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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The History of Statistics Canada, 1970 to 2008

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Released: 2018-12-03

It's the story of a statistical agency, and also the story of a nation.

The latest installment in the life story of Statistics Canada, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The History of Statistics Canada, 1970 to 2008, is now available, just in time to mark the agency's 100th birthday. The new book follows on the historical threads provided by two earlier volumes.

The first, published in 1993 to mark the agency's diamond anniversary, was entitled 75 Years and Counting: A History of Statistics Canada. It traced the story right back to the early days of what was then New France.

Just before the close of the 20th century, it was joined by a more academically-oriented work, The Dominion Bureau of Statistics: A History of Canada's Central Statistical Office and Its Antecedents 1841-1972. Written by retired Assistant Chief Statistician David Worton, the work wove the agency's story within the larger economic, political and social context of the times.

The first statistics

It was in the winter of 1666/1667, a full two centuries before the nation now known as Canada was born, when the first statistical giant stepped into Canadian history.

Infographic 1  Thumbnail for Infographic 1: Jean Talon, Canada's first official statistician
Jean Talon, Canada's first official statistician

France's King Louis XIV, the Sun King, charged Jean Talon, the first intendant of the colony of New France, to count the population of this foothold in North America.

Talon travelled door to door through the winter to conduct the earliest known systematic enumeration of the colony's population. In all, he counted 3,215 European settlers in the three settled districts of Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and Ville-Marie (Montréal), also noting their name, age, occupation, conjugal status, and relationship to the head of the family.

It was his devotion to accuracy and to his work more generally that saw Talon dubbed Canada's first official statistician. Talon's excellent early work also explains why his legacy lives on, and why today one of the buildings at Statistics Canada's headquarters in Ottawa bears his name.

The birth of Canada

In 1867, the British North America Act brought into the being the Dominion of Canada, which included Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. As part of the new union, the duty to collect statistics on the population, agriculture, trade, mining, and manufacturing was formally assigned to the new federal government.

The passage of the Dominion's Census Act, enacted in 1870, laid the foundation for the 1871 Census—the first nation-wide census conducted after Confederation.

The centralization of statistics

It was just after the turn of the 20th century that work began on the creation of a permanent census and statistics office. Most statistics were being produced in a decentralized fashion by many departments of the Canadian government, and there was next to no consensus on standards, which made most of the data incomparable.

A repository of census expertise was established in 1905 under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture.

In 1912, the Right Honourable Sir George Eulas Foster, the Minister of Trade and Commerce, and the Minister responsible for official statistics, incorporated the Census and Statistics Office into his department. Foster launched a commission to determine the best way of creating "a comprehensive system of general statistics adequate to the necessities of the country and in keeping with the demands of the time." The Commission would later confirm the fragmentary and disparate nature of official statistics in the country and recommend a central statistical office.

One of the commission members was Robert Hamilton Coats, a Toronto journalist, who came to Ottawa in 1902 to work for the new Department of Labour under Deputy Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. As editor of the Labour Gazette, a publication that focused on labour conditions and wages, Coats developed statistical expertise that would serve him well in the following years.

The first chief statistician

In 1915, R.H. Coats was appointed as Dominion Statistician and Controller of the Census at the Department of Trade and Commerce. He was tasked with carrying out the recommendations of the Commission, which included laying the groundwork for building a centralized statistical system. He played a pivotal role in drafting new legislation to create the Dominion Bureau of Statistics.

In April 1918, a bill to create the Dominion Bureau of Statistics and a centralized and coordinated national statistical system was introduced to the House of Commons. It received royal assent on May 24, 1918, and R.H. Coats became the first Dominion Statistician. He would hold the position for 27 years, actively encouraging innovation and development in the collection and compilation of data.

The first years at the Dominion Bureau of Statistics

In its early years, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics was a small operation, with some 120 employees, all housed in offices in downtown Ottawa. Tunney's Pasture, the agency's current home, was then, as the name implies, pasture land on the banks of the Ottawa River.

Infographic 2  Thumbnail for Infographic 2: First location of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics in downtown Ottawa
First location of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics in downtown Ottawa

It was a different time. The First World War was in its final months. Women, in all Canadian jurisdictions except Quebec, had just won the right to vote in federal elections. Commercial air travel was decades away and the only way across the ocean was by ship.

For the new agency, data collection, analysis and dissemination were all labour-intensive activities. New challenges and opportunities abounded for the new agency, but one principle that has remained in place since its early days is the commitment to serve Canadians.

"Much has changed since 1918, including the rapid evolution of technology and the emergence of an increasingly global society and economy. We, at Statistics Canada, have changed as well, enhancing our processing and analytic capabilities, innovating, and expanding our programs."

— Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada

The evolution of Statistics Canada

Over the next 100 years, a number of people contributed to the growth and development of the agency and helped transform it into the organization it is today. The book highlights a number of them, including Walter Duffett, who led the agency from 1957 to 1972 and, in that time, saw it transition from the Dominion Bureau of Statistics to Statistics Canada. He was succeeded by Sylvia Ostry, the first woman to hold the reins as Chief Statistician.

Not all those who had a major impact on the agency occupied the top job. This was especially true of Simon Goldberg and Agatha Chapman, who created the National Accounts and played an integral role in building the statistical system still in use today.

The book concludes with an overview of the career of Dr. Ivan Fellegi, the man whose name became synonymous with the agency. Dr. Fellegi came to Canada as a refugee from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and went on to carve a remarkable path in this country, helping to transform Statistics Canada into the world-class entity that it is today. A brief overview of Dr. Fellegi's career is available in the article "Ivan Fellegi: A statistician who made his mark," also available in today's edition of The Daily.

A look ahead

While the book looks back at the agency's rich history, it also looks forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

When Statistics Canada got its shiny new name in the early 1970s, technology had already made it possible to put a man on the moon, albeit with less computing power than many people have today in their cellphones.

The accelerating development of technology over the years means that the agency, today, has to be nimble and innovative, while maintaining the confidentiality and privacy of Canadians.

"We are adopting leading edge statistical methods and collaborating with clients, stakeholders and partners. We are striving to meet Canadians' evolving information needs and using new tools and channels to make our data more accessible, meaningful and engaging."

Chief Statistician of Canada, Anil Arora.

Through modernization and innovation, Statistics Canada can continue its long-held tradition of providing Canadians with the statistics they need to make informed decisions about their social and economic wellbeing.


The publication, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The History of Statistics Canada, 1970 to 2008 (Catalogue number89200001), is now available.

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