Final Report on 2016 Census Options: Proposed Content Determination Framework and Methodology Options

1. Executive summary

Statistics Canada and the 2016 Census Strategy Project

Statistics Canada's mandate is to ensure that Canadians have access to a trusted source of statistics that meet their highest priority information needs. The efficient production of relevant, accessible, high-quality statistics helps to ensure that the Canadian economy functions efficiently and our society is governed effectively (Statistics Canada 2011a).

As part of this mandate, Statistics Canada is responsible under the Statistics Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. S-19) for conducting the Census of Population every five years. By law, the government (by an order in council) prescribes the questions to be asked in the census. By the same law, each person is required to provide the information requested in the census and Statistics Canada must protect the confidentiality of the personal information provided by respondents.

Since 1971, Statistics Canada's Census ProgramFootnote 1 has used two questionnaires: a long form, distributed to a sample of households, which contained the full set of questions; and a short form, distributed to the remaining households, which contained only a basic set of questions. Up to and including 2006, both the short and the long forms were mandatory.

In the summer of 2010, the government approved 10 questions to constitute the 2011 Census. This short form remained mandatory and was distributed to all households. The government asked Statistics Canada to collect the remaining information proposed to be collected in the 2011 Census (mandatory long-form questionnaire) through a voluntary sample survey, named the National Household Survey (NHS). At the time, the notion of privacy intrusiveness was brought to the forefront, raising questions as to whether Canadians should be obliged to answer certain questions and whether the information collected by the Census Program is relevant.

As part of Statistics Canada's customary process to review and evaluate its statistical programs, and in light of the changes to the 2011 Canadian Census Program and changes to census-taking approaches internationally, Statistics Canada launched the 2016 CensusFootnote 2 Strategy Project in December 2010. The objective of this project was to study options and deliver a recommendation to the federal government on the methodology of the 2016 Census Program in 2012. While this timeframe is needed to ensure a decision on approach is made in time to then allow sufficient time for the planning, development, testing and implementation of the methodology for 2016, it does not provide sufficient time to fully analyze the 2011 NHS data quality, analysis that will be completed in 2013 when the NHS results are released.

The project reviewed the approaches for population censuses that exist around the world and evaluated their applicability to the Canadian context, as well as their adherence to Statistics Canada's mandate and business model. It comprised a review of the constitutional and statutory requirements and the provision of a content determination framework, including criteria for inclusion of content in the 2016 Census Program and beyond.

International perspective

Conducting a census is an important statistical undertaking around the world. Censuses are so essential that the United Nations has issued, since 1958, principles and recommendations for population and housing censuses, including recommended characteristics of the population and housing to be measured. The introductory paragraphs of the last revision of the principles and recommendations (United Nations 2008) speak to the importance of the censuses:

The most important capital a society can have is human capital. Assessing the quantity and quality of this capital at small area, regional and national levels is an essential component of modern government.

Aside from the answer to the question 'How many are we?' there is also a need to provide an answer to 'Who are we?' in terms of age, sex, education, occupation, economic activity and other crucial characteristics, as well as to 'Where do we live?' in terms of housing, access to water, availability of essential facilities, and access to the Internet.

For the international statistical community, the census is more than just a simple headcount of the population; it is a Census of Population and Housing, including the characteristics of individuals and housing units.

The Canadian Census Program up to 2011

In Canada, the constitutional requirement for a decennial (years ending in '1') Census of Population dates back to the proclamation of The British North America Act, 1867 (now known as the Constitution Act, 1867). The constitutional requirement for a quinquennial (years ending in '6') census still stems today from the Constitution Act, 1907 and the Constitution Act, 1930 as the population counts for Manitoba and Saskatchewan are still below the limits set by these enactments. The requirement for a nationwide quinquennial census has been part of the Statistics Act since 1970.

