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A brief history

Census-taking: Ancient beginnings

The practice of taking a census dates back to the dawn of civilization. History records that Moses counted the children of Israel in the 15th century B.C. and that censuses were taken centuries earlier in Babylon (3800 B.C.), China (3000 B.C.) and Egypt (2200 B.C.). The methods employed in ancient censuses were rudimentary, and the goals were short-term—for example, to conscript young men for military service, or to enable rulers to impose taxes on their subjects.

The government of New France has the honour of being the first to conduct what we would call a modern census. That first census was conducted just as the colony of New France was getting established; in fact, one of its aims was to ensure that the Intendant had the information needed to help the young colony take root.

Taking stock of the colony

Jean Talon played a major role in the development of census-taking in the New World. He was sent to New France as Intendant of Justice, Police and Finance for Canada, Acadia, the island of Newfoundland and other French lands in North America. King Louis XIV instructed Talon to take appropriate steps to expand the colony so that it would quickly become self-sufficient and capable of supplying products needed for the growth of French industry; to accomplish this, he had to settle the country, develop agriculture and trade, and establish manufacturing industries. Realizing that he would need reliable statistics if he was going to organize the colony and foster its development, Talon took a census shortly after he arrived in New France. He did much of the data collection personally, visiting settlers throughout the colony in 1666.

People sit and talk outside a log house in a picture from the early 20th century.

Talon conducted his first census by the so-called de jure (by right) method, which counts people at their usual place of residence and not where they happen to be on Census Day (de facto). He recorded settlers' names, on a specific date, and collected information on age, sex, marital status, and occupation or trade. In 1666, a second survey allowed him to gather more data with a census of livestock and cleared land.

In all, 36 censuses were conducted under French rule, the last of them in 1739. More questions were added, covering subjects such as buildings and houses, agricultural and industrial production, and even—because of the frequent threats to peace in those days—weapons. After the British took over, regular censuses gave way to a series of less detailed surveys, though full censuses were conducted in 1765, 1784 and 1790. After 1817, censuses were held at more regular, though different, intervals in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Upper Canada and Lower Canada. There was an annual census of Upper and Lower Canada between 1824 and 1842.

The content of those censuses varied widely, but after 1827, they generally covered a wide range of topics. Later, as a result of the Census Act of the United Provinces (1847 amendment), a census was conducted in February and March of 1848 and again exactly two years later. On August 30, 1851, royal assent was given to a new law requiring regular censuses, starting in 1851/52 and continuing in 1861 and every tenth year thereafter. Thus, 1851 would appear to mark the beginning of Canada's decennial census.

An established tradition

The rebellions of 1837 and the widespread demand for an elected government with representation based on population size led to the passage of the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly known as the British North America Act, 1867). Under sections 8 and 51 of the Act, the census was to provide population figures that would be used to determine the number of representatives each province would have in the House of Commons. Electoral district boundaries were also to be adjusted on the basis of census counts. Consequently, in order for each Member of Parliament to be able to represent the population of a specific area, population counts had to be broken down by specific geographic area. With respect to the census, the Constitution Act's key impact lay in the fact that it influenced the decision to standardize the de jure method and to conduct a census on a set date every 10 years for specific geographic units. In other words, the decision was made to continue the tradition established by Jean Talon.

Thus the first census taken under the Constitution Act, 1867 was in 1871. The questions were essentially the same as in the 1851 and 1861 censuses.

A set date

A drawing of people at the market in the 19th century.

Although the census is conducted on a set date—a specific point in time—the day of the census has varied over the years. Several factors enter into the choice of a date, and changes that have occurred—some due to data collection requirements, others to shifts in customs—have been designed to ensure respondents' full participation in the census and to improve coverage and data quality.

Under the Census Act of May 12, 1870, the census was to be conducted by May 1 of each census year, except in certain hard-to-reach areas, which were to be covered in July. Accordingly, the census was held in April until 1911, when the date was moved to June 1. This change was made to avoid the poor road conditions and unfavourable weather that hampered enumeration in earlier months. Holding the census in June was also advantageous from the standpoint of collecting agricultural data, since farmers would know by then exactly how many acres of land they had seeded. The date was set as early as possible in June so that the census could be taken before people headed for summer destinations.

As time went by, however, it became clear that the first day of the month was moving day for a large number of households. In addition, June 1 sometimes fell on a weekend, when many respondents were away. To reduce the amount of follow-up made necessary by these movements, Census Day was shifted again in 1981, this time to the first Tuesday in June.

