence secrets. As the Royal Statistical Society testified before the Data Protection Committee in the United Kingdom in the fall of 1976, 'with the passage of time the need to preserve confidentiality, even of the most sensitive data, becomes less pressing.'
On 26 May 1981, C. Rosen, Legal Advisor to Statistics Canada, sent a Memorandum to Dr. Ivan Fellegi, head of Statistics Canada. The subject of this Memorandum was Public Access to Data from Historical Census Questionnaires. It's purpose was to give a legal opinion on the effect of Bill C-43 which was proposed to enact the Access to Information and Privacy Acts. This document stated that 1881 Census questionnaires had been turned over to the National Archives in 1979. The opinion was given that from 1911 there were "legislative regimes that insulate census information from public exposure and impose on officials of Statistics Canada obligations not to disclose. At that time, only common law and equitable principles appear to be in operation and those at best may only give rise to a possible right of confidentiality to those who are still alive."
This may have been part of the reason that the Census of 1881, 1891 and 1901 Census were released to the public, however the important part of this Memorandum was contained in the closing paragraphs:
In the Committee hearings, there have been concerns raised that the new legislation should not, in fact, turn out to be more restrictive than the present access that is enjoyed by the public, even without special legislation. There will likely be a good deal in the way of directives to grant access and dispense with formalities as much as possible. This leads me to the view, at this time, that by not relying on section 19 of the Access to Information Act, and giving full weight to the permissive exceptions in section 8 of the Privacy Act, Statistics Canada would be showing the utmost good faith in the carrying out of the will of Parliament. Furthermore, the singling out of the Public Archives and persons or bodies for research or statistical purposes would give both the Archives and the researchers a very sympathetic case if their attempts for access were blocked by a hard-line position taken by Statistics Canada.
It may be early at this time to evaluate the atmosphere that will prevail when the Bill is enacted but, Statistics Canada could take the position that the privacy legislation does not protect pre- 1911 Census questionnaires but opens these files to the Archives and researchers and, therefore, in keeping with the intent and spirit of the legislation the agency will deposit those questionnaires with the Public Archives and will refer any enquiries for research or statistical purposes to the Archivist so that he may apply paragraph 8(2)(j)."
As noted above, the purpose and intent of Bill C-43 was "designed to give greater access to government records and the government has taken the position that the spirit and intent should be followed by government departments." Statistics Canada, rather than acting "in keeping with the intent and spirit of the legislation", has made every effort to circumvent the legislation and avoid transferring control of Historic Census to the National Archives so that the public might subsequently be given access to it.
At least five Memoranda containing legal opinions on release of Census records were written between 26 May 1981 and 22 April 1985. They were authored by:
In at least two of these memoranda, it was suggested that Statistics Canada might take steps to have legislation changed to allow release of Census under the provisions of the Privacy Act. Warren Black, in his memorandum (21 April 1982) to D. A. Warton, Assistant Chief Statistician stated:
Legal release of data on the basis of its age could be provided by a suitable statutory provision. The most obvious location would be section 16 of the Statistics Act. In my opinion such an amendment could not be considered non-contentious and so would not be appropriate for inclusion in the next Miscellaneous Statute Amendment Bill but would have to be processed in the usual way through Parliament following acceptance by Cabinet and drafting by the Department of Justice.
I would be pleased to discuss strategy and contents in more detail with you at your convenience, but take note that the time required from initiation of the process to the enactment of an amendment would most likely be several years."
It is obvious that Statistics Canada, in spite of recommendations from various sources going back at least thirty years, and suggestions from legal counsel from whom they sought advice, has no intention of voluntarily taking the steps necessary to allow access to the public of Historic Census records.
I have read the submission to the Panel made by Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips, and listened to radio interviews on which he appeared in both Nova Scotia and British Columbia. It is my considered opinion that in his position on the Release of Historic Census he far exceeds his mandate of administering the Privacy Act. In the radio interviews mentioned I might go so far as to suggest that he was "scare mongering", giving the impression that there are hordes of individuals with sinister motives just itching to get their hands on "his" personal information. His interviews give the impression that genealogists and historians are seeking to get their hands on today's information rather than that collected 92 years earlier.
Mr. Phillips submission to the panel consistently referred to the promise for which neither he, nor Statistics Canada have been able to provide any documentary proof, and which he, and they, consider in isolation rather than in conjunction with other clauses that state the records will be kept in the National Archives for future historic and research purposes. His submission stated:
Mr. Phillips quoted from the Census form for 1996. He stated:
Mr. Phillips, a number of times, referred to having the debate on the Release of Historic Census "open and public, that every Member of Parliament address the issue". Proponents of release could not agree more - it is what we have been seeking. It has been our understanding right from the start that release of Census would entail legislative amendments and, as such, it would be openly debated in the House of Commons and the Senate. We have made no secret of our purpose and have taken every opportunity to inform the public of our campaign.
The Honourable John Manley, Minister of Industry, because many thousands of Canadian Citizens, and Historical and Genealogical societies have urged changes in legislation to allow release of Historical Census, commissioned the services of the Expert Panel to make recommendations. Genealogists and Historians seek retroactive changes to legislation to allow Public Access to Historic Census after a reasonable period of time, on the same basis as Census for 1901 and earlier have been released.. They seek this not only for Post-1901 Census already taken, but for all future Census as well.
I urge the Expert Panel to give the most careful consideration to my submission, and also the submissions from others concerned with this issue. In doing so, I am sure that you will come down with recommendations that will meet the concerns of the estimated 7.5 million Canadians seeking information on their ancestors and about their heritage. Do not allow the history of the past century in Canada, and that of the future to be lost forever. Thirty years of debate is more than enough! It is time to settle this now!
Gordon A. Watts
The complete submission to the Expert Panel included four appendices and a CD containing support documentation.
Post 1901 Census Project website
With the completion of my submission to the Expert Panel I can now turn some of my time and effort to updating the pages of the Post 1901 Census Project website. To this goal, I again request that if you have not already done so, please send me any responses you have received from your Member of Parliament regarding the Census problem. You are invited to view the website at
Canada Census Campaign mail list
The Canada-Census-Campaign-L mail list has had an increase in numbers of subscribers recently. Current subscribers total just over 200. This mail list was set up to provide a forum for those interested in obtaining release of Historic Census Records in Canada. It is not for look-ups or individual queries. Your comments and questions relating to release of Post 1901 Census records are welcome. Subscribe to the list by sending an e-mail to
Until next time. Happy Hunting.
Gordon A. WATTS