The Statistics Act does not specifically define the word 'census' and does not specify which questions are to be included in the census. It states that the census is a census of the population and that the census of population is to be taken in a manner that ensures that counts of the population are provided for each federal electoral district of Canada. Section 21 of the Act provides the power to the Governor in Council to establish the census questions and, as per section 8 of the Act, these questions can only be mandatory. This is in contrast to several other countries, where examples of more explicit and detailed census legislation were found.

In practice, the Census Program in Canada has never been a simple headcount of the population, nor has it been a static process. The content of the Census Program has evolved to respond to the needs of an evolving society and increasingly diverse population. Some content has been added through the years (e.g., immigrant characteristics in 1901, language spoken at home in 1971, Aboriginal identity and population group in 1996) while some other content was removed (e.g., wartime service, availability of hot and cold running water, access to a bath or shower and presence of flush toilets in 1971). Question wording and response categories have also changed over time to reflect social realities. For example, in 1871, the only options for 'marital status' were married, widowed or other. In 2001, the definition of common-law couples was changed to include members of the opposite sex or of the same sex living together as a couple, but who are not legally married to each other. The 2006 cycle was the first Census Program to count same-sex married couples, reflecting the legalization of same-sex marriages at that time.

The Census Program in Canada has always relied on a traditional census approach, i.e., one that collects the characteristics from the individuals and housing units at a specific point in time. The fundamental approach has not changed, but the methodology has significantly evolved over the years to improve the efficiency of the Census Program, to reduce respondent burden, to address concerns of privacy and confidentiality, and to maintain the relevance of the Census Program data and improve their quality. Examples of such methodological developments include the introduction of machines for processing census returns (1921), the use of sampling (1941), the measurement of census undercoverage (1961), self-enumeration (1971), mail-out of questionnaires, centralized follow-up and completion by Internet (2006).

Important findings

Discussions undertaken with data users over the summer and fall of 2011 as part of the 2016 Census Strategy Project confirmed the critical role played by the Census Program in delivering information on a range of topics, with over 800 uses of Census Program data reported.Footnote 3 First and foremost, population counts produced by the Census Program are required explicitly by numerous pieces of legislation, meaning census data are explicitly mentioned. These population counts are at the heart of Statistics Canada's Population Estimates Program (PEP) that relies on the most recent Census Program data, along with administrative data provided by other federal, provincial and territorial government departments, to produce annual and quarterly estimates of the Canadian population at various levels of geography between censuses. The PEP responds to statutory requirements for the calculation of revenue transfers and cost-sharing programs between the various levels of government (Statistics Canada 2011b) and produces information to calculate major federal transfers to the provinces and territories under the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act. It is also a source of information for the allocation of House of Commons seats to provinces in the recent Fair Representation Act that received Royal Assent on December 16, 2011. The PEP is also used as a source of benchmark data for many other social and household surveys at Statistics Canada and contributes to the integrity of the broader social statistics system.

Other data produced by the Census Program also respond to key legislation. The official languages content is an example where there is an explicit legislative requirement for the use of census data for specific language variables where it is stated in subparagraph 3(a)(ii) that the method of estimating the "English or French linguistic minority population" is on the basis of "after the results of the 1991 census of population are published, the most recent decennial census of population for which results are published…" (Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations, SOR/92-48). The Census Program provides data at low level of geographies and for small populations where there is no alternative data source. For example, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, the Public Service Commission and Treasury Board Secretariat reported that Employment Equity Regulations require data on Aboriginal peoples and visible minorities which are not available in administrative databases but are provided by the Census Program.

The quality of the 2011 Census Program data has not been fully assessed and indeed the evaluation of data quality will continue for many more months as Statistics Canada conducts the different stages of evaluation leading to the release of the information. However, some preliminary results can inform the discussion for 2016.

The 2011 Census preliminaryFootnote 4 response rate was 98.1% nationally, one percentage point higher than the 2006 Census final response rate. The 2011 NHS preliminaryFootnote 5 response rate was 69.3% nationally, above the planned rate of 50% and in line with other voluntary surveys at Statistics Canada. Almost 54% of Canadian households completed their 2011 Census questionnaire on the Internet. About 64% of all NHS respondents chose to complete their NHS online.

