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Gordon Watts Reports
Column published: 02 March 2011
By: Gordon A. Watts   Biography & Archived Articles

Gordon A. Watts

Topics in this column include:
  • Canada's Census being dismantled?
  • Review of the Census 'informed consent' question
  • Informing the Public
  • Leave a Legacy - Tick YES

Canada's Census being dismantled?

Tuesday 28 June 2005 marked the culmination of a campaign by genealogists and historians that lasted more than seven years. It was on that date that Bill S-18 was passed in the House of Commons and passed into Law, thus ensuring public access to 92-year-old Census records. With the exception of a mandated review of the effect of the 'informed consent' question, to take place following the 2011 Census, our problems relating to access of the records were over. So we thought.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed to support census while in opposition, but has endevoured to kill mandatory census since gaining power.

  • "The Conservative Party supports the preservation of census records and the subsequent transfer of these records to the National Archives for public release." - Letter to G. A. Watts, 16/09/2004
  • "supports the preservation of census records and the subsequent transfer of these records to the National Archives for public release" - email to B. Ostriyznick 25/09/2002
  • ""supports the preservation of census records and the subsequent transfer of these records to the National Archives for public release". " - email to J. Rogers 25/09/2002
  • ""supports the preservation of census records and the subsequent transfer of these records to the National Archives for public release". " - email to M. Davidson 03/09/2002         Source

  • During the course of the Post-1901 Census campaign, then opposition Conservative MPs, including now Prime Minister Stephen Harper voiced support for public access to historic Census records. That support in fact, was part of an official Conservative party program. In the past year however, the Conservative government has taken steps that leaves one wondering whether or not there will be any Census records left to view in 92 years.

    The first of those steps took place on 26 June 2010. This was the removal of the mandatory long-form Census questionnaire and it's replacement with a voluntary National Household Survey. There was no public announcement regarding this action, nor was there any prior public consultation or notice. Questions normally found on the long-form questionnaire were simply not included when wording of the 2011 Census was published in the Canada Gazette. Removal of the long-form questionnaire appears to have been a directive coming straight from Prime Minister Harper. Despite a large public outcry the government has remained obstinate in their refusal to reconsider the decision.

    More recently (11 February 2011), the government requested Statistics Canada to rethink the way it collects population data and to study how other countries do it. They want any changes recommended to be effective as early as the 2016 Census. Some possibilities suggested include accessing register-based records or surveying a different part of the country every year. Whatever changes in this direction that might occur would likely mean the demise of Census as we now know it, and thus the destruction of what many consider the single most important source of information for genealogical and historical research.

    The possibility of changing to a register-based system of gathering population data raises a number of questions - not the least of which has to do with personal privacy concerns. As things stand in Canada today, personal information cannot be shared between government departments without specific consent being given by the individual concerned. For example, there is a question included on your personal Income Tax forms that seeks consent to provide your name and address to Elections Canada so that electoral rolls can be kept up to date. Census asks for your consent to access your income tax records for answers to the financial questions it asks.

    All that will change however, if Canada's population data were to be gathered through a register-based system. As I understand such systems, any information collected by one department of government could be shared with any other department. Information on any individual, for example; tax records from Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), employment information from Canada Employment Insurance Commission, trips out of the country noted by the Canada Border Services Agency; -- would be fair game under such a system. Taking it a step further the government would have access to information from non-governmental sources such as your financial and mortgage institutions, employment records, and perhaps the records of every institution or organization of which you are associated.

    This might be considered reminiscent of George Orwell's fictional vision of the future (1984) where every waking moment of the individual is under surveillance, and controlled by the government.

    Changing to a register-based Census would require major changes to our existing Access to Information and Privacy Laws. In recent years these laws have prevented the sharing of information between government departments. One incident involved reporting border crossings of individuals on Employment Insurance claims to the Canada Employment Insurance Commission (CEIC). This resulted in attempts to cancel those claims because individuals out of the country could not be actively seeking employment. Another incident involved a very large database containing information gathered from several different government departments. The rational for this was apparently to have a central database on all citizens and residents in Canada that would be accessible to all government departments. Complaints regarding these incidents to the Privacy Commissioner resulted in the dismantling of the database, and reinforcement that information on individuals could not be shared between departments without their consent.