For the 1996 Census, the date changed once more, moving backward to the second Tuesday in May. Today, many of the households that move in a given year do so in late June. Pushing the census date ahead to mid-May meant that the questionnaires would be dropped off and mailed back during the same month, which lowered the risk that they would be lost in a move. In addition, follow-up of non-returns would take place in June, before most people go on vacation; this would keep costs down and produce better coverage and data quality.


Every Census of Canada up to and including the 1966 Census was conducted by interview. Enumerators went from door to door, interviewing respondents and writing down their answers in census booklets. In 1971, however, there was a major change in the collection method. To improve data quality and address growing concerns about privacy, respondents were asked for the first time to complete the census questionnaire themselves (self-enumeration). By letting people fill in the form at their convenience on Census Day, Statistics Canada hoped to obtain more accurate results. Respondents could also consult their personal documents for information needed to answer certain questions. Moreover, self-enumeration eliminated errors of interpretation by enumerators and improved the accuracy of answers to sensitive questions. This method has been used since 1971 for 98% of the Canadian population.


In the 2006 Census, 80% of households received a short questionnaire containing eight questions, while 20% were given the 61-question long form. This method of gathering detailed data from a sample of households (rather than all households) was first employed in the 1941 Census of Canada. Housing data were collected from every tenth household in order to provide information about post-war housing problems and solutions for them. Sampling proved to be an effective collection method, yielding high-quality data while reducing costs and response burden. As a result, it was used again in 1951; this time, the sample was expanded to one household in five in order to obtain greater geographic detail. The sample has been set at one in five ever since, except in 1971 and 1976, when it was one in three.

Figure A
Milestones in the history of the census

1666 –
First census in New France. The total population was 3,215, excluding Aboriginals and royal troops.

1739 –
Last census under French rule.

1767 –
The census of Nova Scotia adds religion and ethnic origin variables.

1817 –
The census of Nova Scotia adds place of birth variables.

1831 –
The first census in what would become Western Canada was taken in the Assiniboine.

1851 –
With the enactment of legislation requiring censuses in 1851, 1861 and every tenth year thereafter, the decennial census is born.

1870 –
First census of British Columbia and Manitoba.

1871 –
First census of Canada after Confederation. The questionnaire was produced in both English and French, as it has been in every census since.

1905 –
The census office becomes a permanent part of the government.

1906 –
A quinquennial census is taken in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

1911 –
The census is moved from April to June to avoid poor weather and road conditions and to improve the accuracy of crop acreage data.

1918 –
The Dominion Bureau of Statistics is established with the enactment of the 1918 Statistics Act.

1941 –
The census is moved for this year only to June 14 to avoid conflicting with the first Victory Bond campaign. Sampling is used for the first time: the questions concern housing.

1956 –
The first nation-wide quinquennial census is conducted.

1971 –
For the first time, most respondents complete the questionnaire by themselves (self-enumeration). The Dominion Bureau of Statistics becomes Statistics Canada. A new Statistics Act requires that a census of population and agriculture be conducted every five years.

1986 –
The census contains a question on activity limitations, which is later used to form a sample for the first postcensal survey on activity limitations.

1991 –
The question on common-law status is asked for the first time.

1996 –
For the first time, the census collects information about unpaid work and mode of transportation to work.

2001 –
For the first time, the census collects information on same-sex couples, as well as information on language of work.

2006 –
For the first time, all Canadians can complete their census questionnaire over the Internet.

Decennial census, quinquennial census

National censuses have been conducted at 10-year intervals since 1851, except in the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, where they have been taken every five years since 1906. However, in 1956, it was decided a national census should be taken every five years, as a five-year census would provide a better means of measuring the pace of economic growth and urbanization. Under the Statistics Act of 1971, it became a statutory requirement to conduct a nationwide census every five years.

The term 'decennial' refers to censuses held at the beginning of each decade, in years ending in 1 (1971, 1981, 1991, 2001, etc.), while the word 'quinquennial' is used to describe censuses taken at mid-decade, in years ending in 6 (1976, 1986, 1996, 2006, etc.).

Census content

While the need for historical data suggests that the questions asked in a national census should always be the same, the fact is that some changes have to be made between censuses to meet new data requirements or reflect changes in society itself. The same dilemma arises prior to each census: maintain the historical continuity of census data, or keep pace with the country's social, cultural and economic development. This is why various changes have been made in the census over the years, such as in its terminology and definitions.

In other words

For example, in the 1891 Census questionnaire, respondents were asked to indicate their relationship to the 'head of family'. Up to and including 1971, the head of family or household was defined as the husband rather than the wife, the parent where there was only one parent living with unmarried children, or any member of a group sharing a dwelling equally. Because respondents expressed growing opposition to the use of the word 'head', due to its sexist, paternalistic connotations, the definition was rewritten for the 1976 Census. The questionnaire for that census stated that the 'head of household' was either the husband OR the wife. Head-of-household data and household data by characteristics of the head were produced and disseminated in 1976 using the new definition. In 1981, there was no reference to 'head of household' in the census questionnaire. Relationships between household members were defined on the basis of the person who completed the questionnaire for the rest of the household, known as 'Person 1'.

