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Article Published July 7, 2000, Vol. IV No. 12
POST-1901 CENSUS NEWS (Canada)
By: Gordon A. Watts, firstname.lastname@example.org
Greetings Readers, and Members of Parliament
Irresponsible Reporting and/or Political Intrigue?
"Keep census data secret, public tells Ottawa
Little support backs historians' request for records"
Such read the headlines of an article in the National Post of 20 June 2000. Similar headlines showed up in the Ottawa Citizen, the Vancouver Sun, and likely any newspaper in the Southam News chain.
Journalist Jim Bronskill wrote the following:
The study found people objected to retroactively changing the law to allow disclosure of individual answers from the 1906 census and subsequent population surveys.
For years, historians, researchers and authors gleaned useful information from census returns, which were routinely transferred to the National Archives after 92 years.
However, Statistics Canada says legislation prohibits it from disclosing census returns filed in 1906 and subsequent years.
Following an outcry from researchers, the government appointed a five-member panel to provide recommendations on the possible release of past and future census data. The panel report is due by the end of the month.
The focus group study, prepared for the panel in February, uncovered little support for releasing the historical data.
"Most participant felt that the government made a promise of confidentiality and that this should be respected," says the study. "People who answered those censuses believed their answers would be confidential, and thus it would be a breach to release the information."
The study was conducted by Environics Research Group, which held a total of six focus group sessions with adults of different backgrounds in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.
"In some of the focus group sessions, as soon as the notion of 'breaking a promise' emerged, the idea was seized upon by other participants who then expressed their opposition to release. Keepint these data as confidential came to be seen as the 'right' or moral thing to do."
Participants were not swayed significantly when told census information was a unique data source for historians.
However, a number of people suggested the information could be made available to historians and genealogists under special request or to the close family or descendants of the person who filled out the form.
In refusing to disclose the historical data, Statistics Canada cites legal opinionf from the Justice Department that state individual census records files after 1901 cannot be made available to researchers.
However, in a brief to the expert panel, the Canadian Historical Association argues that releasing post-1901 census data would not break a promise to the public.
The association says the instructions for the 1911 Census , for instance, make it clear that the government's promise of confidentiality was aimed at census enumerators and was designed to assure citizens the information would not be passed to tax collectors or military conscription personnel.
Re: Keep census data secret, public tells Ottawa.
As one of those actively campaigning to obtain access to Historic Census records after 92 years as per Regulations attached to the Privacy Act of Canada, I am understandably upset with the report of Jim Bronskill. ( NP 20 June 2000, p. A11)
Having received thousands of email and letters in the past few years from those who support access to Historic Census, I dispute the findings of the Environics Research Group survey. I have grave concerns that the questions in that survey were skewed so as to obtain a pre-determined response. The fact that this article refers to "census data ..... gathered under promises of confidentiality", and "breaking a promise" is proof of that skewing of questions. Any mention of a promise, or of breaking such a promise, contained in questions of the survey would show a bias towards the answers sought by Statistics Canada.
In preparation for my submission to the Expert Panel on Access to Historic Census records I spent several months of dedicated research seeking the "promise" upon which Statistics Canada bases their position of non-disclosure of Historic Census. My submission, titled "The Myths of Census" proves conclusively that the "promise" does not exist. Statistics Canada, and Privacy Commissioner have been asked to "show me the promise." I have asked them to prove me wrong in saying "the promise does not exist." To date they have been unable to do so.
On 2 June 2000, Liberal MP Murray Calder presented to the House of Commons our petition containing more than 6000 signatures. Numerous other petitions containing untold thousands of signature have been presented in both the House of Commons, and the Senate.
Thousands, perhaps millions, of Canadians anxiously await the report of the Expert Panel. We are confident that after having studied all the facts, their report will favour allowing access to these records.
Gordon A. WATTS email@example.com
Canada Census Committee
Summary of Environics Research Focus Group Study
The Environics Research focus group study referred to in Southam article is copied below.. Six focus group sessions were conducted. Each group consisted of 10 to 12 participants. A total of 60 to 72 individuals, hardly enough to warrant headlines stating "Canadians Reject Census Data Release."
