Robert H. Coats: From builder to building

September 28, 2018

In the beginning, statistics in Canada were akin to the Wild West.

There was no shortage of statistics. Government departments at every level made earnest efforts over the years to learn about the social and economic conditions of their constituents, their employment status and what types of goods or services they produced and sold.

But these efforts at data collection were often sporadic and haphazard. Data were difficult to find. There were obvious gaps and needless duplication. If you finally did track down the data you needed there was often a reluctance to share.

Most importantly of all, could you trust the data?

The man tasked with bringing order and credibility to the statistical chaos was Robert H. Coats.

A journalist by trade, he became the first Chief Statistician of Canada by dint of his stellar work writing about and ultimately producing labour related statistics at the behest of various federal government departments at the beginning of the 20th Century.

At the helm of the agency for the first quarter century of our existence, Coats helped create the agency we know today. Reflecting back upon his career, Coats acknowledged that he was building upon the efforts of those who went before him, saying the bureau was "a product of evolution rather than creation."

With the passage of the Statistics Act in 1918, however, Coats finally had the authority he needed to work with other government departments, the provinces and industry to produce more methodologically sound, accurate and comparable data.

Coats assembled a full-time staff of 123 employees divided into 11 divisions. They used cutting edge card-punching and electric tabulating machinery in their calculations. Among the first things they charted were wages, with men making an average of $22.78 per week in 1919, while women made $11.59. The bureau was also one of the first statistical agencies to track phones, finding out that there were 9.8 phones for every 100 people in Canada in 1920.

The value of the data was clearly illustrated by the number of times the bureau was forced to move in the early years to accommodate a growing staff. Better data helped the government better understand the economic and social impact of the Great Depression and drought on the Canadian economy in the 1930s. Coats postponed retirement until 1942 to ensure the government had the information it needed to prosecute the war.

Coats not only advocated for the centralization of statistics in Canada, he took his message abroad, working closely with the League of Nations and the International Statistical Institute to improve data gathering around the world. His international efforts culminated with Coats becoming a member of the new International Statistical Commission in the 1930s.

Although Coats is best remembered as a statistician, he was also a respected journalist. A good journalist will gather the facts and tell an accurate, unbiased story. Coats took that philosophy and applied it to statistics. He was not interested in only producing "dry as dust" statistics for the select few, he wanted to share the stories of our data with the public.

That meant writing a story about statistics that the average Canadian could understand.

Radio was newfangled technology in the 1930s and Coats took the bureau there, with a daily two-minute feature called "A Fact A Day About Canada," that proved a hit with teachers and students around the country.

Further reflecting his journalistic bent, The Daily was created in 1932 to announce the release of new statistics and to paint a brief, accurate story about our data. Published every working day without fail since then, the Daily has gone from a few mimeo graphed sheets of typed paper mailed to a handful of journalists to an electronic staple read by thousands of people around the world every day.

When Coats looked at statistics, he did not see numbers, he saw people and the activities of Canadians.

"Statistics wear a dry-as-dust and repellant look to many…. 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."

In recognition of his work in creating the agency, the headquarters of Statistics Canada is named after Robert H. Coats. The work carried out in that building today is a testament to the men and women who, like Coats, dared to innovate to make Statistics Canada the world leading agency it is today.

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

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