With a preliminary response rate of 69.3%, the final NHS response rate that will be obtained after processing will not reach the level of the 2006 Census long-form final response rate of 93.5%. Statistics Canada also has early indications that among those who chose to respond to the 2011 NHS, fewer completed all questions than in the 2006 Census long form.

It is unknown at this point what the impact of the non-response will be on the quality of the NHS data, particularly for low geographic areas and small populations, and to what extent this quality will meet users' needs. Statistics Canada has implemented actions during collection and processing to mitigate the impact of non-response on the NHS estimates.

Feasible approach for the 2016 Census Program

Statistics Canada considered three major types of methodology approaches used internationally (UNECE 2006 and 2007) for the 2016 Census Program: the traditional census approach, the census approach employing existing administrative registers and the census approach employing continuous measurement.

The traditional census approach collects basic characteristics from all individuals and housing units (full enumeration) at a specific point in time. More detailed characteristics can be collected either from the whole population or on a sample basis. Collection modes may include personal interviews (canvasser approach), self-completed paper questionnaires, telephone (computer-assisted or not) and Internet. Some data might be replaced by administrative data to ease respondent burden and/or improve quality. The traditional census approach is still the main approach used for census-taking in the worldFootnote 6 and is the one used by the Canadian Census Program.

The census approach employing existing administrative registers relies at a minimum on a population register and a building/dwelling register to produce basic characteristics on all individuals and housing units at a specific reference point in time. More detailed characteristics can be obtained by linking to other existing administrative registers or administrative data sources (e.g., on education and employment) or by conducting surveys, either by complete enumeration or by sample. This approach is used in Scandinavian countries and increasingly in other European countries.Footnote 7

The census approach employing continuous measurement collects characteristics from individuals and housing units, where part or all of the collection is performed on a continuous basis. It involves a form of rotating sample. Collection modes may vary including face-to-face interviews (canvasser approach), telephone (computer-assisted or not) and mail. Some data might be replaced by administrative data to ease respondent burden and/or improve quality. The data collected on a continuous basis must be pooled to produce estimates at the different levels of geographies. As such, the estimates are not traditional point-in-time estimates; rather, they represent rolling averages over a period of time. The United States (U.S.) and France are the two notable examples of this approach. The United States continues to conduct its traditional decennial census for collecting basic characteristics of population and housing units, but the more detailed characteristics are collected by the American Community Survey through a monthly sample of addresses (U.S. Census Bureau 2009). France has not kept any form of traditional census and conducts what is called a rolling census. For small communes (municipalities with less than 10,000 residents), a complete census is conducted once every five years on a rotating basis. For large communes (10,000 residents or more), an 8% sample of addresses is surveyed each year (Godinot 2005).

Drawing on earlier work conducted by Royce (2011), Statistics Canada assessed whether the necessary conditions for using each approach were likely to be present in time for the 2016 Census Program. The results of this assessment indicate that of the three approaches examined, the traditional census approach is the only viable methodology for the 2016 Census Program.

The necessary conditions for the conduct of a traditional census approach are expected to continue to exist for 2016 in Canada. The degree of public cooperation with the census (mandatory) is still at high levels. While the response to the NHS is comparable to Statistics Canada's other voluntary household surveys, further study will be required once the assessment of the quality of the NHS results is completed to determine the extent to which the NHS was able to deliver the required quality estimates for lower geographic areas and small population groups.

Canada does not meet the necessary conditions of a census approach employing existing administrative registers. In particular, this approach requires both a population register and a universal personal identification number. Neither exists in Canada, nor are they likely to exist in the short or medium term. In a written response to Statistics Canada, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the provincial and territorial privacy commissioners have clearly expressed great concerns for the creation of a population register and a personal identification number in Canada (Privacy Commissioner of Canada 2011).