Two statements contained in the beginning of the Summary of Findings are worth noting:
Not until participants in this focus study were fed disputed information regarding mis-interpreted legislation and the "promise of confidentiality" promoted by Statistics Canada, did opinions appear to swing away from the opinion voiced in the second statement above.
Focus Group Research Regarding
Options for Release of Census Records
Summary of Findings
Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census Records
Environics Research Group Limited
In November 1999, Environics Research Group Limited was retained by Statistics Canada and the Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census Records to conduct a series of six focus groups to test public opinion regarding options to amend the confidentiality provisions of the Statistics Act. The purpose of the focus groups was to test versions of a draft questionnaire and to probe opinion about the release of individual-level census data for future censuses and for past censuses. Participants were asked about their awareness of the topic of the release of individual-level census data, about how they would respond if individual data from the next census or other future censuses were released after a time delay of about 100 years, and about how they would respond if legislation were changed to allow the release of individual-level data from past censuses, particularly the 1911 Census .
Six focus group sessions were conducted. The pilot phase of the research consisted of two focus groups conducted held in Ottawa on December 7, 1999. The second phase of the research consisted of four focus groups, including two in Toronto and two in Montreal. The two groups in Toronto were held on January 27, 2000 and the two in Montreal were held on January 31. In each city, one focus group included those with high education (a university degree) and the other those with mid-level education. All sessions included participants from a mix of age groups (18 years of age and over), occupations and genders and also included some representation of foreign-born.
This report summarizes the results of the research on the substantive topics.
General Awareness of Topic
Almost no participants had heard about the topic of releasing individual-level census data for future or past censuses. A total of one or two participants in the Ottawa groups said they had heard of the topic.
Most participants thought it acceptable that their personal census information might be released after a time delay of about 100 years. However, a few participants strongly objected to the release of this information.
A variety of issues emerged in the focus groups:
A number of participants could not understand why anyone would need to know individual names.
Would the information be used against them at some point in the future?
Would there be long-term consequences of disclosure for future family members in areas such as ethnicity, race, and health?
Some participants felt that the type of questions asked were basic ones and would be of little value for future historians or genealogists.
Some said that there are other richer data sources for individuals available in both the public and private sectors.
A few voiced a concern that in future censuses, once the principle of disclosing information is accepted, a series of new questions, more personal or intrusive, would progressively be added.
When participants were presented with the argument that historians would find the information extremely valuable, most participants reaffirmed their scepticism concerning the validity or usefulness of the information for historians.
Participants were more receptive to the argument that their information might be useful for their descendants. However, some felt that their own personal interest in knowing about their family origins was low and this would probably be the same for their descendants.
Although many were fairly open to releasing this information for "medical" purposes, some were sceptical as to whether the kind of information available in the census would be of any value. They felt that hospital or doctor's records would be much more useful as a source of medical information.
Most participants were open to the idea of changing the existing law to allow future census data on individuals to be released after 100 years. However, some felt that people participating in future censuses should be given an option, such as a check-off box, to indicate consent. Others felt there should be conditions placed on the release of this information.
A few participants expressed concern about this issue. They felt that if the government is ready to rescind an existing law, what would stop the government from modifying a future one and reducing the 100 year prescription for future censuses? They were also fearful of who would have access to the data in the future and that it might be used against them in some undefined way, or against their descendants.
Release of Historical Data
The vast majority of participants responded negatively to the prospect of allowing the release of individual answers from earlier censuses including the 1911 Census , after a time delay of about 100 years. The response was negative toward the principle of release as well as to changing legislation to allow the release.
Most participants felt that the government made a promise of confidentiality and that this should be respected. People who answered those censuses believed their answers would be confidential, and thus it would be a breach to release the information.
In some of the focus group sessions, as soon as the notion of "breaking a promise" emerged, the idea was seized upon by other participants who then expressed their opposition to release. Keeping these data as confidential came to be seen as the "right" or moral thing to do.
