Bill Waiser

Gaps in census mean Canadians are being left out of history

By Ian E. Wilson and Bill Waiser

It’s a Canadian feel-good story.

One government ends the mandatory long-form household census over howls of protest. A newly elected government restores the long form as one of its first acts in office. Canadians rejoice, especially those selected to complete the long form. And the key statistical basis for understanding Canada and ourselves is restored, at least in part.

The story can’t have a happy ending, though, until the “opt-in” question on the census is removed.

Until then, hundreds of thousands of Canadians will be missing from the historical record. The 2016 census, like those of 2006 and 2011, will be a severely flawed historical record.

What’s the reason?

The final question Canadians are asked to complete on the census is whether they consent to having their information available through Library and Archives Canada 92 years from now.

The explanation for this question can be discovered deep on the Statistics Canada website. It is the 16th and last item under “general information” in the FAQs, and comes immediately after the notice that Statistics Canada will be retrieving financial information from income tax returns. Respondents for the census “are instructed to consult with all members of the household” before answering the question about making information available after 92 years.

In 2006, only 56 per cent of the respondents said Yes.

Those who said No, on the other hand, may have been concerned about financial information, chose not to consult with the three-month-old baby or simply did not understand the question.

If left blank, the default was No.

Great-grandchildren and their great-grandchildren of the 22nd and 23rd centuries, trying to understand their heritage, will not find their ancestors. Two of every five Canadians will effectively fade from memory.

Parliament gave serious consideration to this matter in 2005.

Canadians completing the census had never been asked this “opt-in” question before. In fact, prior to 2006, all nominal census information had been made publicly available after a minimum 92-year waiting period – without a single complaint.

But in amending the Statistics Act in 2005, the Canadian government settled on a compromise: test the opt-in question for the 2006 and 2011 censuses and then require a review of the informed-consent question “no later than two years before the taking of the third census of population [2016]… by any committee of [Parliament].”

At the time, historians, archivists, genealogists and other researchers were deeply worried that the opt-in question would compromise the integrity of the national census as an inclusive source of information on Canadians and their lives.
They also pointed out that neither the American (available after only 72 years) nor the British censuses have an opt-in question.

And they warned it is impossible today to know what might be historically important tomorrow, and that future Canadians could be deprived of access to family information that might not be otherwise available.

Statistics Canada countered these genuine concerns by promising a vigorous media campaign to get Canadians to say Yes to the informed consent question. An Industry Canada press release even promised a publicity campaign “to encourage Canadians to allow future access to their census records to preserve Canada’s history for future generations.”

A good Canadian compromise was enacted into law. So, what happened?

No explanation is provided on the 2016 census form about the significance of census records for future genealogical research or for understanding Canadian society. No media campaign. Nothing is said about the consequences of saying No.
Instead, that section begins with the rather ominous warning about the confidentiality of the census and then simply asks respondents whether they want “to make your census information available in 92 years for important historical and genealogical research.”

That is not “informed consent” as required by the act. On the contrary, No has been made the choice by default.

When is Parliament going to hold the legislated review of the opt-in question? Will the major decennial census of 2021 also be compromised?

How can Statistics Canada say it is meeting its mission of “serving Canada with high-quality statistical information that matters”? And why are Canadians being left out of history?

Everyone deserves to be remembered and have a place in the archives of Canada.

Ian E. Wilson is former Librarian and Archivist of Canada.
Bill Waiser is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Toronto Star.