Canada’s 2016 Census: the Long-Form’s Return

Canada’s 2016 Census: the Long-Form’s Return

On May 10, 2016, the most recent Canadian census took place. Of course, Canadians had from the 2nd to complete their forms, but the information given was meant to reflect a ‘snapshot’ of life in the country on the 10th of May.

census envelope.jpg

Censuses have been conducted in one or more regions of what is now Canada since the mid-17th century. All of the Canadian territories have been surveyed via a census every 10 years since 1851 and every 5 years since 1901. Some of the information requested be the government changes from census to census, but some items remain relatively unchanged, including family name, size of household, and ages of household and family members.

The 2016 census was memorable for a couple important reasons. First, 2016 witnessed the return of the mandatory long-form census. The long-form census is a version of the census that asks more questions than the typical form. The regular census for 2016 consisted of 10 questions; the long-form was 36 pages in length! This can include asking for detailed information about housing, income, transportation, and everyday life. Far from being viewed as a time-consuming burden, in 2016 they were a much-welcomed sight by Canadians across the country.

You see, the long-form had been discontinued by Prime Minister Stephen Harper‘s Conservative government, citing privacy concerns, and replaced with a voluntary National Household Survey. Prior to its cancellation, the mandatory long-form census, sent to 1 in 5 Canadian households, had resulted in returns of 94% in 2006. The information provided by the census had been vital to funding allocations and deciding upon necessary services for Canada’s diverse populations.

Not surprisingly, the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census was met with protest from politicians, industry and government bodies, and individuals and groups across the country. Statistics Canada voiced concerns that underrepresented populations, often the ones most in need of additional services and funding, were the most likely to not return a voluntary form. Chief statistician and Head of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh resigned publicly over the issue. Sheikh later detailed his objectives to the cancellation in an essay entitled ‘Good Data and Intelligent Government‘.

The voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) of 2011 resulted in a collection response rate of 68.6%. People who were living on Indian reserves or in Indian settlements were also given a different version of the NHS to fill out that omitted questions about citizenship. Wayne R. Smith, the Chief Statistician of Canada, provided a very useful blog post about the potential uses and failings of the NHS in June 2015. In 2013, Global News’ Patrick Cain gave a succinct summary of the problems of moving to a voluntary response scheme, particularly the relatively high levels of non-response that forced Statistics Canada to change their own standards in an effort to derive useful information from the incomplete data sets.

It turns out that Canadians continued to feel strongly that a return to mandatory long-forms and the enforced completion and return of census information were important to the future of the country and to a government’s ability to best serve its people. Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had made the return of the long-form census a part of his election platform in the run up to the Federal Election of October 19, 2015. In November 2015 the Minister for Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, announced that the long-form would be back in time for the next Census in 2016.

Returning to the beginning of my post, then, the census was distributed in May 2016. Canadians were so willing to contribute their information that they made international headlines by crashing Statistics Canada’s online census website, promptly earning the country the reputation of being a nation of nerds (one which Canadians proudly embraced!). According to the CBC, almost 68% of respondents filled out their forms online, setting a world record, and the total percentage of the census population that filled out their forms was a record-setting 98.4%.

Now the first of the 2016 Census releases is out, and those efforts of the many enthusiastic contributors (and those who admittedly were not as enthusiastic but were still law-abiding) are paying off with quality, accurate information the likes of which haven’t been seen in the country in almost 10 years. Historians of the future will be very happy!

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