Historical and genealogical reasons for releasing historical data were not powerful or even helpful in changing opinion, and participants reiterated many of the same doubts expressed earlier. When informed that historical census data were a unique data source for historians, some participants stated that there are other sources, such as local churches and schools, for historical information, so these data are not so critical. Some also felt that the information contained in the 1911 Census would really be of little interest to historians. But even among those who accepted the idea that the data may be valuable for these purposes, this was not enough justification, in their opinion, to warrant the release of the data.
However, a number of participants suggested that the information could be made available to specialists (historians, genealogists) under special request and/or that the access to an individual record should be limited to the close family or descendants of that person.
Some participants were moved by the argument that this kind of data release has already occurred in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, but others felt this was not relevant and that Canada should develop its own approach to the issue.
Impact of Change
Most participants said that a change in the law to allow the release of future census data at the individual level would not affect their participation in the next census or the truthfulness of their answers on that census or other future censuses. However, some people expressed the view that others would be more inclined to be untruthful. Only a very small number said that they themselves might be more inclined to give untruthful answers.
The vast majority of participants said that this change would not affect their opinion of Statistics Canada.
In reading this report it is obvious to me that participants in this focus group study, having no previous knowledge of Census and it's value to historians and genealogists, were fed information and questions designed to elicit a desired response. It is to be hoped that the Nation wide survey was not handled in the same manner.
A.F.H.S. Submission to the Expert Panel
The Alberta Family Histories Society submitted the following to the Expert Panel. It was authoured by Dr. Robert Westbury. The legal opinion mentioned in the submission is that of Lois Sparling and was presented in one of my earlier columns.
A POSITION PAPER CONCERNING THE RELEASE TO THE PUBLIC VIEW OF LINE-ITEM INFORMATION FROM CENSUSES AFTER THAT OF 1901 .
A submission to the Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census Records from the Alberta Family Histories Society.
The Alberta Family Histories Society contests the interpretation that Statistics Canada have put on the Census and Statistics Act, 1906, the Statistics Act, 1918, and the similar acts which have followed. Statistics Canada claim that the raw data from the censuses, which give details of individuals, should not be released to the public following the 1901 census data, which has already been put into the public domain.
Our opposition to this claim is based on two fundamental arguments:
II. The interpretation that Statistics Canada suggests runs contrary to the greater good of the citizens of Canada, now and in the future. These arguments will be developed in greater detail.
It would have been impossible for the legislators in the first part of the 20th.century to foresee the changes in (a) historical study (b) genealogy (c) genetics which would occur towards the end of the century. However one might have expected that their legalistic minds would have anticipated the continuing value of nominal census records in the process of tracing heirs.
There has been a strong trend in historical scholarship to expand to increasingly include the History of the Common Man. A history that only covers laws and battles, princes, politicians and generals is no longer acceptable in a modern democratic society. This means that the documents that relate to ordinary people (the line-item census is one of the most useful of these) have become much more important than they were in the opening years of the 20th century.
A hundred years ago genealogy was a very arcane topic, studied mainly by descendants of prominent families; it was a subject which commanded little notice, and even less respect. It would be fair to describe the changes to the discipline in the second half of the 20th. century as revolutionary.
Access to records has been dramatically improved, hundreds of books have been written on the subject, genealogical societies have sprung up everywhere, computers and the Internet have greatly facilitated the study of family history, and standards of scholarship have been established and promulgated. But most important of all there has been a democratization of genealogy and a massive increase in the number of people who are actively working in the field. There is at least one major genealogical society in every province of Canada, and a score of local societies.
Maritz Marketing Research Inc. reported in March,1996 on a probability sample poll which they conducted in the U.S.A. Their findings were that 45.1% of the U.S. population have an interest in genealogy, and 7.1% have a great deal of interest in tracing their lineage. Of those interested in genealogy, 12.3% had contacted the Census Bureau to pursue their family history studies. If these figures are projected onto the population of Canada, this suggests that some 13 to 14 million Canadians will be affected by the proposed changes in the treatment of the census data, and 2 to 3 million are very directly threatened by these changes. Some 1 to 2 million will make use of the census for genealogical purposes. This is not a fringe issue.
