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Article Published March 04, 2001, Vol. V No. 02
POST-1901 CENSUS NEWS (Canada)
By: Gordon A. Watts, email@example.com
Greetings Readers, and Members of Parliament
I recently returned home from Calgary where I spent the Holiday season with my son Bruce and two of my grand-daughters, Brittni and Dana. I had a great visit and a White Christmas which, living in the Vancouver area as I do, I do not see too often.
While in Calgary I met a number of times with Doug Joudrey and had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Robert Westbury and Lois Sparling, both members of the AFHS and both active in our campaign to obtain public access to Historic Census. We had a good discussion regarding what we could now do, considering that Industry Minister Brian Tobin's response to the Report of the Expert Panel was to call for "further study". It is plain that Mr. Tobin has no intention of following through on the recommendations of the Expert Panel.
For my own part, I will be submitting further Access to Information Requests. The first two will be to Statistics Canada. One will be seeking to obtain any and all documented evidence that proves the existence of the "promise" of never ending confidentiality of Census that StatCan claims was made to the people of Canada by the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1906. The "promise of confidentiality in perpetuity", "explicit guarantee of indefinite confidentiality" and "unqualified promise of indefinite confidentiality" quoted by StatCan and the former Privacy Commissioner will be included in this request. I will also be seeking documented evidence that would prove that for Censuses from 1906 and later, the general public of Canada were advised that confidentiality of Census would last forever. I do not expect the government to be able to produce this documented evidence.
The second request will be for the 1906 census enumeration records for the Kindersley and Fairmont districts of Saskatchewan where I have family interests. This request will be made on the grounds that there is no legal restriction to public access of these records. I expect that this request will likely be refused outright.
While the two ATI requests are expected to be refused, or found unable to be answered, the responses to those requests will be valuable in an upcoming event. That event will be an action to the Federal Court of Canada for immediate release to the National Archives of the Census enumeration records for the 1906 Census of the Western Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. To that goal Lois Sparling, a prominent Calgary lawyer, is seeking someone willing to be the plaintiff in such an action. The individual selected would preferably be someone having a demonstrable need for access to the 1906 Census, and should live in a town or city that has a regional office of the Supreme Court of Canada - preferably in Saskatchewan. If you would consider being a part of such an action please contact Lois at firstname.lastname@example.org . We will be seeking also a lawyer living in the same area of the selected plaintiff who would be willing to participate in this effort, preferably on a "pro bono" basis.
Bob Westbury will be contacting as many Genealogical and Historical Societies as he can get email or snail mail address for, to elicit their co-operation in joint efforts to support projects such as that above.
Public access to Historic Census records has been subject of discussion for at least the past 30 years. Enough is enough. It is time now to make it clear to Mr. Tobin that we want access to the 1906 Census NOW, and continuing access to all subsequent Census 92 years after collection as allowed by Regulations attached to the Privacy Act.
Report on Role of National Archives and National Library of Canada
I had intended to make a third ATI request, to the office of Sheila Copps seeking a Report on the National Archives and National Library commissioned by Ms. Copps in 1998. Authored by John English, historian and professor at the University of Waterloo, it was reported to have recommended public access of Historic Census Records.
Following a tip from Lyn Winters I searched the website of the National Archives. A search of the author's name, John English, brought up a number of hits, one of which was the Report I sought. While I have not had time yet to read much of this report I found the following extract from the section titled "Mandate" extremely interesting.
7. Privacy concerns are fundamental in an age of electronic information, but access to information is a critical democratic right. There are, moreover, the interests of researchers, whether genealogical, historical or sociological. The National Archivist, the Privacy Commissioner, and Statistics Canada have struggled over the question of whether the 1911 Census should be available to researchers as earlier censuses are. While acknowledging the need to protect privacy, we believe that the National Archivist was correct to assert his authority to prevent the destruction of that census. A broader debate -- perhaps in Parliament -- may be necessary to clarify public interest in this question. The role of the National Archivist, we believe, complements that of the Access to Information Commissioner, and both individuals must play a central and coordinated role in decisions about access, accountability, and disposal of records. In the case of privacy, the interests of the Privacy Commissioner, on the one hand, and the Access to Information Commissioner and the National Archivist, on the other, need clarification. The possible extension of privacy legislation to the private sector creates serious research concerns, which were eloquently expressed by the Institut d'histoire de l'Amérique française. The National Archives, which collects private records, is affected by such legislation, and the National Archivist's voice and that of the Department of Canadian Heritage should be heard on these issues.
