Guide to the Census of Population, 2021
Chapter 4 – Content determination

How are the census questions determined?

As part of each census cycle, Statistics Canada leads comprehensive consultations and discussions on census content requirements.

This adaptive and collaborative approach enables Statistics Canada to stay on top of trends and new demands, reflecting a changing society.

Preparation for each census cycle requires several stages of engagement, testing and data evaluation before questionnaire content for the upcoming census can be recommended to the Cabinet of Canada for approval. These steps include content consultations and discussions with stakeholders and census data users, content testing that includes the qualitative testing of proposed changes and new content, a quantitative test to evaluate content and respondent behaviour on a larger scale, and an evaluation of the test results guided by a content determination framework.

When proposing content for the 2021 Census of Population questionnaire, Statistics Canada followed the Census Program’s content determination framework, which balances information needs with other factors such as data quality, response burden and costs.

Because of the variety of ways census data are used and the importance of census data in decision making, any changes made to census content are carefully analyzed and discussed with stakeholders to preserve data relevance, overall quality, coverage and comparability over time, as well as to ensure that legislative and policy requirements continue to be met.

After research, consultations and testing, the agency develops content for the census and submits the proposed questions to the federal cabinet. According to the Statistics Act, census questions must be prescribed by the Governor in Council through an Order in Council, and the approved questions must be published in the Canada Gazette. Typically, this approval occurs in the year preceding the census. For the 2021 Census, the official date of publication of census questions in the Canada Gazette was July 18, 2020.

Below is a description of how content consultation, content testing and content approval were done for the 2021 Census.

Content consultations

A formal content consultation is planned at the start of each census cycle. During this time, Statistics Canada invites data users, stakeholders and members of the public to provide feedback on what information they use and for what purpose, as well as what—if any—data gaps Statistics Canada should consider addressing in the next census cycle.

In preparation for the 2021 Census of Population, Statistics Canada consulted with census data users to:

Engagements were held from September 2017 to May 2018 and involved an online questionnaire available to all Canadians to gather feedback, as well as face-to-face discussions with federal departments; other research and analysis organizations; and First Nations, Métis and Inuit stakeholders.

Over 10,000 census data users were invited by email to participate in online consultations and were encouraged to share the invitation with others in their network. Statistics Canada also reached out to the general public through its website, social media accounts and regional offices.

Over 2,800 respondents participated in the consultation using the online questionnaire—an unprecedented number that reflects a high level of interest in helping to shape the census as an important source of demographic and social information.

During these engagements, Statistics Canada heard from individuals and organizations in many sectors of Canadian society, including:

Given the large volume of engagements carried out during the intercensal period, it is not possible to provide an exhaustive list of partners consulted. However, some of the partners that Statistics Canada has worked alongside include the following: the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages for instruction in the minority official language; Veterans Affairs Canada and Department of National Defence for Canadian military experience; the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation for housing; the Statistical Division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe for matters pertaining to gender; and various academic institutions and organizations representing different ethnic and cultural groups, for matters pertaining to ethnic or cultural origins. All of these efforts build towards an improved census.

Statistics Canada also worked with First Nations, Métis and Inuit partners to better understand the needs of Indigenous organizations and communities. The agency visited 30 locations across the country, held approximately 60 discussions and listened to over 400 people. Contributors to the discussions included leadership and data users from local, provincial, territorial and national Indigenous organizations and representatives of provincial and territorial governments, federal departments, academics and researchers.

For more information on content consultation for the 2021 Census of Population, please consult the report 2021 Census of Population Consultation Results: What we heard from Canadians.

Questionnaire content qualitative test

The process of reviewing and testing questionnaires is instrumental to data quality, particularly response accuracy.

Statistics Canada’s policy on the development of questionnaires requires that all new and revised questionnaires be tested before they are used to collect data from the public. From April to November 2018, following the findings of content consultations and discussions, qualitative tests were conducted to provide insight into how respondents reacted to proposed changes to questionnaire content. In-depth one-on-one interviews were conducted to test and evaluate participants’ understanding of the concepts, terminology, question sequencing and questionnaire format. They were also used to assess alternate wording. Interviewers also examined participants’ thought processes as they answered questions to assess whether the questions were clear. Potential sources of response error were corrected.

