Some facts about the Census

It is generally assumed amongst the population of Canada that it is mandatory that all of the information requested on a census form, both the short form and the long form, must be provided as part of an individual’s obligation under the Statistics Act of Canada. A closer look at the statute reveals that it isn’t necessarily so.

But first, a little history about the census in Canada.

The first pre-confederation census was held in 1666 by Intendent Jean Talonin in the area of North America known as New France. Collecting much of the data himself by visiting settlers, he personally counted 3,215 inhabitants. He recorded their age, sex, marital status and occupation to help plan for the future development of the Colony of New France

Later, as British invaders began settling in other areas of the country they now called British North America, censuses were held there as well. From their benign beginnings, the census was held randomly over the ensuing years for a variety of reasons such as keeping count of livestock, crops, buildings, churches, mills and firearms, and for assessing the population of different religious groups and racial groups.

Even though today’s censuses are still similar in purpose to those pre-confederation censuses, they never really had a rational purpose until Canada became a confederation. This excerpt from the second reading of the BNA Act Bill in 1867 in the Imperial Parliament alludes to the first national need to be counted.

Speeches on Canadian Affairs
Henry Howard Molyneux, 4th Earl of Carnarvon
The second reading of the British North America Bill February 19, 1867

Pg. 107 “As I have said, it is proposed that the Provinces shall surrender to the Central Parliament all powers of raising revenue except by direct taxation. In return for this concession, the Central Government will remit to the Local Legislatures certain fixed sums and proportionate capitation payments, in order to enable them to more conveniently to defray the costs of local administration.”

As a result of confederation, a national census bureau had to be established at the federal level in order to fulfill the constitutional quid pro quo of proportionate capitation payments, meaning the population of each province had to be counted in order to come up with a total amount to be paid annually to each of the four original provinces, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. The counting of the population also helped to establish representation by population in the new Parliament.

The 1867 BNA Act required that the first census be taken in 1871 and every tenth year thereafter until 1956 when it began to be taken every five years. On May 12, 1870, Parliament passed the Census Act, paving the way for Canada’s first census to be taken the following year. In 1918, 47 years later, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics was established to oversee it and the Bureau conducted the national census for the next 53 years until 1971 when Statistics Canada was formed to take over the task

Now, let’s look at the Statistics Act to find out what information we are required to provide and what information is voluntary only. We will look at Section 3 of the Act to begin with as it establishes the duties and responsibilities of the statistics bureau also known as Statistics Canada.

Statistics Act
An Act respecting statistics of Canada

Statistics Bureau

3. There shall continue to be a statistics bureau under the Minister, to be known as Statistics Canada, the duties of which are
(a) to collect, compile, analyse, abstract and publish statistical information relating to the commercial, industrial, financial, social, economic and general activities and condition of the people;
(b) to collaborate with departments of government in the collection, compilation and publication of statistical information, including statistics derived from the activities of those departments;
(c) to take the census of population of Canada and the census of agriculture of Canada as provided in this Act;
(d) to promote the avoidance of duplication in the information collected by departments of government; and
(e) generally, to promote and develop integrated social and economic statistics pertaining to the whole of Canada and to each of the provinces thereof and to coordinate plans for the integration of those statistics.
These powers seem reasonable enough but it is interesting to note and although subsection (a) appears to be very broad in its scope of activities, the actual census of population and agriculture are addressed separately in subsection (c)
This brings us to Section 19 of the Act which, not only addresses the population census mentioned in subsection 3(c) but, it’s where we find the imperative (mandatory requirement) for the time a census must be conducted within.

Population Census

19. (1) A census of population of Canada shall be taken by Statistics Canada in the month of June in the year 1971, and every fifth year thereafter in a month to be fixed by the Governor in Council.
(2) The census of population shall be taken in such a manner as to ensure that counts of the population are provided for each federal electoral district of Canada, as constituted at the time of each census of population.
(3) A reference in any Act of Parliament, in any order, rule or regulation or in any contract or other document made thereunder to a decennial census of population shall, unless the context otherwise requires, be construed to refer to the census of population taken by Statistics Canada in the year 1971 or in any tenth year thereafter.

