A statistical centennial

January 22, 2014

When the Dominion Bureau of Statistics came into being with the passing of the Statistics Act of 1918, Robert H. Coats was named as the first Dominion Statistician, and given the daunting task of forming the new bureau.

"Statistics wear a dry-as-dust and repellant look to many," Mr. Coats said. "The statistics of a nation are, in point of fact, the quantitative expression of the character and activities of the people and, hence, are of the most profound significance."

As Canada's 11th Chief Statistician, Wayne R. Smith is leading Statistics Canada (as the agency was re-christened in 1971) toward its 100th birthday in 2018. Like his predecessors, he is charged with ensuring that Canadians understand the profound significance to be found in dusty stats.

The science of sampling

Mr. Coats would probably be dazzled by the innovations over the past century. Back then, statistics were mostly a matter of counting heads or businesses and publishing a table once a year. Sampling—where you take a sample of people and extrapolate results to the larger population—was years in coming. Today, nearly all Statistics Canada surveys are done this way: determining how large and diverse the sample needs to be in order to represent the whole population is a science unto itself.

Using a different kind of science, the Canadian Health Measures Survey team takes blood and urine samples as well as other physical measurements from 7,000 individuals to tell a story about the health of Canadians. The notion that the national statistical office would undertake such measurements would have been scandalous in 1918.

One hundred years ago, citizens were surveyed less often, and they paid little attention to the resulting data: statistics were largely a government affair. Today, when the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are released, which show how Canadian 15-year-olds rank in mathematics and reading against their peers around the world, they attract a torrent of media coverage that sparks vigorous public debate and curriculums are examined. Such scrutiny is true for every country in the world.

The context has changed completely, Mr. Smith noted in a recent interview. A century ago, "governments were not trying to manage the economy. The social safety net had not been developed, so the information needs were pretty simple. At the beginning of the 20th century, governments did not think it was their role to help fund health care or provide publicly funded pensions. It was expected that individuals would take care of themselves. We now have a complex system of social support. Correspondingly vast amounts of information are needed to support those kinds of programs and to support the development of new policies. And Canadians hold governments to account for these programs."

The never-ending news cycle

Mr. Smith also thinks that 1918 statisticians would envy the 24-hour news cycle. "Unlike Robert Coats and his colleagues, we talk to the whole Canadian population every day. We are able to do that because the news media amplify our voice, and enable us to deliver our data into the hands of people across Canada. Some days, it is not comfortable because they scrutinize everything we do with a critical eye. But the news media are one of the guardians of the independence of a statistical office. They hold us and the government to account. On balance, they are a huge asset to us. I actually think that Coats would say, 'Gee, I wish that I had had that kind of attention and that kind of presence in Canada.'"

A solid foundation

Mr. Smith believes that Statistics Canada functions well today because his predecessors and their colleagues created a strong base on which to build. "I think the people who wrote the first Statistics Act (the legislation establishing and governing Statistics Canada) did a brilliant job. Unlike many other countries, they set out to build a very centralized system. Their vision was that there should be a central office that would compile as much of the statistical information as possible for all Canadians and for all levels of government."

This strong foundation enables us today to link environmental data with economic data with health data with population data across provinces, territories and municipalities.

Innovation never sleeps

The early statisticians also got it right in terms of constant innovation. Long before computers sat on every desk, Statistics Canada was inventing better computing machines to compile data, and envisioning better ways to understand our world. "Think about the people who built the System of National Accounts in the 1940s. It was an international effort, but Canadians were heavily involved. It was a huge intellectual leap forward to say we are going to come up with a statistic that summarizes the total production of a country, so we can track through time how that country is performing, and develop policies to improve that performance."

Today, we have more tools, but less ability to make giant leaps. The challenge in the future, Mr. Smith says, will be to decide priorities with limited resources, growing demands for information, and more sophisticated technological tools. What will those priorities be? Sustainable retirement for a population that is living longer and aging? Integrating young people into the labour force? Health? Environment? Productivity? Economic stats?

The best way to honour the past 100 years, continues Wayne Smith, is to keep on innovating by asking users how to make the data less dusty and more significant. "We can light a birthday candle here in head office, but I would be happiest marking the anniversary with our users and stakeholders. I would like our staff to hear from our users and to hear what they need in the future. We will never have it all figured out, because the questions and the opportunities keep changing. So to mark the 100 years of Statistics Canada, we must not just celebrate the past, we must also build a vision for the future."

Next month: Rethinking The Daily

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User comments

Hi! It is amazing that Stats Can has been around for 100 years! So much has changed and, in particular, I was wondering about accessibility issues faced by Stats Can in both presenting Stats Can information to all members of the public, including Canadians with disabilities such as blindness, and in collecting census information from Canadians with disabilities.

StatCan is committed to making information available to all Canadians and providing assistance to complete its surveys. Website data and census questionnaires may be accessed by the visually impaired using screen readers. Information is also available upon request in multiple formats including audio, large-print and Braille. To assist the hearing impaired, we have a TTY number (1-800-363-7629) and, for the 2011 Census, we posted an online signing video presentation of the questionnaire. Individuals with a reading disability could contact the Census Help Line to complete their census questionnaire over the telephone. And StatCan Help Line agents are available (1-800-263-1136) Monday to Friday, during regular business hours, to assist the public with all their StatCan questions and concerns.

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