THE NATIONAL ARCHIVIST SHOULD TAKE A PUBLIC ROLE IN DEBATES ABOUT RECORDS DESTRUCTION, LEGISLATION CONCERNING PRIVACY AND FREEDOM OF INFORMATION, AND IN ALL MATTERS CONCERNING ACCESS TO PUBLIC RECORDS. THE NATIONAL ARCHIVIST, POSSIBLY IN COOPERATION WITH THE ACCESS TO INFORMATION COMMISSIONER, SHOULD PRESENT A STRONG CASE FOR MAKING MICRODATA SAMPLES OF MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY CENSUSES AVAILABLE WITH NAMES REMOVED, AND URGE STATISTICS CANADA TO FOLLOW THE PRACTICE OF THE UNITED STATES IN MAKING MANUSCRIPT CENSUSES AVAILABLE IN THEIR ENTIRETY AFTER SEVENTY YEARS.
Further into the Report, under the heading of "Access", mention was made of the possibility of creating a Family History Centre similar to that of the British Public Records Office. This would be a most welcome facility should our paranoid government ever provide the authority to the National Archives to implement it.
THE CREATION OF A FAMILY HISTORY CENTRE IS A WELCOME INITIATIVE WHICH THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES SHOULD CARRY OUT IN COOPERATION WITH THE NATIONAL LIBRARY.
Those wishing to see the full Report can access it at
1999 - 2000 Annual Report of the Information Commissioner
Over the past few years there has been much speculation regarding reasons for the government's reluctance to allow public access to Historic Census or even to release the Report of the Expert Panel on Access to Historic Census Records. The 1999 - 2000 Annual Report of the Information Commissioner may provide some insight to this.
According to the Information Commissioner many government departments oppose the provisions of the Access to Information Act and in many cases openly defy its terms. Included in those who are less than cooperative with the Office of the Information Commissioner are the Privy Council Office, Justice Canada and the Attorney General, and the Treasury Board, who have officially discouraged public servants from bringing concerns about wrongdoing under the Access Act to the attention of the Information Commissioner. Coincidentally, the Treasury Board is the body responsible for the Office of the Information Commissioner. Even the Prime Minister's Office has denied the Information Commissioner's request to review records held in the PMO during an investigation.
The main portion of the Information Commissioner's Annual Report is a fifteen page double column section titled "ACCESS - A RIGHT UNDER SIEGE". It is not my intention to copy the full report here although those who seek some interesting reading can access highlights of the Report or download a PDF file of it from the website at
Over the past year a policy battle was waged over whether or not to pull back the complete blanket of secrecy which section 17 of the Statistics Act has thrown over census records since 1901.
This issue is important for many researchers and genealogists. This particular instance of secrecy does not directly diminish the accountability of governments to the citizens. It is, nevertheless, a good illustration of a situation where the legitimate need for some secrecy (to protect individual privacy) has not been adequately balanced against the legitimate interests in having census records made available for public use and consultation.
Former Privacy Commissioner, Bruce Phillips, has urged government not to remove the blanket of secrecy from census records.
He argued that there have always been, and will be in the future, highly sensitive questions put to citizens in the census. Since answering is compulsory, Mr. Phillips felt that the "quid" for the "quo", should be an iron-clad guarantee of anonymity for respondents. Must it be all or nothing?
At present, there is no public right of access to the responses which have been given to every census since 1901 -- at least not in a form in which the identities of the respondents could be determined. The prohibition arises from the interplay of one section of the Statistics Act (section 17) with one section of the Access to Information Act (section 24).
The Access to Information Act contains a "notwithstanding-any-other-Act-of-Parliament" clause and, hence, takes precedence over secrecy provisions contained in any other statute. Section 17 of the Statistics Act places a blanket of secrecy over nominative census records. All things being equal, the Access Act would take priority, and the blanket of secrecy would be lifted.
However, the Access to Information Act contains a sweeping, catch-all provision. Section 24 requires that secrecy be maintained with respect to information made secret by another statute, if that other statute is referenced in Schedule II of the Access to Information Act. As you might have guessed, section 17 of the Statistics Act is listed in Schedule II of the Access Act. Thus, it is obligatory that secrecy be maintained with respect to census information -- there is no discretion, there is no injury test and there is no time period after which disclosure may be made. Even the most closely held secrets of Cabinet do not enjoy this much protection from disclosure.
It is somewhat amazing to note that there appear to be no documents, no letters, no formal governmental documents, no newspaper articles, no private correspondence and no speeches on the reasons for section 17 of the Statistics Act. Further, what is more surprising is that the amendment only dealt with future censuses, and left past censuses open. Because nature abhors a vacuum, there have been many interpretations as to why this clause was enacted but the truth is, unless some other information from the period surfaces, we shall never know.
There has been one little bit of information that has surfaced, however. Section 23 of the Instruction to Officers, Commissioners and Enumerators (published in the Canada Gazette April 1911) contains section 36. It stated that "clear and legible records" were to be kept because "the census is intended to be a permanent record, and its schedules will be stored in the Archives of the Dominion." Section 36, by the way, fell in the part of the Instruction titled, "Instruction Relating to All Schedules". In section 16 of the Instruction, it is noted that the census "will have value as a record for historical use in tracing the origin and rise of future towns." There certainly was cause for protecting the confidentiality of the collected census information over the uses that governments might find helpful, such as taxation and allocation of benefits. Yet, nowhere is there any documented indication that the Amendments of 1905 were designed to permanently hide the answers from Canadians after a reasonable period of time, however that might be defined.
It is, however, possible to offer an informed suggestion as to why section 17 of the Statistics Act was listed in Schedule II of the Access Act. Simply put, in the early 80's, Statistics Canada made the case to the then Minister of Communications, who sponsored the Bill, that any loss of absolute secrecy would discourage voluntary participation in the census. Any significant increase in the non-participation rate would, according to Statistics Canada, put the very existence of a reliable, national census at risk. This continues to be the fear of the Chief Statistician, and it is a reasonable position for him to take.
When Parliament passed section 24 of the Access Act (with its power to bootstrap in the secrecy provisions of the other Acts) it recognized the very real danger it posed to the concept of openness. Thirty-three provisions were listed when the Act was passed. As a result, Parliament wrote into the Act a requirement that a Parliamentary Committee review every provision set out in Schedule II within three years after the Act came into force.
Consequently, in 1986, the Justice Committee issued a report concerning the appropriateness of section 24 and the various provisions which had been included in Schedule II-including section 17 of the Canada Evidence Act.
The Committee came to a rather startling, unanimous conclusion, as follows:
"We have concluded that, in general, it is not necessary to include Schedule II in the Act. We are of the view that, in every instance, the type of information safeguarded in an enumerated provision would be adequately protected by one or more of the exemptions already contained in the Access Act." (p. 116)
Despite that general conclusion, the Parliamentary Committee got cold feet when it came to three particular areas of secrecy, one of which being the secrecy of census records. The Committee put it this way:
"Despite our view that the interests protected by the Schedule II provisions could adequately be protected by other existing exemptions in the Access Act, we are persuaded that there should be three exceptions to the conclusion. The sections of the Income Tax Act, the Statistics Act and the Corporations and Labour Unions Returns Act which are currently listed in the Schedule deal with income tax records and information supplied by individuals, corporations and labour unions for statistical purposes. Even though the exemptions in the Access Act afford adequate protection for these kinds of information, the Committee agrees that it is vital for organizations such as Statistics Canada to be able to assure those persons supplying data that absolute confidentiality will be forthcoming." (p. 117)
This "abundance of caution" reason for the blanket secrecy of census records, does not stand up to scrutiny. The exemption provisions contained elsewhere in the Access Act provide reasonable and sufficient protection for all sensitive information held by government. There is nothing contained in census records which makes them more sensitive than the thousands of other kinds of personal information held by government about such matters as criminal records, medical conditions or financial transactions, or even in the recently revealed and recently dismantled HRDC longitudinal database.