But we all know that canvassers ask for more than just the number of people living in our homes, especially if you are one of the lucky ones to be subjected to the “long form”. This is where Section 22 comes in. It gives the Chief Statistician an imperative on how to deal with other information that may be authorized to be collected. Below is a list of the different categories that statistics may be created from.

General Statistics

22. Without limiting the duties of Statistics Canada under section 3 or affecting any of its powers or duties in respect of any specific statistics that may otherwise be authorized or required under this Act, the Chief Statistician shall, under the direction of the Minister, collect, compile, analyse, abstract and publish statistics in relation to all or any of the following matters in Canada:
(a) population;
(b) agriculture;
(c) health and welfare;
(d) law enforcement, the administration of justice and corrections;
(e) government and business finance;
(f) immigration and emigration;
(g) education;
(h) labour and employment;
(i) commerce with other countries;
(j) prices and the cost of living;
(k) forestry, fishing and trapping;
(l) mines, quarries and wells;
(m) manufacturing;
(n) construction;
(o) transportation, storage and communication;
(p) electric power, gas and water utilities;
(q) wholesale and retail trade;
(r) finance, insurance and real estate;
(s) public administration;
(t) community, business and personal services; and
(u) any other matters prescribed by the Minister or by the Governor in Council.

Apparently, the Chief Statistician must collect, compile, analyze, abstract and publish statistics in relation to all or any of the aforementioned categories, as required under the Act. However, regardless of what he has to do, we need to dig further to find out what information we, the people, are required to provide in relation to the Act, especially when it appears they require a lot of very personal and private information. So when the canvasser comes knocking at the door, are we really required to provide all of this information?

Of course, if we start to complain about this apparent breach of our privacy, the canvasser has been trained to recite Section 31 of the Act which is the penal section that outlines the penalty for every person who neglects or refuses to answer or provide information to the Minister.

False or unlawful information

31. Every person who, without lawful excuse,
(a) refuses or neglects to answer, or wilfully answers falsely, any question requisite for obtaining any information sought in respect of the objects of this Act or pertinent thereto that has been asked of him by any person employed or deemed to be employed under this Act, or
(b) refuses or neglects to furnish any information or to fill in to the best of his knowledge and belief any schedule or form that the person has been required to fill in, and to return the same when and as required of him pursuant to this Act, or knowingly gives false or misleading information or practises any other deception thereunder is, for every refusal or neglect, or false answer or deception, guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both.

It appears on the surface that everyone must submit to providing information in all the different areas the Minister has authority to create statistics from, or be faced with fines, prison time or both. However, by reading Section 8 of the Act in conjunction with the whole Act, it becomes quite clear that where such information is requested, other than in relation to population and agriculture, such information only need be provided on a voluntary basis, and any refusal or neglect on our part to provide our private information is not subject to any punishment as defined in Section 31.

Voluntary Surveys

8. The Minister may, by order, authorize the obtaining, for a particular purpose, of information, other than information for a census of population or agriculture, on a voluntary basis, but where such information is requested, section 31 does not apply in respect of a refusal or neglect to furnish the information.

And because commerce is such an intricate part of our daily lives, Section 9 expands this respect for privacy to companies as well, thereby respecting both, individuals’ and companies’ right to privacy.

No discrimination

9. (1) Neither the Governor in Council nor the Minister shall, in the execution of the powers conferred by this Act, discriminate between individuals or companies to the prejudice of those individuals or companies.

So, where does this understanding of the Act leave us? Well, we now know that we only have to tell the persistent canvasser how many people live in our homes, regardless of how upset he or she gets, how many cows we have in the back yard and what crops we are growing. And any other information need only be provided on a voluntary basis. By simply reading and understanding the relevant statute, we can learn to exercise our rights and protect our privacy, as well as save ourselves a lot of time answering questions on the stats form that we are not obliged to provide answers to in the first place.

Additional resources:

Statistics Act:
Concerns about Lockheed Martin as the Census Contractor:
Census Opposition website: