Guide to the Census of Population, 2021
Chapter 1 – Introduction

General information

Once every five years, the Census of Population provides a detailed and comprehensive statistical portrait of Canada that is vital to our country. The census is the only data source that consistently provides high-quality statistical information for both small geographic areas and small population groups across Canada.

The Census of Population is an essential tool for understanding how Canada is changing over time. Census information is central to planning at all levels. Whether starting a business, monitoring a government program, planning transportation needs or choosing the location for a school, Canadians use census data every day to inform their decisions.

Why does Statistics Canada conduct the Census of Population?

Statistics Canada is required by law to conduct a Census of Population every five years (see Appendix 1.1, Legislation) and to provide population and dwelling counts for communities of all sizes across Canada. These counts are essential for maintaining Canada’s equitable representation. They are used to set electoral boundaries; estimate the demand for services in the minority official language; and calculate federal, provincial and territorial transfer payments.

Additionally, the Census of Population is the primary source of sociodemographic data for specific population groups such as lone-parent families, Indigenous peoples, immigrants and seniors.

Census information has many other important uses in the day-to-day lives of Canadians. Local governments use the census to develop programs and services such as planning for schools and health services. Businesses analyze census data to make critical investment decisions, and social services agencies depend on the census to understand the evolving needs of members of their communities.

Why is the census in May?

The spring timing of the Census of Population is driven by the need to maximize the number of Canadians who are at home during enumeration and allows sufficient time to conduct follow-up activities before the summer holiday period. This permits collection procedures to run smoothly, which reduces costs. Census Day provides a specific point of reference for the respondent to base their answers on. For the 2021 Census, the reference date was set to May 11.

Privacy and confidentiality

Statistics Canada is bound by law to protect the identity of individuals at every step of the statistical process, including in all published data. Statistics Canada will never release identifiers such as names, addresses or email addresses, either alone or in combination with any other information from the census questionnaire. These identifiers will never be given or sold to any individual or organization, or added to any mailing list.

In Canada, great care is taken to ensure that the information collected in the census is in the public interest, cannot be obtained effectively from other sources and can be collected efficiently enough to meet information requirements.

All information provided is securely held and used for statistical purposes only.

Statistics Canada places the highest priority on maintaining the confidentiality of information on individual questionnaires. The following stringent procedures have been implemented to ensure that confidentiality is maintained at all times:

Consent to release personal information

Access to historical census records has been a matter of public discussion for decades and has generated considerable interest from genealogists, historians and archivists.

In 2005, following extensive engagement with Canadians, the Government of Canada amended the Statistics Act to eliminate ambiguities relating to the confidentiality of past census records, while also providing for the release of future census records.

The Government of Canada amended the Statistics Act to allow for the release of historical census records from 1911 to 2001. In addition, information obtained from each census after and including 2021 is to be released to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) 92 years after it was collected (e.g., census records from 2001 will be released in 2093).

For the 2006, 2011 and 2016 censuses, Canadians could choose whether their census records would be released publicly after 92 years. The person who completed the census questionnaire was asked to consult with all household members who were included in the questionnaire before answering the consent question. Due to an amendment to the Statistics Act (2017), for the 2021 Census, the consent of respondents is no longer required to release census information to LAC 92 years after the census is taken.

LAC is responsible for making census records available. This is consistent with Statistics Canada’s commitment to providing open and accessible data. Researchers, historians and genealogists require this information to conduct research and help Canadians better understand their past.

Census records up to and including the 1926 Census are available either online or as microfilm copies through LAC.

Retention of census information

Statistics Canada works with Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to determine the best way to preserve census records so that the information can be released in 92 years.

LAC holds an extensive collection of census records from 1666 to 1926.

According to the Statistics Act, census data collected from 1910 to 2005, and those collected in or after 2021, will be transferred to LAC to be released to the public 92 years after the censuses were taken.

The 1926 Census of the Prairie Provinces was transferred from Statistics Canada to LAC on June 1, 2018.

While not all census records can be searched through the LAC website, records from the 1926 Census and previous censuses can be browsed free of charge on the Ancestry website. Users can also conduct searches based on various fields, including surname and given name.

Statistics Canada has microfilm copies of the census questionnaires from 1931 to 2001. The original paper questionnaires were shredded and destroyed.

The 2006, 2011 and 2016 censuses, and the 2011 National Household Survey (which replaced the long-form census in 2011) were not microfilmed. Instead, Statistics Canada retained an archival data file containing all responses, including those submitted online. The original paper questionnaires were shredded and destroyed.

Official languages

As early as 1871, census questionnaires were produced in English and French. This tradition became law in 1988 under the Official Languages Act. This act states that English and French are the official languages of Canada and that service to the public must be provided in both languages.

As in previous censuses, procedures were in place for the 2021 Census to ensure that members of the public received all services in the official language of their choice.

Other languages and alternative formats

For the 2021 Census of Population, the questionnaires were available in English and French. However, reference material—including the questions and explanations of the reasons why they were asked—was available in a number of other languages, including immigrant and Indigenous languages. Respondents could obtain a copy of these materials by visiting the census website or calling the Census Help Line. The materials were available in the languages listed below.

Indigenous languages:

Immigrant languages:

The census questionnaire was available in large print, and reference material (including the census questions and explanations) was available in braille, audio and American and Quebec sign language video formats.

The large-print version of the short-form and long-form questionnaires was printed on legal-sized paper in a large font size and had space to enumerate two individuals rather than five (for the long-form questionnaire).

Respondents who needed help completing the questionnaire—such as people who are blind, have vision loss, have reading difficulties, are deaf or have hearing loss—could contact the Census Help Line by phone or teletypewriter.

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