If section 17 of the Statistics Act were to be removed from Schedule II, what would the rules then be for census records? The short answer is this: census records in nominative form would be available from the National Archives, 92 years after the taking of the census. This result comes from reading paragraph 19(2)(c) of the Access Act together with paragraph 8(2)(b) of the Privacy Act and paragraph 6(d) of the Privacy Regulations. This period of protection represents a reasonable balance between the privacy expectations of individual respondents and the public interest in having access to census records for research purposes.
There is comfort to be taken from the fact that Canada's Chief Statistician agrees that, for the future, blanket secrecy is not required to secure voluntary participation in the census. He has told the Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census Records that, as long as the period of secrecy exceeds average life span, it is unlikely that fears of privacy invasion will deter participation. That certainly is the experience of most other western democracies.
Of course, there remains the issue of whether the rules should be relaxed retroactively. The Chief Statistician believes that his ability to sell the new rules, prospectively, will be seriously undermined if people believe that the rules could be changed, retroactively, at any time, in the future.
Yet, we must also keep in mind the positive reasons for making census records available after a suitable period of "quarantine". Take for example the views of the Association of Canadian Archivists, which feels strongly that there is a compelling case for changing the secrecy rules. In a recent letter to Canada's' Privacy Commissioner, the ACA said:
"We represent researches from every walk of life, from genealogists looking for information on their ethnic heritage to media shriving to bring a historical perspective to their news, to doctors tracing genetic diseases through familial lines. Census material that has already been released (from the New France Census of the 1600s to 1901) provided for personal and family histories, for the discovery of community, and for the telling of the wider history of our country. Moreover, census materials are useful in research to promote understanding of, and to redress wrongs done to, ethnic and aboriginal groups." (March 19, 2000)
The Canadian Historical Association (CHA) was equally eloquent, in its brief to the Expert Panel, as to the importance to the country of relaxing -- even retroactively -- the census secrecy rules. As well, the CHA has researched the history of the so-called "promise" of confidentiality made by the Wilfred Laurier Government in advance of the 1906 special western census. It found no evidence for the notion that census records would be kept secret forever.
In the absence of any public or private debate on these clauses in 1905, it seems to this Commissioner that the legislation was not intended to apply, in perpetuity, to every subsequent census, nor was it intended to block transfer of census records to the National Archives.
Yet, for better or worse, Canadians have, since the1901 census, been given a legal assurance of secrecy reaffirmed as recently as 1983 when section 17 of the Statistics Act was included in Schedule II of the Access Act. There exists a de facto expectation of privacy with respect to post-1901 census records. Perhaps the appropriate deference to that expectation could be given by making a distinction between the long and short-form records. For the future, all census records would be accessible after 92 years. For the past, census records would be available after 92 years with the exception of long form responses which, after all, contain the more sensitive personal information. In this way a balance can be reasserted between the right to privacy and the public's right of access.
We do not fully agree with all of the conclusions related in the above Report and in particular disagree with the concept expressed in the final paragraph. We do not feel it necessary to treat past and future Censuses differently insofar as what is released and how that release is effected. We see no reason why all Census cannot continue to be released on the same basis as those up to 1901 have been. We are thankful, however, that the Information Commissioner supports public access to Historic Census Records and has publicly stated this support. In this regard he has joined with National Archivist Ian Wilson who has also publicly supported public access to these records.