Adoption of a census approach employing continuous measurement is also not feasible for the coming Census Program. To replace all or part of the 2016 Census Program, such a methodology would have to be in place by 2012 so that estimates for all required levels of geographies can be produced starting in 2017, i.e., in the same timeframe as a traditional 2016 Census Program. France and the United States have confirmed to Statistics Canada the importance of prior and extensive discussions with census stakeholders and policy makers. No funding has been allocated for consultation, development and testing for a continuous measurement survey at this point.

Moving forward, the balance between relevance, quality, respondent burden and privacy will need to be examined as part of the content determination process for the Census Program. For 2016, external stakeholders will be consulted on their uses of the data to determine relevance (including timeliness) and quality requirements. In particular, priorities would be assigned based on the strength of user need. The consultation findings would be examined in light of respondent burden, societal privacy concerns and other considerations, such as costs, that Statistics Canada must take into account. Results of this assessment could be the division of the content into questions to be asked on a full enumeration basis, questions not to be collected in the 2016 Census Program and, potentially, those questions to be asked on a sample basis. The 2016 Census content will continue to be prescribed by the Governor in Council.

Other directions for 2016 and beyond

As is customary following a Census Program cycle, Statistics Canada is presently reviewing all of its operations and will incorporate improvements and efficiencies whenever possible. Three examples follow:

The Address Register has enabled the 2011 Census Program to successfully mail out letters and forms to close to 80% of the private dwellings in Canada. Work continues to further improve the coverage of the Address Register for the 2016 Census Program, including targeted field verification and use of administrative data sources. Statistics Canada is working with external stakeholders on how to best manage regional varieties of addresses. In addition, it will work with Canada Post Corporation to optimise the use of civic style addresses to expand the mail-out methodology for the 2016 Census Program.

The Internet has become the primary mode of collection for the Census Program, as almost 80%Footnote 8 of Canadian households currently have access to the Internet. In 2011, almost 54% of Canadian households completed their 2011 Census questionnaire on the Internet, a significant increase from 18% in the 2006 Census. As well, about 64% of all NHS respondents chose to complete the NHS online. With Internet now the primary mode of collection, Statistics Canada is examining the opportunities this offers for activities such as questionnaire design and data processing.

While the census approach employing existing administrative registers is not currently feasible in Canada, the use of administrative data within a traditional Census Program can nevertheless reduce respondent burden and improve quality. Statistics Canada has for a number of Census Program cycles used administrative data for the Address Register, for quality assessment and as a substitute for questions (i.e., income). The agency will continue to examine the potential of using new and existing sources of administrative data for the 2016 Census Program.

This report traces among others the evolution of the Canadian Census Program since 1871, and how content, methods and quality assurance practices have adapted to changes in society. It is anticipated that future cycles will also experience change and would benefit from the tradition of the Census Program five-year cycle to evaluate and test new methodologies and technologies. These often come to complete fruition only in later cycles, as was the case in 2011 when Internet, after two cycles of testing and progressive implementation, surpassed paper as the primary mode of collection. The 2011 Census Program also saw the transformation of the mandatory long form to the voluntary National Household Survey.

This report concludes that the traditional census approach is the only viable approach for 2016. Research on alternative methodologies should continue on a long-term horizon, beyond the next Census Program cycle. Research to date has indicated that unless there are significant changes to the Canadian context, many of the issues surrounding the alternative approaches will remain for 2021 and beyond. For example, the discussion of a population register and a personal identification number has raised great concerns from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and her provincial and territorial counterparts. There has also been no demonstrated support by Census Program stakeholders for the census approach employing continuous measurement. As well, the development timelines and costs for census approaches other than the traditional one are considered to be quite significant.

If changes are envisioned for 2021 or even later cycles, it is thus important that research continues. A key element of this research will include increased use of administrative data in the Census Program and the Population Estimates Program to reduce respondent burden and/or improve quality and efficiency. This will involve examining the potential for expanding the use of existing administrative data files and exploring partnerships to use additional ones, in accordance with privacy-related policies and directives.

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