In preparation for the 2021 Census of Population, over 550 interviews were conducted across the country to test both the electronic and paper formats of the short-form and long-form questionnaires in both official languages, including approximately 100 interviews with First Nations people, Métis and Inuit. New questions were introduced; existing questions were reworded; some questions were removed; and answer categories, instructions and question flows were adjusted. All topics included in the 2016 Census were modified in some way, and multiple versions of changes were tested.

2019 Census Test

The 2019 Census Test evaluated changes in questionnaires and collection and operating processes in preparation for the 2021 Census of Population.

In May and June 2019, census invitation letters and questionnaires were delivered to a sample of approximately 250,000 dwellings across the country. To ensure accurate results, participation in this test was mandatory under the Statistics Act.

The test consisted of two components: a content test and a field operations test.

Content test

The content component of the 2019 Census Test involved a sample of 135,000 households. The purpose of this component was to evaluate the new and modified questions that were based on the results of the content consultations and discussions, the questionnaire content qualitative test, and the needs of policy makers and data users. It aimed to validate respondent behaviour with regard to question and instruction changes and ensure that the questionnaire yields high-quality data.

After analyzing the results of the test and considering factors such as cost, operations, respondent relations and safeguards against data quality loss, Statistics Canada submitted the final content of the 2021 Census of Population questionnaire to Cabinet for approval.

Field operations test

The field operations component of the 2019 Census Test involved a sample of 115,000 households. The purpose of this component was to assess new and modified procedures and technologies for use in data collection. It aimed to validate the behaviour of field staff and respondents with regard to new procedures, systems and tools. This test also evaluated changes to the recruitment and training process for field staff; the delivery of invitation letters and census packages to households; the enumeration of collective dwellings (e.g., hospitals and seniors’ residences); and the follow-up activities for other field operations, such as non-response follow-up.

Changes to the questionnaire for the 2021 Census

For the 2021 Census, income information will once again be obtained from personal income tax and benefit data files provided by the Canada Revenue Agency, and admission category and applicant type information will be obtained from administrative files provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). In 2021, for the first time, immigrant status and year of immigration will also be obtained from administrative files provided by IRCC.

Statistics Canada will continue to use existing administrative data sources to reduce response burden and increase data quality.

New content

The 2021 Census includes new content to address emerging trends and issues. The new question topics are listed below:

Other changes

In addition to new content, revisions were made to some returning content from 2016 (and 2011, in the case of religion) to improve relevance and data quality, as well as to address content issues that surfaced during the 2016 Census.

Some 2016 Census content was no longer required for the 2021 Census. In 2017, the federal government amended the Statistics Act (Bill C-36) to render census records public 92 years after collection. This eliminated a 2016 question that asked respondents for permission to send their census data to Library and Archives Canada. The 2016 Census also included content on farm operators that is no longer required by the Census of Agriculture.

Statistics Canada is aware that the COVID-19 pandemic may have had an impact on answers to some census questions, including those on employment, education, commuting and expenditures. When providing answers to census questions, respondents were instructed to choose the responses that best reflected their situation or the situation of members of the household for the date or time period in question. Additional instructional text was also provided in ‘help’ features in the online questionnaires and on the census website.

Overview of how Gender-based Analysis Plus considerations were made for the content/questionnaire

Statistics Canada is committed to looking at its products through a Gender-based Analysis Plus lens, with the establishment of a Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics.

Census data were collected and presented in a way that allows for gender-based analysis. In particular, data are presented separately for males and females and by other identity characteristics. In the past, the census collected information on sex using the binary options of male or female. For the 2016 Census, respondents who could not respond using the binary options were asked to leave their answer blank and provide a comment at the end of the questionnaire.

In developing a new standard for gender and in preparation for the 2021 Census, Statistics Canada conducted numerous focus groups and one-on-one interviews with transgender, non-binary and cisgender individuals to explore the concepts of sex and gender. During content consultations for the 2021 Census, Statistics Canada consulted with LGBTQ2 organizations and others. Statistics Canada also quantitatively tested changes to sex and gender questions during the 2019 Census Content Test. Statistics Canada analyzed respondent comments and other feedback from the 2019 Census Test. The results of these discussions and testing contributed to content determination for the 2021 Census.

Additional references

For more information on changes to census content for the 2021 Census, and the 2019 Census Test and its results, please consult the following resources found on The road to the 2021 Census web page:

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