Post 1901 Census Project Website
Work on keeping the Post 1901 Census Website up to date and current continues. A major part of my effort in this regard is an attempt to include French language content and separate pages for that content. This is an attempt to encourage more participation in our Campaign to gain public access to Historic Census by our French speaking friends of Quebec and New Brunswick. A number of the French language pages are now accessible on the website but there is a lot of work yet to be done.
As I neither speak nor read French I must rely on others to provide translation services for me. In this regard new members of our Committee, Jean-Guy Simard and Lise Drapeau are proving extremely helpful. While past translation needs have been minimal, Christine Joudrey, Jeannine Ouellet, and Victor Luce have been helpful with this as well. My thanks go out to all of them.
As part of the overhaul of the website the "What's it all about?" page has been completely redone to bring it more up to date with what is happening today. It is perhaps worthwhile to include here, as a recap, the information that now appears on that page.
Statistics Canada, the agency charged with the responsibility of collecting the Census of Canada every five years, has taken the position that no public access will be allowed to individual Census records taken after 1901. They have refused to transfer control of these records to the National Archives which would then permit the National Archivist to allow public access to them 92 years after collection. Their position is that the release of individual census records is explicitly prohibited by law for all censuses following 1901. This position is based on a series of legal opinions obtained from Justice Canada from 1981 through 1985.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
It is believed that each of the legal opinions given by Justice Canada are flawed as they consider only one clause in "Instructions to Officers and Enumerators" of Census that in the Statistics Act of 1906 were given "the force of law". That clause, titled "Secrecy", assured respondents that information given to enumerators could not be used by anyone for purposes such as "taxation" or other contemporary concerns that might be expressed. Indications are that respondents were told about this confidentiality only if they expressed concerns about it. This was not a new clause as similar wording of Instructions had been used since at least the first Census of Canada taken in 1871. It was, however, the first time the Instructions had "the force of law".
The legal opinions of Justice Canada did not consider other pertinent clauses of those same Instructions (having "the force of law") that stated that "clear and legible records" were to be kept because "the census is intended to be a permanent record, and its schedules will be stored in the Archives of the Dominion". Other clauses stated that Census "will have value as a record for historical use in tracing the origin and rise of future towns." If the clause relating to "Secrecy" had "the force of law", so then, did the other clauses in those Instructions. Statistics Canada cannot pick and choose which clauses they want to have "the force of law" and those they do not. Similar clauses were contained in Instructions from 1871 to at least 1946.
Statistics Canada has variously referred to a promise of confidentiality in perpetuity, an explicit guarantee of indefinite confidentiality, or an unqualified promise of confidentiality they claim was given by the government of Sir Wilfred Laurier in 1906, and subsequent governments. Despite requests to produce documented evidence that proves the existence of these promises or explicit guarantees that confidentiality of Census lasts forever, to date they have been unable to do so.
It is obvious that the (mis)interpretation of legislation which enforces permanent concealment of post-1901 census from the public eye, must be changed. If changes are not made, Post-1901 Census Records may never be available for future generations or us.
Officials of Statistics Canada have stated there has never been an intention to destroy the census data. If it were up to former Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips, however, all census records would be destroyed immediately following statistical compilation. Government records, however, cannot be destroyed without the approval of the National Archivist. Canada's current National Archivist, Ian Wilson, is determined to see these records preserved. He has rescinded an order for destruction of the 1996 Census enumeration forms issued by the former National Archivist. Mr. Wilson also favours allowing public access to Historic Census records and made a presentation to the Expert Panel on Access to Historic Census Records that called for that access.
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE UP TO NOW?
Since late 1998 efforts have been made via the Internet and various genealogical mail lists to inform concerned individuals and organizations regarding the Post 1901 Census situation. All of those concerned have been encouraged to sign petitions and write letters and email to their Members of Parliament and various government officials, expressing their concerns about the situation, and requesting that steps be taken to allow public access to Historic Census Records.
