Bill Waiser

Vimy Ridge - Ritchie

Let’s protect future census data

‘Opt-in’ option undermines the usefulness of the information

For the first time in Canadian census history, an extra column was added in 1916 as enumerators asked about military service.

In fact, because of the importance of the Great War, the new column appears right after “name of respondent” and before “place of habitation.”

If someone was overseas, the enumerator wrote “O” in the military service column. But if the person was still in Canada, the enumerator put down “C” and listed the name of the camp in the residence column.

It might seem insignificant – an “O” here, a “C” there – but this information helps provide a more complete understanding and appreciation of the local impact of the war.

Researchers can use the name-specific data to examine participation rates in communities, right down to the family level. The census data can also be compared against information on enlistment papers.

Race or nationality, for example, wasn’t recorded at the time of signing up, and the census data fills this void.

Some soldiers, moreover, lied about their age to serve their country. That was the case of my great-uncle, William Stuart Ritchie.

This kind of individual level of detail is a wonderful gift for the descendants of Canadian soldiers and nursing sisters, especially with the approaching centennial of the First World War. It informs who we are today. But such information may not be available in the future. In 2006, for the first time in Canadian history, census participants were asked to indicate – by checking an obscure box – whether their responses on the short form could be made available for research after 92 years.

No explanation was provided about the significance of census records for future genealogical research or for understanding our society. Nothing was said about the consequences of saying no.

If respondents answered no, or simply overlooked the question, the form was not destroyed, but access to it in its name-specific format was forever prohibited.

Canadians completing the census had never been asked this “opt-in” question before. Rather, nominal census information had been made publicly available after a minimum 92-year waiting period – without a single word of complaint.

But because of the so-called informed-consent question in 2006 and 2011, only slightly more than 50 per cent of Canadians agreed to make their census information available to future generations.

If that had been the case in 1916, then much of the rich data available today would have been forever closed to the public. And the usefulness of just over 50 per cent of the information would be questionable.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a clause (2.1) in the 2005 Act to amend the Statistics Act (S.C. 2005, c. 31) that requires 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 the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament that may be designated or established for that purpose.” Clause 2.2 requires a report on the matter.

These clauses do not appear in the consolidated version of the act provided on the Statistics Canada website. It is a curious omission. But with the next census only two years away, this mandatory review must get underway soon – well before the questionnaire for the 2016 census is printed. Failure to conduct the review will be a violation of the legislation.

Nor should any such review be dismissed as an unnecessary annoyance.

Canadians need to know that the statistical integrity of the census as a source of genealogical and historical information, of population trends and movements, and especially about everyday Canadians, has been forever compromised by the informed-consent question. They also need to know that their descendants could be deprived access to family information that might not be otherwise available.

Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have put all kinds of personal information on social media. But not everybody posts details of their life online. And will that information be there in the future, given the ephemeral nature of the technology? At least with the census, there will be a reliable source of information about all Canadians – but only if the informed-consent question is removed.

We owe it to future generations. Why should they be denied the pleasure, and perhaps pride, of doing the family research being conducted these days by descendants of those who served in the First World War?

Bill Waiser’s great-uncle, Pte.¬†William Stuart Ritchie with the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, is memorialized on the Vimy Monument. He died in September 1916 near Courcelette, in northern France.

This article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal on May 28, 2014.