Canada's first census was initiated by Intendant Jean TALON in 1666. The census counted the colony's inhabitants and recorded their age, sex, marital status and occupation. In light of the need for information to help plan and develop the Colony of New France, Talon did much of the data collection personally, visiting settlers throughout the colony.
The years leading up to 1871 - Canada's first national census - saw a long string of 98 colonial and regional censuses. During this period, notably in enumerations between 1710 and 1760, there was a particular need to collect information on housing stock and armaments such as muskets and swords owned by households. Previous censuses had been more concerned with raising taxes or armies and assessing resources. Later, as other needs arose, questions were added on livestock, crops, buildings, churches, grist mills and firearms. In 1765, for example, priorities included assessing the balance between Catholics and Protestants, and recording the number of Acadians, settlers, Indians and Blacks. As a result of this census, new variables that included questions on race, religion and ethnic origin were introduced.
The first national census of Canada was taken in 1871. According to The Census Act of 12 May 1870, census-taking was to take place no later than May 1st. Under Section 8 of The Constitution Act of 1867 (formerly The BRITISH NORTH AMERICA ACT), a census was to be taken in 1871 and every 10th year thereafter. This first census of the Dominion following Confederation in 1867 counted the population of the 4 original provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec and Ontario. Its main goal was to determine appropriate representation by population in the new Parliament. Since 1871, decennial census data have provided the cornerstone for representative government.
In 1871 the questionnaire covered a variety of subjects, and asked 211 questions on area, land holdings, vital statistics, religion, education, administration, the military, justice, agriculture, commerce, industry and finance. Information was collected in tabular form on population, houses and other buildings, lands, industries and institutions. The population field included the age, sex, religion, education, race and occupation of each person. Not every household answered all 211 questions.
The Beginnings of Census Traditions
The 1871 Census began a tradition that is still operative in census-taking today: information on the ancestral origins of all Canadians, including Aboriginal persons, was recorded. Following data collection, between 35 and 50 clerks, unaided by machines of any kind, compiled results that were published in 5 bilingual volumes in 1873.
It is interesting to look at the use of terms in the census at this time. For example, the only options for "marital status" were married, widowed or other. Today there are 5 categories: legally married, separated but still legally married, divorced, widowed, or single (never married). Similarly, from 1871 to 1911, the census asked questions on "infirmities." Respondents were asked to indicate whether members of their household were blind, deaf, or simple-minded. These questions were dropped from the 1921 and subsequent censuses.
Canada's Growing Population: Censuses at the Turn of the Century
Two major changes were made to the census in 1881. All census takers were required to take an oath of secrecy, a pledge still required today. The census was extended to include British Columbia, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island. Also, a housing question was revised to include "wigwams and tents" in the Census of the North-West Territories.
In 1891 the population was prepared for the census enumerator's visit through newspapers and from pulpits.
The 1901 Census was truly a huge undertaking in that its content grew from nine questionnaires and 216 questions in 1891 to 11 questionnaires and 561 questions-though again, not all households answered all questions. The additional questions on religion, birthplace, citizenship and period of immigration supplemented the existing question on ethnic origin. By this time the population of Canada was 5,371,051, and Montreal was the most populous city with 267,730 residents.
The 1911 Census had 13 questionnaires with 522 questions. Some language questions were added, but results were never released. The census showed that the general house-to-house census enumeration should no longer include the detailed fishery questionnaire with questions such as the quantity, kind, and value of catch; and the number and type of boats, gear and equipment. Instead, a special form was used in specified fishing areas of Canada.
In 1912, responsibility for the census shifted from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Trade and Commerce. Six years later, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics was created.
Gradually, census-taking procedures quickened. With the introduction of household and business surveys, the number of census questionnaires decreased since there were now other ways to obtain census information. The 1921 Census had only 5 questionnaires; however, the number of questions had increased to 565, up from 522 in 1911. The 5 questionnaires concerned population; agriculture; animals, animal products, fruits not on farms; manufacturing and trading establishments; and a supplemental questionnaire for persons who were blind and deaf. The population questionnaire contained only 35 questions with those on "insanity" and fertility having been dropped. A new question recorded the birthplaces of the father and mother of each individual. Compilation and tabulation for the 1931 Census was still carried out with mechanical equipment. However, a new sorter-tabulator made production 50 times faster than was previously possible.
The Changing Census between the World Wars
In the 1931 Census, questions were asked to gauge the extent and severity of unemployment and to analyze its causes. The 1941 Census, developed in the Depression and conducted during the Second World War, evaluated data for "social areas" in Winnipeg and Vancouver. This was the first census that linked the urban poor with a view to developing urban planning. It also paved the way for fiscal arrangements between the federal and provincial governments in the form of equalization payments and transfers for healthcare and post-secondary education.