In April of 1999, Rick Roberts of Global Genealogy, created the Post 1901 Census Project Website and provided space on his server for it. A loosely knit group of concerned individuals from across Canada began working together, through the Internet, to promote efforts for the release of Post 1901 Census records. They have come to be known as the Canada Census Committee. For the most part members of this adhoc Committee have not met except via the Internet. They are not the only group working to the same goal, however no other group we know of is encouraging participation from all Canadians, coast to coast. We actively seek the participation and co-operation of all Genealogical and Historical societies.
On 5 November 1999, then Industry Minister, and Minister Responsible for Statistics Canada, John Manley, appointed an Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census Records to report regarding the legal, privacy and archival implications of providing access to historical census records. The Panel was asked to examine the following issues:
1. What are the elements of the difference of opinions between Canadians who would seek to maintain the protection of personal information and those who would like to examine personal or community histories?
2. What options exist to provide access to historical census records?
The Expert Panel considered over 2,500 letters, faxes and e-mails sent to the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, the Chief Statistician, and various Members of Parliament prior to the announcement of the Expert Panel. During the seven month duration of the Panel, a further 1,055 letters were received from Canadians active in genealogical societies. The Panel received 95 submissions from historical, archival and genealogical associations as well as other interested Canadians.
The Expert Panel considered draft legislation and motions before the Senate and the House of Commons together with related speeches and documentation. They also considered public opinion research commissioned by Statistics Canada. Results from six focus groups and two National surveys were considered.
The Report of the Expert Panel was presented to the Office of the Industry Minister at the end of June 2000. There appeared, however, great reluctance on the part of Government to release this Report to the public. On 15 December 2000, day 89 of the 90 day time period in which Statistics Canada was required by law because of an Access to Information Request to release the Report, it was placed on the Statistics Canada website and finally made available to the public.
Briefly, the Expert Panel found that a guarantee of perpetual confidentiality was not intended to apply to the census. They felt that it had always been intended that census records would eventually become public and did not view any legislation deemed necessary to do so as breaking of a promise to respondents. The Report recommended allowing public access to all Census records, past, present and future, 92 years following collection. They only advised caution regarding any legislative steps that might be thought necessary to effect release of Census between 1921 and 2001. They suggested that any legislative change felt necessary be done in the National Archives Act rather than in the Statistics Act.
The press release of the current Minister of Industry, Brian Tobin, that accompanied the release of the Report of the Expert Panel was not encouraging to an early expectation of public access to Historic Census. The press release used phrases suspiciously similar to those issued previously in old releases of Statistics Canada. It was likely composed by Chief Statistician Dr. Ivan Fellegi who opposes public access to census records.
The release calls for "further broad based consultation with all Canadians" and states that this consultation will take place as part of "the already announced administrative and legislative review of the Access to Information and the Privacy Acts."
While a task force to review the Access to Information Act was announced 21 August 2000, with a final report to be brought down in the fall of 2001, we are unaware of any similar process being set up to review the Privacy Act. In the announcement regarding the task force to review the Access to Information Act the Minister of Justice and Attorney General Anne McLellan stated:
"Access to information is essential if we are to continue to have an open and transparent government. The work of the Task Force will provide valuable advice to Parliamentarians to ensure that any legislative changes to the Access to Information Act better reflect the expectations of the public while protecting the privacy of individuals."
Even if a review of the Privacy Act had been announced and were currently underway, the speed with which government normally responds in taking recommendations and putting them into practice would make a turtle's crawl speedy by comparison. The consultation referred to in Mr. Tobin's press release could take further months, or even years, to complete. This is totally unacceptable. Public access to Historic Census Records has been subject of discussion since the early 1970s. Thirty years of discussion is enough -- the time to act is NOW.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
It had been hoped that with the Report of the Expert Panel we would see the government bringing down a Bill that would deal with our concerns and allow public access to Historic Census. It is obvious however that Mr. Tobin has no intention of acting upon the recommendations of the Expert Panel.
