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Article Published November 16, 2000, Vol. IV No. 16

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

Greetings Readers, and Members of Parliament

In Memorium

NISBET - Donald Archie, of Surrey, B.C., passed away suddenly May 17, 2000. Born in New Westminster, BC May 30, 1948. Predeceased by his father Archie, mother Myrtle, stepfather Lawrence and brother Douglas. He will be sadly missed by his sister Karen (John), niece Jennifer and nephew Chris. A memorial service will be held on Friday, June 9 at 1:00 p.m. in the Valley View Funeral Home, 14660 - 72nd Ave., Surrey. Valley View 596-8866

It was with great regret on Friday 3 November 2000 I learned of the passing of one of our Canada Census Committee members, Don Nisbet, of Surrey, British Columbia. Don's sister Karen, whom I have never met, telephoned me at that time to inform me that Don had been found dead in his apartment. She was unsure as to the cause of death but felt it could have been due to complications relating to arthritis.

Don was a frequent poster to the Canada Census Campaign mail list and was an avid researcher. He had made contact with people in Australia that were involved with the efforts there to stop the destruction of their Census Records. He had also made contacts in the United States where he obtained information relating to their Census issues. In addition to developing and presenting his own submission to the Expert Panel on Access to Historic Census Records, Don fed me several pieces of information that became an integral part of my own submission. Don's submission is accessible through a link on the Post 1901 Census Project website.

I had met with Don only three times but had frequent contact with him through email and telephone. My final contact with him was an email dated 9 May 2000 in which he provided a URL for a website containing the Report of the Australian Committee of their House of Representatives in which the retention and eventual public access to their Census records was recommended. Since that time I had tried to contact Don several times, by email, snail mail, telephone, and even by visiting his apartment building, all without success.

Don was his family's keeper of genealogical records. He will be missed by them, as he will be missed by those of us who read with interest his many informative postings to the mail list. When we are successful in our goal of obtaining public access to Historic Census it will be due, at least in part, to the dedicated research and participation in our campaign by Don.

Rest in Peace, Don. We will remember you.

Federal Election

As reported in my last column, all Bills brought forth during the previous administration, including those dealing with public access to Post 1901 Census Records, i.e. C-312, C-484, and S-15 no longer exist. Essentially, from the point of view of those that have been working diligently to obtain this access, when the new Government is formed it will be a new ball game. It is hoped that this will not mean that we must start entirely from scratch again, but there will be new players that need to be convinced. We need not wait until after the election to start that process.

It is not my intention to tell anyone who they should vote for - that is between the individual and their conscience. I would however, advise all who are concerned to become involved, even if only in a small way. Candidates for election, or re-election will be holding meetings in their ridings, and there may be all-candidate meetings as well.

Check the MP's Scoreboard at the Post 1901 Census Project website to see how the incumbents have responded to, or failed to respond to, questions seeking their position on access to Historic Census. Attend your candidate's meetings and publicly ask them their position on allowing public access to Historic Census Records, i.e. 92 years after collection as per regulations attached to the Privacy Act. If unable to attend the meetings visit their office to ask them privately.

I think it unlikely that anyone will vote for or against any candidate because of the answer given on this one question, but it may play a part in your decision. Feel free to send me your candidate's response to this question and/or to post it on the Canada Census Campaign mail list at

We look forward to seeing them and adding them to the correspondence logs on the MPs Scoreboard.

Message from Senator Lorna Milne

The following message from Senator Lorna Milne was received 24 October 2000.
    Greetings everyone! As you know by now, Prime Minister Chrétien has called an election for the 27th of November. I want to bring you all up-to-date on the implications of the election on Bill S-15, my Archives of Canada Act (census records).

    Bill S-15 had been referred for further study to the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. It has now died, along with that committee, but I intend to re-introduce the same bill as soon as Parliament resumes after the election. I expect that it will move through the Senate much more quickly this next time, as my colleagues will be familiar with the intent of the bill.

