Census talk

January 20, 2016

The Census of Population is a massive undertaking. It takes over 35,000 employees and millions of dollars to count every single person living in Canada. The man who is ultimately responsible for this endeavour—along with all other operations at Statistics Canada—is Canada's Chief Statistician, Wayne R. Smith.

It has been 350 years since the first census data were collected in New France in the winter of 1665–1666. Mr. Smith recently sat down with us to discuss the upcoming census, future censuses and how things have changed since that first census.

2016 Census

"The discussion over the long-form census showed how important the census is to Canadians," Mr. Smith said. "Hundreds and hundreds of organizations came forward and said how important the census is to them. Business organizations came forward. Municipalities spoke out about how they use the data. Provinces use them. School boards. Health districts. It was a strong message not only to us and to the government, but to Canadians."

In November 2015, when the newly elected government asked Statistics Canada to reinstate the mandatory long-form census, the agency was prepared to change paths quickly. Although census questionnaires had been printed, introductory letters with instructions for respondents were quickly adapted.

The agency also assessed the census methodology. "We did have to consider whether there could be confusion in the population about whether the census was voluntary or mandatory," Mr. Smith noted. To ensure that we have a sufficient number of responses, so that the agency can publish data at all geographic levels, StatCan decided to send the long-form census to one in four Canadian households, versus the one in five in 2006 and the one in three for the voluntary National Household Survey during the 2011 Census.

Another change for 2016 is the decision to use income data directly from the Canada Revenue Agency instead of including questions on the long form. This is the latest step in the growing use of administrative data—data provided to other government organizations and made available to Statistics Canada under strict rules of confidentiality.

Using Canada Revenue Agency sources means that income information for Census 2016 will be available for 100% of households, rather than for only those asked to complete the long-form census questionnaire. It also means that the income results provided by the census will be the most accurate in StatCan's history.

And, just as importantly, Canadians will be spared having to provide the same statistical information that they have already provided to another government agency.

The future census

Over the next several years, the agency will undertake a range of research projects to make the Census of Population more efficient.

The agency is exploring how data from administrative sources could be used as the foundation of the census head count, possibly as early as 2026. Eventually, Mr. Smith envisions updating some of the information collected in a census not just every five years, but annually, or even on a continuous basis, as is done in some other countries. For instance, Sweden has long maintained a household registry rather than conducting a regular census.

The wrinkle in Canada is that some information—for example, mother tongue, language used at home, Canadians studying abroad—is obtained only through the census. "I do not see a future where the census is entirely done through administrative records, but I do see a future where a major portion, including the head count and some of the more significant variables, is done through administrative sources," Mr. Smith said.

In pursuing this goal, StatCan works closely with partners at the international level to understand how other countries are tackling related problems. Mr. Smith currently chairs the Conference of European Statisticians, a group of statisticians from European countries, Canada and the United States. "National statistical offices are very good at getting together, sharing experiences and tools and approaches and learning from each other. We are very much at the heart of that. We are doing important work developing the census of the future," he said.

One area where Canada has been a leader is using the Internet for census data collection. In 2011, some 54% of Canadians completed their census questionnaire online. The agency has a target of 65% for 2016.

Censuses past

Incidentally, Canada was also a world leader back in 1666, when Jean Talon went door to door in New France to conduct what is widely acknowledged as the first "modern census." As notes the Chief Statistician: "a modern census describes a census that is systematically collected from the entire population with the purpose of improving the administration or governance of a country."

For much of its history, the collection consisted of hiring people and sending them by foot, canoe, train or snowmobile to knock on doors to talk to people.

A big change came in 1971, when Statistics Canada asked Canadians to complete census forms themselves. By 1976, optical character readers increased efficiency in capturing the information from the questionnaires. Then, Internet collection introduced in 2006 brought rapid progress in the ability to capture information more efficiently.

Equally significant changes occurred in the back office, with data tabulation. Once individual records could be captured in an electronic form, the value that could be extracted from census data grew dramatically. Special tabulations for small geographical areas were possible. Administrative data could be digitally captured.

The publishing of census results has also accelerated. In earlier censuses, it generally took two years before Canadians saw the first results. For the 2016 Census, the first results will be available in February 2017, similar to the 2011 Census, and final results for all variables will be released by the end of 2017, a gain of 10 months from 2011.

Census support

People do understand how important the census is to their own well-being, and the Chief Statistician believes that the goodwill and support shown in the long-form census debate will prevail.

In February, census collection will start in Canada's North. In May, collection starts in other parts of Canada. "The 2016 Census will give communities the information that they have been looking for. We count on Canadians to complete their census to support their community."

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