Guide to the Census of Population, 2016
Chapter 2 – Census history

Over the years, various changes have been introduced to the Census of Population in Canada. Below is a summary.

1666 – The first Canadian census was taken in New France by Intendant Jean Talon. The recorded population (excluding Aboriginal persons and royal troops) was 3,215. Information was obtained on age, sex, marital status and locality. In addition, the census identified professions and trades for 763 persons.

1666 to 1867 – Numerous censuses were taken at irregular intervals in the colonies of France and Britain that became parts of Canada.

1867The Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly the British North America Act) included the requirement that a census be taken every 10 years (decennially) in order to determine representation by population in the new Parliament.

1871 – The first decennial census was taken in this year. The census enumerated the population of the four original provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario). Manitoba and British Columbia, which had also joined Confederation, were surveyed separately.

The 1871 Census was the first to use the de jure method of enumeration rather than the de facto method used in Europe both then and now. The de facto method enumerates people where they are found on Census Day. The de jure method enumerates people according to their usual place of residence.

1881 – All census enumerators 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.

1891 – The population was prepared for the census enumerator's visit through announcements in newspapers and from pulpits.

1896 – A mid-decade census was held in Manitoba beginning in 1896 and then in Saskatchewan and Alberta beginning in 1906. These censuses were needed to measure the rapid growth taking place in the West.

1901 – The census content was expanded to include religion, birthplace, citizenship and period of immigration.

1905 – The census office became a permanent bureau of the federal government.

1906 – Beginning in 1906, the Prairie provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan began to take a separate census of population and agriculture every five years to monitor the growth of the West.

1912 – Responsibility for conducting the census was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Trade and Commerce.

1918 – The Dominion Bureau of Statistics was created.

1931 – Though compilation and tabulation for the 1931 Census were still carried out with mechanical equipment, a new sorter-tabulator developed by an employee of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics made production 50 times faster by allowing a whole data card to be read at once rather than one column at a time.

1941 – Sample information was collected for the first time. One in 10 households were asked additional content about their dwelling (type, number of rooms, cooking fuel used, etc.).

1951 – Canada's first census as a nation of 10 provinces and two territories used 'mark-sense.' This technology allowed for a generation of punch cards, greatly reducing processing time and costs.

1956 – A quinquennial (every five years) Census of Population and Agriculture was held in all provinces across the country, replacing the mid-decade censuses of the Prairie provinces.

The 1956 Census included questions on radios, colour televisions, home freezers and vacation homes. These kinds of questions were dropped after the 1966 Census as they were incorporated into various household surveys.

1971 – Under the Statistics Act of 1971, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics was renamed Statistics Canada. The act also confirmed that a Census of Population and a Census of Agriculture would be taken every five years (quinquennially).

Self-enumeration was first introduced in 1971. With the exception of Indian reserves and remote areas, census questionnaires and completion instructions were dropped off at private homes and respondents were asked to complete their own questionnaires. In population centres of 10,000 persons or more, respondents were asked to mail their completed questionnaires back in a pre-addressed envelope. In other areas, questionnaires were picked up by census enumerators.

1991 – All respondents in self-enumeration areas (over 98% of the population) were asked to return their completed census questionnaires by mail. The return rate was 85%, with more than 27 million people in over 10 million households counted.

Information on common-law partners was also collected for the first time.

2001 – For the first time, data were collected on same-sex couples.

2006 – The questionnaires were delivered by Canada Post to about 70% of households. The remaining 30% received the questionnaire from an enumerator as in previous censuses.

For the first time, all Canadians could answer the census questionnaire online.

This was also the first time people were asked if they agreed to have their personal information released in 92 years for the purpose of research and education.

Respondents were also asked whether they would give Statistics Canada permission to access their tax files. This permission was sought in an effort to reduce response burden.

The definition of spouse was expanded to include same-sex married couples.

2011 – The positive response to the online option (18.5%) in 2006 prompted a major change in methodology for the 2011 Census. In May, a letter was delivered to 60% of Canadian dwellings. This letter replaced the traditional paper questionnaire and explained how respondents could complete the questionnaire online.

About 20% of dwellings received a questionnaire package by mail. For the remaining 20%, questionnaires were dropped off by enumerators.

Information previously collected by the mandatory long-form census questionnaire was collected as part of the new voluntary National Household Survey (NHS).

The 2011 Census of Population questionnaire (short form) consisted of the same content at the 2006 Census short-form questionnaire, with the addition of two questions on language.

2016 – In November 2015, the government reinstated the long-form census questionnaire, replacing the National Household Survey. Most households (75%) received the short-form census questionnaire while 1 in 4 households (25%) received the long-form questionnaire.

To reduce the burden on Canadians, manage collection costs and get the most accurate information on income, Statistics Canada accessed income information retrieved from personal income tax and benefits files, replacing income-related questions on the 2011 National Household Survey questionnaire and on previous censuses.

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