01 January 2018

The Census War is now over!

The following is reproduced, with permission, from a post at [Arcan-l] by former Librarian and Archivist of Canada Ian Wilson.

Parliament has passed legislation amending the Statistics Act to remove any restrictions on access to the historical census after 92 years for the 2021 Census and beyond. (Statutes of Canada 2017. Chapter 31. section 18.1(1))
Many will recall that in 2005 after considerable discussion and a lengthy lobbying campaign by the research community, Parliament settled on a compromise between Statistics Canada and Library and Archives Canada:  this required transfer of the census records to the LAC and provided for access to existing population census records for research after 92 years.  Statistics Canada insisted though that for future censuses, from 2006 and onward, individuals had to give consent to allow for research access after 92 years. As a result, the census forms for 2006, 2011 and 2016 asked those completing the forms to indicate their consent. No answer was assumed denial.  As part of the compromise, Statistics Canada promised to conduct an active campaign prior to each census urging people to count themselves in. The 2005 legislation also required a full review and study by a parliamentary committee to assess the impact of this consent-based approach on the research integrity of the census after the 2011 census and two years before that for 2016. The publicity efforts and the legally required study were not undertaken.
The progress of this campaign was chronicled in the excellent article by two leading protagonists:  "The Laurier Promise: Securing Public Access to Historic Census Materials in Canada" by Terry Cook and Bill Waiser. (published in Cheryl Avery and Mona Hulmlund (eds) Better Off Forgetting? essays on archives, public policy and collective memory.  UofT Press. 2010) Careful research by the LAC had shown that despite the assertions of Statistics Canada there was no such promise.  
The damage to the census as a long-term statistically valid record of the changing Canadian population has been clear from the figures released by Statistics Canada:  in 2006 only 55% agreed to allow eventual access; in 2011: 66% and in 2016: 81%.  In late 2017, the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology held hearings on amendments to the Statistics Act.  Professor Bill Waiser and Professor Chad Gaffield were invited to address the issue of research access and both made informed and effective arguments for full access after Canada's traditional 92 years. Their testimony on December 6th is now available online.
The members of the Standing Committee noted both in their discussion and in their report (21st Report, 7 December 2017) the unfortunate  impact on the 2006, 2011 and 2016 population censuses and called "upon the Chief Statistician of Canada to explore all options to encourage Canadians to consent to the release of information for the 2006, 2011 and 2016 censuses and national householder surveys."  The Standing Committee added that "Statistics Canada should before the upcoming census, highlight to Canadians the value of census records for future generations". 
Sincere thanks are due to the research community and especially the genealogists for their energetic and persuasive email campaign leading up to the 2005 decision and to Bill Waiser (recipient of the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for Non-fiction) and Chad Gaffield (recently elected President of the Royal Society of Canada) who have led the access campaign for nearly two decades.  For much of this time, they worked closely with our late colleague, Dr. Terry Cook, FRSC.

Ian Wilson is now Special Adviser to the Director General of the National Archives of the United Arab Emirates, based in Abu Dhabi (where the temperature as I write is +24C) and assisting with the review of UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme dealing with the preservation of and access to documentary heritage. He asked I add that tribute should also be paid to former Senator Lorna Milne who was instrumental in achieving the 2005 compromise.