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Example 1: The Census

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Related information

History of the census

Statistics Canada's largest data collection exercise is the Census of Population, conducted every five years according to the law. The Census of Population provides a basis for estimating the population of provinces, territories and local municipal areas. The information collected is related to more than 80 federal and provincial legislative measures and provides a basis for the distribution of federal tax dollars to the provinces.

The Census provides an historical perspective on how communities are changing and how the country is evolving over time. It supports planning, administration, policy development and evaluation activities of governments at all levels, as well as data users in the private sector.

About 98% of households are enumerated using the self-enumeration (or mail-back) method. Starting in early May, census representatives go door-to-door, delivering a census questionnaire to every household. Householders are asked to complete the questionnaire for themselves and for the members of their household and return it in the pre-paid envelope on Census Day.

About 2% of the households are enumerated using the canvasser method. In this case, a census representative visits a household and completes a questionnaire by interview. This method is normally used in remote and northern areas of the country and on most Aboriginal reserves. It is also used in large, downtown areas where residents are transient.

Most households (80%) receive the short census questionnaire which contains seven questions on basic topics such as the respondent's relationship to Person 1 (generally, the householder), age, sex, marital status, and mother tongue. One in five households (20%) receives the long questionnaire which contains the 7 questions from the short form plus 52 additional questions on topics such as education, ethnicity, mobility, income and employment.

All four groups referred to in the beginning of this chapter (governments, businesses, community groups and individuals) use the information provided by the Census.

Before every Census of Population, Statistics Canada invites data users to submit topics they would like to include in the Census. These topics are then followed by a lengthy consultative process. In fact, the content of the 2001 Census required:

  • consultations from every level of government, libraries, academia, private sector, non-government associations, as well as licensed secondary distributors
  • 65 meetings
  • 350 written submissions
  • content consultations with about 480 people
  • giving rise to some 1,650 comments

However, not every submission for new information is successful.

So, how does Statistics Canada decide which topics will be added to the Census? Statistics Canada used the following principles to help decide whether or not a topic was suitable for the 2001 Census of Population:

The topic was of major national importance? The Census is a large and costly operation which ensures that every household completes the questionnaire. Therefore, it is essential that every question have a specific purpose.

The topic was suitable for inclusion? Census topics should not cause an adverse reaction from people by unacceptably invading their privacy. Also, the questions should not require lengthy explanations or instructions to ensure a correct answer, and should not refer to things people are unlikely to remember.

The Census was an appropriate method of collecting data on the topic? Consideration should also be given to the alternative collection methods. In some cases, the information being sought may already exist; it may be collected by other organizations, or may even be found in administrative records.

The topic was capable of being covered in a suitable amount of time? The Census needs to limit the amount of questions asked on the form. If the form takes too long for the public to complete, this could cause some problems.

The content of the 2001 Census questionnaire was influenced by various social policy issues, such as:

  • The demands of an aging population for necessities such as medical services and housing (age, sex and marital status questions);
  • Canada's programs and policies related to multiculturalism, bilingualism and employment equity (immigration, language, citizenship and ethno-cultural questions);
  • Changes in technology that require upgrading of skills and continued learning (education questions);
  • The prevention of economic inequity and consequent polarization of Canadian society into 'haves' and 'have-nots' (income, education and labour force questions);
  • The demand for affordable housing programs and establishment of a 'core housing need' (dwelling and housing questions).

Some topics have been included in every Census of Population since 1871. For example, Name, Age, Sex, Date of Birth and Marital Status have always been included. Take a look at the table below to see what other topics have always been included.

Selected content of Censuses, 1871 to 2006
Topic 1871 1881 1891 1901 1941 1966 1971 1996 2001 2006
Name Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Date of birth Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Sex Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Place of birth Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Religion Y Y Y Y Y N Y N Y N
Ethnic origin Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Occupation Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Income N N N N N Y Y Y Y Y
Marital status Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
School attendance Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Disabilities N N N N N N N Y Y Y
Relation to reference person N N Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Hours worked last week N N N N N Y Y Y Y Y
Mother tongue N N N Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Citizenship N N N Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Place of residence (5 years ago) N N N N Y Y Y Y Y Y
Home language N N N N N N Y Y Y Y
Type of dwelling N N N N Y Y Y Y Y Y

Table summary

Example continued