Between 1871 and 1911, the census asked questions about 'infirmities'. The questions were not included in the 1921 and 1931 censuses. In 1941 and 1951, there was a supplementary questionnaire for blind and deaf-mute people. The subject did not reappear in the census for 30 years, and when it did, the terminology had changed. A question on 'activity limitations' was added in 1986. Respondents were asked to state if they were limited in their activities because of a physical condition, a mental condition or a chronic health problem. This question was used to prepare a sample of respondents for the first postcensal Health and Activity Limitation Survey, conducted later in 1986.

A reflection of its time

The census questionnaire is a sign of the times in that its content reflects the concerns of the period in which it was developed. For example, housing has been covered in every census, but not always in the same way over the past censuses.

Since 1871, there has been a question on dwelling type. In 1921 and 1931, questions on tenure and number of rooms were added. Also in 1931, families were asked if they owned a radio; the purpose of this question was to measure the extent to which this important invention was being used in Canada. As mentioned earlier, a sample survey of housing was conducted in 1941. There were only two housing questions in the 1966 Census—one on dwelling type and the other on tenure (owner or renter). In 1971, however, increased interest in housing led to the addition of questions on such topics as utilities (source of running water, drainage of waste water), heating systems, and principal fuel used to heat the dwelling, cook food and heat water. Respondents were also asked if anyone in the household owned a vacation home (cottage) and if their dwelling had a refrigerator, a freezer, a washing machine, an automatic dryer, and a black-and-white or colour television set. In the 1981 Census, questions on condominiums and the condition of dwellings (whether repairs were needed) were asked for the first time.

As questions were added to the census over the years to meet new requirements, some questions on subjects of decreasing importance were dropped. For this reason, questions relating to dwelling characteristics, such as primary heating system and principal fuel used for heating, were not included in the 1991 and 1996 censuses.

The 2006 Census

This brings us to May 16, 2006, 340 years after Jean Talon enumerated the colony of New France.

Between May 1 and May 13, 13,576,855 households received a Census of Population questionnaire. Some 229,373 agricultural operations also received a Census of Agriculture form at the same time. Instead of all census forms being delivered by an enumerator, Canada Post delivered forms to about 70% of households, with the remaining 30% receiving a form from an enumerator as in previous censuses. An adult in each household was asked to complete and return the questionnaire online or by mail to Statistics Canada Data Processing Centre.

The short questionnaire contained eight questions and was completed by 80% of households. The long questionnaire contained the same questions as the short form plus 53 additional questions, including three new ones. A new question seeking permission for Statistics Canada to use data from income tax records to lower respondent burden was added to the long form. As well, questions on education were re-worded to improve response quality, including a new question on location of study. Both the short and long forms contained a new question asking whether the respondent would permit Statistics Canada to make their personal information public in 92 years for historical and genealogical research.

For the first time on a country-wide scale, the 2006 Census offered Canadians the option of completing their census questionnaire over the Internet. The latest technologies were used to ensure that Statistics Canada's strict security and confidentiality requirements were met without imposing any pre-registration or lengthy download processes for the census Internet application. This new method places Statistics Canada at the forefront of census taking.

Also for the first time, 2006 Census data from questionnaires were captured automatically, using automated capture technologies, rather than manual methods.

The census and the law

The census is the most fundamental source of information about our country and our society. The data it produces are required by a multitude of statutes and regulations (for examples, see '2006 Census Questions' section).

The Constitution Act, 1867 provided for the redistribution of each province's seats in the House of Commons based on the results of the 1871 Census and each subsequent decennial census. The mandate given to the census in the Constitution Act was replaced by a series of statutes, which in turn were superseded by the Statistics Act of 1970. The latter states: 'A Census of Population of Canada shall be taken 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.'

Census data are important not only for determining the number of seats in Parliament but also for setting the boundaries of federal electoral districts (FEDs). The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act states that decennial census data are to be used to redefine FED boundaries.

Federal transfer payments to the provinces and territories also rely on population estimates based on population counts from the census, as required by the Federal–Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act.

Under the Statistics Act of 1971, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, established under the Statistics Act of 1918, became known as Statistics Canada. Also under the Statistics Act, every Canadian household is required to complete a census questionnaire. There are penalties for refusing to take part in the census and for intentionally reporting false information. Refusal cases are forwarded to the Department of Justice, which is responsible for laying charges under the Act.

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