The 1941 Census marked a number of innovations. The "description of home" questions were supplemented with a questionnaire of housing which sought extensive information on dwellings, including the type, facilities, tenure, rent, value, mortgages, etc. The questionnaire, addressed to every 10th household, was the first use of sampling by the census. This method of gathering detailed data from a sample of households rather than all households proved to be effective, yielding high-quality data while reducing costs and response burden. In 1951, the sample was expanded to one household in 5 in order to obtain greater geographic detail. Since then, this ratio has been used in all decennial censuses except the census of 1971, when a 1-in-three sample was used.
Another major innovation was the inclusion of questions on fertility, a topic considered too sensitive for the 1921 and 1931 censuses. Fertility was correlated to earnings, schooling and other significant characteristics of the family.
The Postwar Years
The 1951 Census, held two years after Newfoundland became part of Canada, marked Canada's first census as a nation of 10 provinces and 2 territories. The content of the population and housing questionnaire covered name, sex, age, marital status, relationship to "head" of household, and the structural type and tenure of dwelling. This census also provided information for small areas such as counties, municipalities, cities, towns, etc. These data proved beneficial to users for a number of purposes including determining grants and subsidy allowances, studying social and economic problems, and conducting market research.
For the 1951 Census, enumerator "mark-sense" technology used for the population and housing questionnaires, greatly reduced processing time and costs. This method recorded respondent information by means of special markings in designated positions on the enumeration document. Punch cards could then be generated by a document punch without the intermediate step of manual punching. Subsequent processing of the cards was carried out on a high-speed tabulator.
In 1956, the first nationwide quinquennial census was conducted and enjoyed the distinction of being the first to use television in its publicity program. Rapid growth in population and agriculture indicated the need for benchmarks at 5-year intervals in order to provide a more accurate basis for annual estimates. The major challenge of a complete census of Canada was to develop a simplified questionnaire restricted to the essentials so as not to exceed the allocated budget.
Enumeration of the population, housing and agricultural censuses and initial processing of the population and housing questionnaires were carried out by the Bureau's 8 regional offices. The enumeration process included a postal check of 60% of Canadian households. Letter carriers in 170 urban areas checked enumerators' address listings against their own records. A subsequent follow-up of missed addresses added over 40 000 persons to the total population count.
The only new question in the 1961 Census concerned the level of education of household members. A 20% sample of households was used to collect additional information on internal migration, fertility, and income characteristics; the same sample was used for the housing census. The 1961 Census planning committee decided that computer facilities would be used for processing respondent information collected in the field on "mark sense" documents and then transferred by an optical document reader to magnetic tape for later computer processing.
The 1966 Census was the second mid-decade census of the entire country. The content of the population and housing questionnaire was similar to that of 1956. The agricultural questionnaire contained 138 questions, compared with 251 in 1961.
The Contemporary Census
By 1971, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics had become STATISTICS CANADA. This year also marked the 100th anniversary of the first national census of Canada. Under the new Statistics Act, it became a statutory requirement to hold censuses of population and agriculture every 5 years. Self-enumeration, whereby respondents complete their own questionnaire, was introduced in 1971. Representing a major change in census collection methods, self-enumeration minimized enumerator error and improved data quality, while addressing privacy concerns and respondent burden. Two questionnaires were used in 1971. The "short" form distributed to two-thirds of Canadian households covered the basic population questions and 9 housing questions. The "long" form, distributed to the remaining third, contained the same questions as the short form with the addition of 20 housing questions and 30 socio-economic population questions. The Census of Agriculture questionnaire contained 199 questions, down from 251 in 1961.
The larger population in 1971 increased the complexity of census-taking. Thus, there was an increase in the number of census enumerators, from 30 000 in 1961 to 4l 000 in 1971. A "drop-off, mail-back" questionnaire was used in large urban areas; in rural areas, questionnaires were both dropped off and picked up by census enumerators. The remainder of the population - those living in northern regions, coastal outports, institutions, etc. - were enumerated by traditional face-to-face canvassing. Mini-censuses were abolished in 1986 in favour of a full census ever 5 years rather than 10.
Census questions and formats have changed and adapted to the ever-changing needs and activities of Canadians. The term "head," which previously referred to the husband in a husband-wife family or the parent in a lone-parent family, was changed in 1976 for husband-wife families to refer to either the husband or wife. The reference to "head" was dropped altogether in the 1981 Census. In 1991 a question on "common-law" relationship was included on the census questionnaire for the first time. This was elaborated on in the 2001 census: questions were added about common-law couples of both same and opposite sex relationships. In 1996 more new questions were added including Aboriginal identity, population group, household activities or unpaid work, and mode of transportation to work. Materials for the censuses of 1986 and 1991 were available in alternate formats such as Braille, audio cassette and large print. The 1996 Census was translated into 49 non-official languages, 12 of which were Aboriginal languages, and was available in the same alternate formats as well as diskette.
Author STATISTICS CANADA
Links to Other Sites
A history of the "census" in Canada. Check the menu on the left for data on small groups (such as lone-parent families, ethnic groups, industrial and occupational categories and immigrants) and for information about areas as small as a city neighbourhood or as large as the entire country. From the website for Statistics Canada.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...