May 24, 2018

When Jean Talon, the first Intendant of New France, arrived on the shores of modern-day Canada in 1665, he faced many daunting challenges. Yet, over his five-year tenure, the population climbed from 3,200 to 7,600—thanks, in part, to his realization that in order to develop the colony, he would need to better understand it. So, in the winter of 1665, Talon began his administrative appointment by taking stock of the colony, subsequently using knowledge gained from the 1666 Census—the first in North America—to help it flourish.

After collecting his statistics, Talon put them to work. As Intendant of Justice, Police and Finance, Talon arranged for young women, or the filles du roi, to come from France in order to correct the gender imbalance and populate the colony. He diversified the economy by establishing a lumber trade and "manufactories" to produce wool and textile products. And, after his effort with the 1666 Census, another 45 full and partial censuses followed before 1847, when statistics-taking was legislated in the United Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada.

More than three centuries later, the legacy of Canada's first Intendant is alive and well at Statistics Canada with the Jean Talon Building named in his honour. But the significance of his early work means much more than this modern-day tribute, said Marc Hamel, Director General of the Census Program:

"The 1666 Census situates the importance of statistical information in the history of our country, and has helped to shape who we've become over the past three centuries. While technology continues to change the way we collect, produce and provide data, the basis of today's Census Program is the same: to capture and update the statistical portrait of our country to benefit the millions of people who call this place home," he said.

Honouring our past, building our future

This year, a century has gone by since the Dominion Bureau of Statistics—later renamed Statistics Canada—was created. Now, 100 years strong, the agency chronicles many facets of Canadian life—its population, resources, economy, society and culture. In 2016, Statistics Canada conducted its most successful census in our country's history, enabling once again the provision of high quality statistical information to virtually all communities from coast to coast to coast.

This strong foundation, established long before the birth of the agency—even before the birth of the country—has prepared Statistics Canada for the challenges ahead, Mr. Hamel said.

"These early censuses were crucial to the development of New France, and each of them evolved to reflect the many societal changes that were taking place. Today, all of the agency's 375 surveys reflect and measure how society is changing, and our collection methods, processes and content will continue to evolve well into our second century."

History that makes 'census'

By 1971, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics had become Statistics Canada, marking the 100th anniversary of the first census following Confederation. This important milestone also signalled a turning point in the agency's methodological innovations, whereby respondents could self-enumerate, or, complete their own questionnaire. By 2006, households could opt to complete the census questionnaire online, placing Canada at the forefront of census-taking. And, in 2016, 68% of Canadians chose the internet as their primary mode of response.

Today, Mr. Hamel and approximately 500 other agency employees are already working on preparation for the 2021 Census and beyond to continue providing Canadians with high quality statistics in our ever-shifting society and economy, and anticipate future innovations. To do this, the agency is shifting its focus towards acquiring more administrative data, developing new methods to link and integrate data, and modernize current collection approaches.

"The Census Program has always been a key driver of innovation at the agency. A couple of decades ago, who could have known how technology would impact our work and the world around us as it does today. That's why our transformation project is looking at emerging methods and technologies to leverage various sources of information to create the same high quality information Canadians are accustomed to. We are taking the necessary steps to meet tomorrow's needs," Mr. Hamel said.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow

While much has changed since 1666, much has also remained the same: The census, and all of the agency's programs, continue to support informed decision-making in nearly every aspect of Canadian society. "As the first census-taker, Talon is an important figure at Statistics Canada, but he is even more significant in the history of our country. The program will continue to evolve so that we, three centuries later, can better understand ourselves and our future."

To learn more about Statistics Canada's program of activities to mark its centennial, visit: One Hundred Years and Counting.

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