At the beginning of the 20th. century the study of genetics was in its infancy, and the science of human genetics virtually non-existent. Once again there has been an explosion of knowledge in this field in the last 50 years. It is expected that progress in the understanding of human genetics will accelerate after the completion of the Human Genome Project in a few years time, and that this will have a considerable impact on the ability of medical geneticists to prevent, mitigate and cure a wide range of diseases.
A knowledge of the medical history of the one's family will become increasingly important in the practical sense. This calls for facilitating the study of family history rather than making it more difficult.
I.2 The legislators did not consider that the need for reasonable confidentiality would imply that the census data should be withheld from the public eye forever.
In our reading of various statutes and regulations that relate to the census, and in the instructions to the enumerators that we have seen, there are references to the need for secrecy, but nowhere does the word "forever" occur.
Furthermore it should be borne in mind that there has been a very long tradition of releasing the census material to the National Archives, after an appropriate waiting period of 92 years. All censuses since the first in Quebec in 1666 have been made available for public examination. It is likely that the legislators who wrote the various laws and regulations between 1901 and 1911 were well aware of this time-honoured tradition. If it was their intention to change that, why was this not made explicit in the laws and regulations?
Statistics Canada are declining to release the Western Census of 1906 and the National Census of 1911. The legal basis of this refusal is highly questionable.(see attached legal opinion, and the comments of Raynell Andreychuk, a former judge and Senator, to the Senate on 17 Feb. 1999).
We have asked Statistics Canada to comment on the remarks of Sen. Andreychuk; they have not done so. What is clear from the instructions to the enumerators is that the census takers of 1906, 1911 and 1916 themselves (this was before the formation of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics in 1918) fully expected that the nominal census data would eventually be released to the National Archives.
Statistics Canada claim that the legislative changes between 1901 and 1918 elevated the proper concern over issues of the confidentiality of census information to the level of what one protagonist called a "covenant between the People of Canada and the Government" that all information given to the census takers would be kept secret forever, and furthermore that this undertaking was an important one, without which the People would not co-operate fully with the census takers. If this were the case, one might expect that the Census Office would have publicized this significant change at the time of the 1911 Census .
Our examination of the newspaper coverage of this census fails to reveal any evidence of such publicity. We have asked Statistics Canada and Agriculture Canada to show us press releases that support their claim of a "sea change" in their policy at this time; we have been shown none. We have asked them to show us any printed material, intended to be given to householders, that announced the promise of eternal secrecy; we have been shown none. The instructions issued to the enumerators for the 1901 and 1911 Census es do tell them that, should the householder raise the issue of confidentiality, they are to offer "positive assurance" that the census responses will only be used for statistical compilations, but a later section (Article 36) says that the line-item forms will be stored in the Archives of the Dominion. We consider that it is highly significant that the census-takers should mention that the census should be kept as part of the permanent record of the Nation.
In other words there seems to be no evidence to suggest that those involved in the 1911 Census , either for framing its legislative basis or for actually organizing the data collection, thought that they were moving from delayed release of the nominative data to banning its release for all eternity. It appears that this is an interpretation that has been put forward at some later date, for reasons at which we can only surmise. While a stronger case can be made for the legal underpinning of secrecy provisions in the 1921 census, governed by the 1918 Statistics Act, there is still no mention of the word "forever", or any equivalent phrase in that legislation.
It should perhaps be borne in mind that 1918 was a bad time for the formulation of a statute that would have such long lasting implications as the Statistics Act. Parliament, faced with a desperate need to mobilize all the human and material resources of the nation in order to win the war, had been obliged for years to pass many laws that increased the power of government and reduced the rights of the man in the street to an extent that would be intolerable for Canadians in peacetime. In this atmosphere it is little wonder that scant attention was given to such apparently nebulous concepts as the importance of history.
II.1 The right to explore the history of the country is important to Canadians.
Statistics Canada insist, quite correctly, that the main purpose of the extremely costly decennial effort to carry out a census in Canada is to collect aggregate statistics which are essential for the proper management of our nation. But it makes poor economic sense not to put this data to a valuable secondary use, provided that doing so would not interfere with the primary objective of the census.