    My real agenda has always been to get the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, formerly John Manley but now Brian Tobin, to introduce a Government Bill to solve our problem. Several of the key players in this exercise, including myself, the head of 'Stats' Canada, the Privacy Commissioner and the National Archivist worked all summer to hammer out a compromise position for a Government Bill. We had succeeded, and our proposition was placed before Cabinet just prior to the election call. Now, of course, all bets are off since after the election we will be dealing with a new Minister, a new Cabinet and a new Privacy Commissioner.

    Fortunately, the new Privacy Commissioner has already reluctantly but publicly agreed, in response to my questioning him in the Senate, with the compromise solution that brought the last Privacy Commissioner on side.

    In the meantime, I urge all of you to take advantage of this election to press all the candidates in your own riding for their stance on the Release of the Historic Census issue. Don't forget that it was the pressure you put on all Parliamentarians that helped me get the issue this far! As you all know, there is strength in numbers and elections are the perfect opportunity to advance a policy objective.

    As a Liberal Senator I will, of course, be out campaigning for the Liberal Party. I certainly do not want to lose the advantage I now hold that has enabled me to gain the full co-operation of a Cabinet Minister and to bring our issue directly to the attention of the Cabinet.


    Senator Lorna Milne
Compromise Solution??

Senator Milne's letter above mentions a "compromise solution" for a Government Bill. It is difficult to comment on such a compromise solution without having seen the wording of same, however I have some concerns regarding what I do know of it, which is not much. During his interview with the Senate in Committee of the Whole on Monday 16 October 2000, newly appointed Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski was asked by Senator Comeau about the "compromise solution" and what it entailed. Mr. Radwanski's response was (emphasis mine)

    "Without getting unduly technical, because it is a fairly complicated structure, the essential nature of the compromise is that the census data would be made available to qualified genealogists, or bona fide historians, for purposes that have been peer reviewed as being legitimate research. It would be made available in ways that involve basically requiring them to maintain the confidentiality of the information beyond the specific task for which they have been permitted to access it. It is more complex than that. However, in broad outlines, it is permitting the release only for very specific and constrained purposes to individuals who also in effect have to be sworn to secrecy."
I have considerable concern with the concept described by the emphasized text in Mr. Radwanski's explanation. My concern is that access such as described would be given only to "professional" or "certified" genealogists, and historians associated with educational institutes, and the like, thus eliminating access to "amateur" genealogists and historians. My reading is that availability of Census records accessible as described above would, because of secrecy requirements, be limited to a few scattered Government offices and would not be available for purchase by genealogical societies or libraries such as is now possible for Census up to 1901.

I have expressed these concerns to Senator Milne and she has assured me that such is not the case, and that she would never have agreed to a Bill that imposed such conditions. Nevertheless, I will continue to have reservations until such time as the wording of the Bill is made public. The wording of any such Bill will have to be very clear, so as to not be subject to misinterpretation. It is because of the misinterpretation of existing statutes that we find ourselves in our current situation.

Genealogy, or family history, is by nature a means of sharing. Sharing of names, dates, places, and to some degree, living conditions, of our ancestors. To be given access to such information in Census, but be sworn to secrecy and be thus unable to share, goes against the whole concept of our campaign to gain public access to Historic Census records.

The full text from Hansard of Mr. Radwanski's interview by the Senate, in Committee of the Whole, is available through a link on the Post 1901 Census Project website.


During the past administration many petitions seeking public access to Historic Census Records were presented to the House of Commons and the Senate. Petitions from the Canada Census Committee campaign alone, containing more than 6000 signatures, were presented to the House of Commons with an estimated 3000 signatures likely presented to the Senate. As petitions presented by other organizations, genealogical and historical societies, when reported in Hansard, did not always state the number of signatures contained it is not possible to accurately state the number of signatures from all sources. An educated guess, however, would likely place the number of signatures, from all source, presented to the House of Commons and the Senate, in excess of 15,000.