We must express our displeasure with this by writing to Mr. Tobin asking him to take immediate steps to implement the recommendations of the Expert Panel. We must let him know that further delay in this matter is unacceptable to the people of Canada. We must further advise him that thirty years of discussion is enough, and the time to act is NOW.
We must continue to write letters and email to our Members of Parliament, and other government officials, expressing our desire to obtain public access to Historic Census records. Theses letters and email should stress that the Expert Panel has recommended allowing public access to all Census - past, present and future, 92 years after collection as allowed in Regulations attached to the current Privacy Act. We must continue to seek a commitment by our MPs that they will vote in favour of a Bill that would allow public access to Historic Census.
We must once again sign petitions and actively solicit others willing to sign petitions seeking public access to Historic Census. Above all we must not become discouraged or complacent, thinking that there is no use trying, or thinking that the efforts of others will succeed without our participation. This one time, if at no other, we must stand up and be counted. If we do not, our descendants may never know that we existed.
In democratic political systems like ours, change only happens when constituents identify a need for change and then gain wide public and political support so that an issue cannot be ignored by our elected officials. We have a responsibility to make sure that our Members of Parliament know what is important to us. It is just as important for them to know that our votes will go to those who support issues that are critical to us.
The MP's Scoreboard located on this website allows anyone to review the positions of each of our members of parliament and then have access to e-mail and Canada Post addresses where you can communicate directly with your elected officials. The table lists the name of each member of parliament in Provincial groupings, alphabetically by surname, their electoral riding, political party, position on the issue and correspondence address information. By clicking on the name of any MP you can view correspondence that has been sent to them, and any response they have provided clarifying their position on releasing post-1901 census information.
If you are dissatisfied with your MP's position on the issue we recommend that you send him/her e-mail and a written letter to express your concerns. Should you be satisfied with your member's position a letter or e-mail of support to them would be appreciated. Sending a letter to a Member of Parliament from anywhere in Canada, via Canada Post is free.
What should my letter say?
The following is a late addition to my column, which I had finished writing and sent in a short time ago. This article originally appeared in the newsletter of the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. It is reprinted here with permission. My thanks to Allison Hare, CGRS, Editor of the Ottawa Branch News for sending it to me, and to Lyn Winters who suggested she do that.
Letter writing comes more easily to some people than others. Are you unsure what your letter should say? Are you intimidated by some of the issues involved? If your answer to one or both of these questions is yes, you are invited to use this article as your guide.
Individualized letters will definitely have the best impact. By writing in your own words you will show yourself to be someone who has thought about the issues at stake and drawn your own conclusions about them. Your letter should not be long, nor do you have to engage in debate about the Privacy Act or the legislation that affects census release. Your letter can be as simple as 1-2-3.
1. Open your letter by stating its purpose. You might simply express a wish for continued access to census records. You might more specifically express support for the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census records. Another approach would be to criticize the government for failing to implement the panel's recommendations, but if you opt for aggression be careful not to go overboard. Let's be passionate, persuasive and polite.
2. The easiest way to individualize your letter is to refer briefly to your own family history and say what your research has taught you. When did your ancestors come to Canada and where did they settle? Don't list the entire family tree, rather summarize what you have learned. Were some of your ancestors among the earliest pioneers? Were they Loyalists? Did they come here to escape war? Did they immigrate to Canada for greater religious freedom? Did they flee their homes so that they quite simply wouldn't starve to death? Once they arrived, how did they contribute to the community in which they lived? Where might you be today if your ancestors had not ventured from their former homes? Why is it so important that we be allowed to explore our past?
3. Close your letter by reiterating the reason you are writing. Urge the government to take action.
Once your letter is finished, to whom should you send it?
o First and foremost, address it to The Honourable Brian Tobin, Minister of Industry, House of Commons, Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6. (or email: email@example.com).
o Also write to your MP. The only address required for this is his or her name, House of Commons, Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6. Remember, letters to Tobin and your MP do not require any postage.
o Also write to Dr. Ivan Fellegi, Chief Statistician, Statistics Canada, 120 Parkdale Ave., Ottawa, ON K1A 0T6 (email: fellegi@statcan).
