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Sunday, 4 July 2010

Canada to impose new restrictions on future Census information

Looks like the Canadian Government, and particularly those with control over Canadas Census are about to shoot themselves, and future generations of Canadians who want to know about their ancestors, squarely in the foot, in a move the government says was prompted by privacy concerns.

Statistics Canada has quietly made major changes to the country's census in time for the upcoming round of national sampling in 2011. The long census questionnaire that provided information on a broad range on such topics as ethnicity, education, employment, income, housing and disability has been eliminated. Instead, those questions will be asked on a new, voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) and the results will never be released, in contrast with the treasure trove of census data that currently becomes public after 92 years.

"I'm just flabbergasted by the fact that they are taking the greatest source of information for the history of the country away from us," says Gordon Watts, an amateur genealogist and co-chairman of the Canada Census Committee. "It's a huge change and as far as I'm concerned, they've been playing dirty pool because none of the people who have been concerned about this, to my knowledge, have been advised that this was in the works."

Officials from Statistics Canada say the 2011 census went through the usual consultation process, with citizens invited to provide feedback online, but there was no indication this change was under consideration.

The idea of doing away with the long census questionnaire form, transferring the questions to the NHS and no longer releasing the information did not become public until Saturday, when it appeared in a government publication.

"This change was made to reasonably limit what many Canadians felt was an intrusion of their personal privacy," said Erik Waddell, a spokesman for Industry Minister Tony Clement (Statistics Canada falls under the purview of Industry Canada).

The decision to change the census came from the federal government and not from the ministry or Statistics Canada, he said.

Previously, each Canadian household was required by law to complete a census form, with 80 per cent filling out short questionnaires including eight questions on topics such as date of birth, marital status and language. The other 20 per cent of households filled out the long questionnaire, which included 53 additional questions probing everything from country of birth and mobility issues to people's occupation and how many hours they spend caring for children.

The NHS will include largely the same list of questions as the old census long form, but because Statistics Canada does not release survey data, it will never become public — something Watts says is an enormous loss to future Canadians.

"The census is the single most important documented information available to the historical and genealogical community. It is the only source in which you get information regarding families instead of individuals," he says. "Through successive censuses, you can track the formation of the family, you can track when children are born, when children grow up and leave, you can check patterns of migration."

The next census will be conducted in May 2011 and the NHS will be sent out to 4.5 million households around the same time, to be completed in hard copy or online. In 2006, one in five Canadian households received a long census questionnaire, but that will be increased to one in three for the NHS in hopes of obtaining an adequate number of responses, says Peter Morrison, assistant chief statistician responsible for census and operations.

Statistics Canada does not have a target response rate to ensure adequate national coverage of the survey, he added.

Morrison said to their knowledge, no other country collects census data in the manner that Statistics Canada will be doing.

The questionnaires will be available in multiple languages and "maximum efforts" will be made to gather data from households that are likely to respond, says Rosemary Bender, assistant chief statistician in charge of the NHS.

"We have a lot of experience conducting voluntary surveys and we're optimistic Canadians will comply with the information, will respond to it positively and that it will be a success story," Harrison said.

Academics rely on census data for understanding changes in society over time, says Margaret Conrad, an honourary research professor in the history department at the University of New Brunswick, and the documents are our primary portrait of the changing Canadian family.

One in five Canadians are engaged in personal genealogy research, she says, and the fascination seems to be growing, fuelled by television shows such as Ancestors in the Attic. But where genealogical history was once limited to what was scrawled inside the family Bible, a proliferation of websites and the public release of Canadian census documents up to 1911 now give amateur sleuths a vast storehouse of information that will no longer be available with this change.

"You just plug your name into Ancestry.ca and you get stuff that would have taken you months or even years to track down earlier on," Conrad says. "It's how they identify themselves as citizens in this country, by figuring out where they fit into this rapidly changing world and how their families got to where they were. I think that is an important anchor for people."