This being said however, with a new administration coming in, petitions presented to the previous administration, like Bills and Motions, no longer exist. Thus, so far as petitions are concerned, it is a new ball game and those who previously signed petitions are eligible to sign them once again.

I encourage all readers to visit the Post 1901 Census Project website to download and circulate the petitions located there. Petitions are currently provided in MS Word and WordPerfect formats but there will shortly be added versions in Adobe Acrobat PDF format. This should eliminate some of the problem the current files have experienced in being printed on different printers.

I would encourage all genealogical or historical societies to download these petitions or to develop petitions of their own wording. Petitions to the House of Commons and to the Senate, while worded similarly, are directed to different places and thus both may be signed by the same individuals.

Report of the Expert Panel

As of the time of writing the Report of the Expert Panel on Access to Historic Census Records has yet to be released. I have received a letter from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner acknowledging receipt of my complaint regarding the refusal of Industry Canada to deal with my Access to Information Request for the Report, or to forward the same to Statistics Canada thus making it necessary to submit a second request directly to Statistics Canada. I have also received an email from another source indicating that my complaint is currently being investigated.

I can see no reason for the delay in releasing the Report of the Expert Panel to the public. I had some indication that the intent may have been to release it at the same time a Government Bill on Access to Census was brought down. With the dissolution of the previous Government and the pending election however, that is no longer a possibility. As reported in my last column, by law the Report must be released no later than 21 November 2000, or 16 December 2000, depending on which of my two Access to Information Requests for the Report is considered. I have submitted an addendum to my complaint to the Information Commissioner urging that they consider the first ATI Request as governing the date by which the Report must be made public. I continue to press for it's immediate release.

Another submission to Expert Panel

The following submission to the Expert Panel on Access to Historic Census Records was presented in January 2000 by the Ottawa Branch Board of Directors of the Ontario Genealogical Society. The submission was extracted from their publication, "Ottawa Branch News".
    Census vital to our sense of history
    Please accept this submission to the Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census Records from the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. The second largest of 28 OGS branches in the province, the Ottawa Branch represents the views of 800 members actively researching families that have resided in the counties of Carleton, Lanark, Renfrew, Prescott and Russell. Census returns are essential to the research done by our members and we are gravely concerned that access to future records may be denied.

    Statistics Canada's decision not to release post-1901 census records to the National Archives has alarmed members of the genealogical and historical communities all across Canada. Thousands of concerned citizens have written in protest to Statistics Canada and Members of Parliament. As a result of these representations the Honourable John Manley asked Statistics Canada to prepare possible solutions. Accordingly, Statistics Canada identified the following two options for their minister's consideration:

    1. Amend the Statistics Act to allow all future census returns to be made public after 92 years, excluding those taken between 1901 and now.

    2. Make a retroactive amendment to the Statistics Act to allow census returns to be made public after 92 years, including those taken between 1901 and now.

    The first option is completely unacceptable to the genealogical community. Its adoption would seriously interfere with the ability of genealogists and historians to explore our nation's past. The 20th century was a time of immense change and growth for Canada. As we move forward in time, surely it is important that we study and reflect upon our individual and collective heritage. If this first option is chosen, researchers will not see another census until the year 2094. Several generations will be lost from public view. We strongly oppose this option.

    The second option placed before the minister essentially continues past practice. We very much favour this approach. The 92-year-rule is use until now amply protects individual privacy and has been used for years without public complaint.

    A fair and reasonable approach to privacy concerns is also provided for by the Privacy Act. In defining information that requires protection, Section 3 of that Act specifically excludes personal information about an individual who has been dead longer than 20 years. What a sea of difference between this and proposals to keep 20th century census returns secret in perpetuity. There is no question that census data must be protected for many years after it is collected. Taken in concert, the Privacy Act, the National Archives Act and the Access to Information Act provide an adequate security umbrella for this purpose. All that is needed is a modification to Section 17 of the Statistics Act which, as presently formulated, appears to prevent transfer of census records to the National Archives for eventual public access.

    Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips has suggested one solution to the census problem would be to allow Canadians access to only that material in post-1901 census returns that relates to their direct ancestors. This idea is completely unhelpful. Even with access to the census, genealogy research is a tricky business. In instances where our ancestors left few records, we depend heavily on clues to be found researching collateral lines. In addition, a deep understanding of our family history comes not just from studying those individuals from whom we are directly descended, but from knowing an ancestor's family as a whole.

    The importance of census material is widely recognized. Most other Western countries make this information available to the public. Despite a strong privacy lobby, the United States revised its laws to overcome a situation similar to ours and now releases its census records 72 years after they are taken. The release of each census is done with much fanfare, being publicly paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to the National Archives. The idea that Canada's post-1901 returns may be kept secret for all time is archaic by comparison. Even Australia, which has always destroyed its census returns, has now changed its approach. How can we consider closing our records forever when other countries are going in the opposite direction?

    The often-heard lament that Canadians are uninterested in their history is completely untrue of genealogists. On the contrary, family historians are notorious for the intensity with which they pursue the past. Painstakingly, detail by detail, they reconstruct the lives of long forgotten ancestors, developing a sense of history and their family's place in it that history books could never impart. The stories they uncover about the most ordinary Canadians, people whose lives would otherwise remain obscure, are just as important to our national understanding as the broader picture developed by historians. It is also critical to our sense of self. I this increasingly impersonal society, it would be a shame if people lose this precious connection with their family's past.

    Family history has other benefits as well. Donald Lennox, in Consumer Reports on Health (Volume II, number 9, September 1999) has emphasized how important family history is in identifying individuals at risk for genetic diseases. Such studies must include not just lineal ancestors, but aunts, uncles and cousins, to establish frequencies of deleterious traits. Take for example residents of Acadian descent in southwestern Nova Scotia. Researchers at the Isaac Walton Killam Hospital in Halifax made international news in 1998 when they announced they had isolated the defective gene that causes a form of Niemann-Pick disease, a rare neuro-muscular disorder that is invariably fatal. (Yarmouth Vanguard, April 6 1999 - "Bringing Genetics Home"). The Type D form is found only within the Acadian community in Yarmouth County. It has been traced to an Acadian couple who lived in the county in the latter part of the 17th century. Anyone who believes they might share a common ancestor with families afflicted by Niemann-Pick disease have been advised by medical researchers to consult with their family physician for possible referral to a genetic clinic. Public access to census records is an absolute necessity for Acadians seeking to determine if they are at risk. This is a classic case where the closing of census records to public view can have disastrous consequences for a significant segment of our population.

    The Expert Panel has been instructed in its terms of reference to "recommend an approach which seeks an appropriate balance between the need to protect personal privacy and the demands of genealogists and historians for access to historical census records." If the law is not amended, we will never see another census. There is no balance in that. Amending the law so that virtually every census taken in the 20th century remains secret forever strikes no greater balance. We agree that privacy and need for access must be balanced and it is our view that the 92-year-rule does just that.

    We trust that before the Panel finalizes its recommendation it will hold public hearings on this important matter. If it would be helpful, we would be pleased to testify. Our location in Ottawa would make this easy to arrange.

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

Upgrading of the Post 1901 Census Project website continues. A new page containing links to Extracts of Hansard for the House of Commons, similar to that for the Senate has been added. Both pages are currently up to date. The Other Sites page has many new links added. These include among other things, links to Bills relating to Census. I am trying to keep the MP Scoreboard up to date but for that I need your assistance. Please keep sending responses to your letters and email to me.

More Information On The Census Project

Until next time.  Happy Hunting.

Gordon A. WATTS

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