If you want to attempt a letter more ambitious than 1-2-3, additional points you might want to tackle are as follows. Or, if you like, substitute the first or second of these suggestions for step 2 above.
o Do you think the research you have done would have been possible without the census? Some of us have relied on the census more heavily than others, depending on where and when our ancestors lived and what other records have survived. If you can effectively demonstrate why the census is so important, this is a very good issue to tackle.
o Privacy concerns are one of the biggest impediments to census release. It is important to acknowledge that privacy is important. By all means don't dismiss this as insignificant. But we do need to emphasize that the 92 years that must pass before a census is released offers considerable privacy protection.
o The Expert Panel noted that legislation enacted in 1918 might be viewed by some individuals as complicating release of censuses taken from 1921 onwards. That's why it said additional thought might be given as to how release of these particular returns might be carried out. However, it felt the 1906, 1911 and 1916 returns were not affected by this. You might want to press for the government to get the ball rolling by taking action on these for a start.
o The Expert Panel urged the government to clarify the census issue before the next census is taken. There is no sign that this will happen. What do you think about this?
o For more material on the census issue, including a copy of the Expert Panel report and submissions by key players, visit Statistics Canada's website http://www.statcan.ca/english/census96/interm.htm.
A sample letter follows.
I am writing to express my support for the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census Records. As a genealogist, I depend heavily on census returns. The Expert Panel acknowledges that these records are important and says they should continue to be made available. The government's deferral of this matter for further study causes me serious alarm.
Researching my family history has given me a deep appreciation of Canadian history. Some of my ancestors were among the earliest settlers to the Ottawa Valley and they literally cleared the land to make room for themselves ? and other immigrants who would follow. One of my ancestors was part of a group chosen for an emigration experiment intended to prove that the poor and destitute of Ireland could succeed if given the right opportunity. Potato famine undoubtedly would have killed him had he remained at home. Instead his descendants have included ministers of the church, professors and a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Some of these descendants eventually headed west, opening the Prairies and extending our frontier. I take a great deal of pride in knowing the role my ancestors played in shaping this country. Without access to census returns, many Canadians will be deprived of this wonderful ability to explore their past. Young Canadians growing up today will still be able to read about history in textbooks. But their family's place in the story of our nation will be a closed book.
I acknowledge that Canadians have a right to privacy and I respect those rights. Census returns are currently kept confidential for 92 years after they are taken and I will willingly wait to see them. This 92-year waiting period seems an ideal compromise to the competing interests here. But to insist that census records be kept confidential forever is nothing but extreme.
The government's failure to clarify this important issue in advance of the census to be taken this May is especially disappointing. Statistics Canada is worried that its reputation will be damaged by this controversy. How can it possibly improve the situation to take a census in an atmosphere clouded by uncertainty?
The case for continued access to census returns is strong. I urge the government to implement the panel's recommendations now.
Petitions, Letters and E-mail
By this time you are no doubt tired about hearing about petitions, letters and e-mail. The long and the short of it is that they are still needed. Non-resident and Senate petitions are coming in to Muriel M. Davidson and petitions for the House of Commons are coming to myself. While many small ones are coming in from individuals we would like to see larger ones sent in by groups as well. Download petitions in PDF format from the Post 1901 Census Project website.
Send your letters and e-mail to your Member of Parliament, Industry Minister Brian Tobin, and the Prime Minister. Please send me copies of any replies you get so they can be added to their correspondence log on the MPs Scoreboard.
Are you willing to join the Committee?
At the present time the Canada Census Committee has representatives from most parts of Canada except for Manitoba. We have found that most MPs and others respond more readily to queries from someone in their own Province. If you would consider being a part of our Committee please contact Muriel M. Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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. 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 email@example.com