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History of the census

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The Census over time


3800 Babylon
Carried out every six or seven years. It counted donkeys, oxen, butter, milk, honey and wool.

2500 Egypt
Carried out to assess the labour force available for building pyramids.

1491 Israel
Carried out to count people eligible for military service and taxation purposes.

550 China
Carried out by Confucius to obtain information on the nation's agricultural, industrial and commercial state.


1719 Prussia
Europe's first systematic census.

1790 United States of America
The first U.S. census.

1801 England and France
England and France both carry out their respective nation's first census.

Census: a Canadian history

The first census is conducted in New France—the population numbered 3,215 (excluding Aboriginal peoples and royal troops).

Il s'agit du dernier recensement mené sous le régime français.

The Census of Nova Scotia introduces variables related to religion and origin.

The Census of Nova Scotia introduces variables related to the birthplaces of the people.

The Census of Assiniboia is conducted for the first time in what is now western Canada.

The first national decennial census is established under an act, which requires a census to be taken in 1851, 1861 and every tenth year after.

The first census of British Columbia and Manitoba.

The first census of the Dominion; the questionnaire is available in both English and French, a tradition continued in every subsequent census.

The Dominion Bureau of Statistics is created under the Statistics Act.

The first national quinquennial census is conducted.

For the first time, the majority of respondents fill in their own census questionnaire (self-enumeration). The Dominion Bureau of Statistics becomes Statistics Canada. Under the new Statistics Act, it becomes a statutory requirement to hold censuses of population and agriculture every five years.

For the first time, households across the country had the convenience of completing their questionnaire online. This new method places Canada at the forefront of census taking.


The history of the census in Canada goes back more than 300 years, when the colony of New France undertook the first census.

New France's first census was completed in 1666 under the guidance of Intendant Jean Talon, who was sent to the new colony by King Louis XIV. Talon, who recognized the importance of having reliable information on which to organize and further the colony's development, took part in the door-to-door enumeration of the colony's 3,215 inhabitants who were settled in places such as Montréal, Trois-Rivières and Québec.

Talon conducted his first census using the de jure ("according to law") principle, whereby persons are enumerated according to where they regularly live rather than where they happen to be on census day. He recorded the names of inhabitants on a fixed date, and gathered information on age, sex, marital status, trade and occupation. Additional information was obtained on livestock and land under cultivation.

During the French regime, 36 censuses were conducted in the colony, the last in 1739. New questions were added on topics such as buildings and dwellings, agricultural and industrial output, as well as on weaponry due to the frequent threats to peace during that period.

With the onset of British occupation, censuses with similar content were held at irregular intervals in 1765, 1784 and 1790. Censuses in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Upper Canada and Lower Canada became fairly frequent after 1817, with an annual census of Upper and Lower Canada being conducted from 1824 to 1842.

The first census conducted under the British North American Act occurred in 1871. It contained essentially the same range of questions as censuses conducted in 1851 and 1861. According to the Census Act of May 12, 1870, the census had to take place no later than May 1, except in some districts, in which it could not be held until July. This was due to problems of access to those areas.

When is the best day for the Census?

Census Day was in April since the beginning of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics.

June 1
In 1911, Census day was changed from April to June 1 in order to avoid the unfavourable weather and road conditions of an early spring.

June 3
In an exceptional measure, the census was held on the first Tuesday in June 1941, so as not to conflict with the first Victory Loan campaign.

May 15
For the 2001 Census, the date was May 15, 2001. Conducting the census in mid-May ensures that the drop-off and mail-back of census forms will take place during the same month, and there will be less likelihood of census forms being lost during a move.

Also on May 16, 2006, Statistics Canada conducted both the Census of Population and the Census of Agriculture in order to develop a statistical portrait of Canada and Canadians on one day.

Did you know that...?

  • Canada's population, as enumerated in the 2006 Census, was just slightly over 31.6 million, nearly 1.6 million (5.4%) more than in 2001. The population of Canada is projected to reach 34.2 million in 2010.
  • In the past 40 years, Canada's population has doubled, from just over 14 million in 1951 to 31.6 million in 2006.