    It is perhaps time once again to start contacting our parliamentary representatives to express our concerns about the apparent dismantling of Canada's Census by the current government.

    Review of the Census 'informed consent' question

    As indicated in the article above, Bill S-18 included provision for a review, by a Committee of the House of Commons or the Senate (or both), of the effect of the 'informed consent' question relating to the release of information provided 92 years after collection. Such a review is mandated to take place not later than two years following the second Census conducted after the passage of Bill S-18. That Census is slated to take place in May of this year.

    While legislation states the mandated review is to take place 'not later than two years' following the collection of the Census, because of the speed at which most things move through our parliament, any recommendations coming out of the review are unlikely to become effective prior to the Census scheduled for 2016. For this reason it is imperative that we soon start to lobby our parliamentary representatives to seek an early start to the mandated review of the effect of 'informed consent' question.

    Informing the Public

    The year 2011 is one of the years during which Canada conducts a National Census. It will also be the first time, since the 1950's, that a Census has been conducted without both short, and long-form questionnaires. The 2011 National Census of Canada will consist only of the short-form questionnaire containing 10 questions. At the same time, the new voluntary National Household Survey, containing similar questions contained in the discontinued long-form questionnaire, will be introduced. Both the Census and the National Household Survey (NHS) are scheduled to take place this coming May.

    Genealogists and historians likely need not be informed regarding the importance of filling out and returning their Census questionnaires, and now the National Household Survey. The general population however, as evidenced by the considerable negative response to the 'informed consent' question on the 2006 Census, obviously needs to be reminded of this, and also about the importance of responding YES to the question regarding public access to information after 92 years.

    In January Statistics Canada began to contact people and organizations seeking support in discussing ways that they can work with us to encourage participation in the Census and NHS. I have not however, been made aware of anyone other than myself that has been contacted. I encourage all genealogists and historians, and their respective organizations, to seek ways to advise others regarding the importance of participating in the Census and NHS, and to encourage responding YES to the question regarding release of information after 92 years. I would welcome any and all suggestions regarding how to accomplish this.

    The following is the email I received from Lise Rivais, Director, Western Region and Northern Territories, Statistics Canada. My assumption is that similar messages are being sent by other Regional Directors of Statistics Canada.
      11 January 2011

      Dear Sir or Madam,

      I am pleased to inform you that the census and the new National Household Survey (NHS) will take place starting in May 2011. I am writing to seek your support in our campaign to promote awareness of these activities and to encourage the participation of all residents of Canada.

      Census information is important for all communities and is vital for planning services such as schools, daycare, police services and fire protection. The NHS is needed to plan family services, housing, roads and public transportation, and skills training for employment.

      Since these surveys are an essential source of information about Canada and the people who live here, they must be complete and accurate. It is therefore imperative that everyone complete and return their questionnaires.

      We would like to work with you and your organization to ensure that your members understand the importance of completing the census and the NHS. Your participation is key to gathering the data that will generate information you need to plan, develop and evaluate your programs and services.

      In the coming weeks, a member of our communications team will contact you to discuss ways in which we can work together. Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact:

      Peter Liang
      Census Communications Manager
      Telephone: (604) 658-8347

      Thank you in advance for your support of the 2011 Census and the National Household Survey.

      Yours sincerely,

    Leave a Legacy - Tick YES

    John Reid, author of the Anglo-Celtic-Connections blog has suggested "Leave a Legacy -- Tick YES" as a title for a campaign to encourage completion of the Census and NHS, and to encourage responding YES to allow information provided to be accessed after 92 years. I cannot think of a better title.

    Along with a title for the campaign, it would help to have a logo suitable for placing on websites, posters or buttons. If any readers out there are artistically inclined, please send me your ideas in a .jpg file attached to an email addressed to (please note the underscore between the names). I cannot promise a prize, but will give credit for any logo chosen in my column.

    Until next time.

    Gordon A. Watts

    Your comments regarding this newsletter, and suggestions for future articles are welcome. Click here to send me a message with a subject line of "Gordon Watts Reports".

    To view back issues of Gordon Watt's columns, visit Gordon's biography page where all of his archives articles are available.

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