It would be a big mistake to suppose that history, at the macro or the micro level, is of no importance to a country. To dispel this error one has only to look at the huge efforts made by totalitarian regimes to erase or to rewrite history at both these levels. History provides a standard by which to judge the present, and is a way to get a feel for the collective consciousness of a nation. This applies to the history of great people and great events, and just as surely to the history of ordinary folk. The study of the lives of our ancestors is a major force in allowing us to see who we are.
It is a commonplace of genealogy that the "Big Three" when it comes to records are (a) records generated within the family itself, (b) vital records (birth, marriage and death records) and (c) census records. The latter are especially valuable because they treat the four fundamental facets of genealogical data: names, dates, places and relationships. They provide a snapshot of a family in a certain place at a certain point in time. They are irreplaceable for students of family history and the lives of the common people.
II.2 The promise of eternal secrecy is not necessary in order to conduct a statistically valid census.
Statistics Canada is justifiably proud of its international reputation for the efficiency and skill with which the census is conducted, and for the high quality of the statistical data which is derived from the census. However there is no evidence to support the claim, which they have recently made, that the high level of public co-operation with the Canadian census enumerators, a major factor in the success of the census taking, is due to the promise that they claim to have made to the Canadian public that they would keep the confidential census responses a secret for all time. (as we have said above, there are grave doubts about whether this promise was ever made, still less made in a way that the average citizen might be aware of, which is the critical issue when it comes to judging any "covenant between the People of Canada and the Government")
In the course of correspondence with Statistics Canada they were asked what evidence they could supply to support their claims concerning the importance of the guarantee of eternal secrecy; they supplied no such evidence.
According to the "Report on Acceptance and Use of Records by General Services Administration" written by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Operations in 1978, a study was commissioned by the U.S.Census Bureau to document the level of concern that would be felt if the census data was released to the public after various periods of time.
There was no conclusive evidence that the length of the "black-out period" made any difference at all to the level of concern that people had about the census. It is interesting to read the 1994-95 Annual Report from the Privacy Commissioner: out of the entire population of Canada in 1991, he received 33 complaints about the Census of that year, and seven of these were not considered to be worth following up - hardly a groundswell of rage over an invasion of privacy. At no point in this detailed report does the Commissioner make reference to complaints concerning the "forever" issue; all of the examples which he gives relate to "here & now" concerns. We have made formal enquiries with both Statistics Canada and the National Archives of Canada about the complaints that they have received concerning the release of the enumeration-level census data after 92 years; there is no record of either having ever received such a complaint. We have reviewed the legal cases arising from failure or refusal to complete the census questionnaire. We have been unable to find any cases where the matter at issue was the possibility of researchers unearthing confidential matters after the 92 year waiting period.
It appears from both the contemporary newspaper articles and the instructions to the enumerators that it was the immediate threats to privacy that concerned Canadians in 1906, 1911 and 1916. Worries that the census responses might be shared with the tax authorities and other government departments surface often; concerns about historians and genealogists reading the responses after 92 years have never appeared in the material that we have read.
An information sheet issued by Statistics Canada in 1999 makes some interesting points. "The most important factor contributing to this co-operation [between the public and the census-takers] is the unconditional [our italics] guarantee given to respondents that the information they supply will be protected". The current Statistics Act lays out no less than 6 conditions under which the information may be released. And again, "Canadian citizens have always [our italics] demonstrated unstinted co-operation in providing personal information about themselves when asked to participate in a census...." In other words, even before the changes to the Statistics Act in 1906, Canadians tended to do what the Census Commissioners asked of them. We are a law-abiding and compliant people. Our compliance has nothing to do with imaginary promises of eternal confidentiality.
Not only is there a serious lack of evidence to support the contention that total-secrecy-forever is necessary for Statistics Canada in their admirable exertions to improve the quality of our censuses, but it is quite possible that obdurate insistence on this dubious requirement may in fact be counterproductive. Censuses have never been popular with the mass of citizens; at the best they are tolerated. If the Canadian public were to perceive that they were to continue to be compelled by law to complete their census forms every 10 years, with Statistics Canada selling the aggregate statistics, but suddenly were to be denied access to the old forms themselves, for a purpose much closer to their immediate interests, this could lead to a catastrophic loss of goodwill, and the quality of the data could suffer immeasurably.
II.3 The attitude of other nations to the secondary use of census records is relevant.
The two countries to which Canada traditionally has looked most attentively for legislative models, Great Britain and the United States of America, both have a policy of releasing the line-item census records to the public view after an appropriate waiting period. The U.S.A. releases their census after 70 years, and the U.K after 100 years. Statistics Canada tend to make much of the Australian policy of being so devoted to secrecy that they destroy their census records after the statistical information has been extracted. It is interesting to note that the Australians are beginning to doubt the wisdom of this policy. For the census of 2001, Australians may indicate that they would like the particulars on their forms to be preserved for future study by scholars.
II.4 The censuses of 1911 and 1921 are especially important in the micro history of Canada.
Those who use the census returns as biographical and historical resources claim that all line-item census records are of unparalleled value to them, but it can be argued that these first two censuses to come under the threat of misguided and overzealous attempts to protect privacy are of particular importance. Canada is a nation of immigrants. The period in between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the Great War saw the highest influx of immigrants in our entire history. Many of these immigrants were poor and illiterate, and came from parts of the world with vital records which were of low standard, or which were destroyed in World War II. To deny the descendants of these people the chance to examine the major set of records which could link their families to their country of origin, and tell them the date of birth of their immigrant ancestors, would amount to historical genocide for a cohort of people whose efforts have built this land. What is more, the burden of this denial will not fall evenly on our citizens; it will be especially felt by those of Ukrainian and Russian descent and those from the countries of Middle and Eastern Europe.
II.5 The census responses belong to the People.
Every 10 years every man, woman and child in Canada agrees to provide information to the census enumerators. On a personal level this is not a rewarding experience. It takes time and concentration to complete the questionnaire, and the questions concern things that most of us would prefer not to discuss. Why to we submit to this? We do it because we feel that this common undertaking is for the common good of the whole nation.
It follows that the completed forms do not belong to Statistics Canada any more than a portrait belongs to the artist rather than the person who commissioned the work and sat for it. They do not belong to the Government taken as a whole. The truth of the matter is that the data on the census forms should be thought of as commonage, a good that is the property of all the People.
Furthermore the great primary value of the census lies in the fact that it is repeated every 10 years, and is universal, so that comparisons can be made and trends identified. It has been so for over 150 years. In other words the Canadian People have agreed to this process over a time span which exceeds the life of any one person, and it is necessary that they should have done so. It follows then that the census responses should be considered to belong not only to those Canadians who happen to be alive at any one time; they belong to every Canadian who has ever lived, to those living now and to those who will live in the future.
We hold that, as the line-item censuses are held as commonage by the Canadian-People-as-a-historical-entity, their wilful destruction or purloinment would be as illegal as it would be unconscionable.
The Alberta Family Histories Society believe that there was never any intention that the nominative census should be kept hidden forever from the public view, and see no good reason to initiate this policy now. We acknowledge the validity of the Right of Privacy, but feel that this right can be protected by an adequate "black out" period. As far as we can determine the time-honoured 92 Year Rule has served Canadians well; we can see no reason to change it.
Alberta Family Histories Society,
Census Release Committee
February 5, 2000
Report of Expert Panel not yet released.
At the time of writing the report of the Expert Panel on Access to Historic Census records has not yet been posted on the Statistics Canada website. I continue trying to obtain a copy of this report. Hopefully I will have it before time to write my next column.
Request for Submissions to the Expert Panel
Have you made a major submission to the Expert Panel on Access to Historic Census Records - on behalf of a genealogical or historical society, or yourself? If so, please send me a file(s) containing that submission so that I might include it in future columns, and thus inform our readers.
Canada Census Campaign Mail List
The Canada-Census-Campaign-L 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
With only the word subscribe in the subject line and the body of the message. Do not include any other text or signature files in the body of the message. To subscribe in Digest mode, change the ‘L’ in the address to a ‘D’.
Post 1901 Census Project website
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:
More Information On The Census Project
Until next time. Happy Hunting.
Gordon A. WATTS firstname.lastname@example.org