'Opt-in' census clause will have 'unfortunate consequences'
Clause stands in the way of research, argues acclaimed historian Bill Waiser
Statistics Canada has just released new information about the Canadian workforce. It's the last batch of aggregate data from the 2016 census.
But when will the national spotlight shine on individual Canadians and their stories? Shouldn't their place in the Canadian historical record matter? Will their information be made available in the future?
The answer is yes and no.
In 2006, for the first time in Canadian history, census participants were asked to indicate — by checking a box — whether their responses on the short form could be made available for research after 92 years.
No detailed explanation was provided on the form about the significance of census records for future genealogical research or for Canadian history. Nothing was said about the consequences of saying no.
If respondents answered no, or simply overlooked the question, the form was not destroyed, but access to it in its name-specific format was forever prohibited.
Opt-in question never asked before
Canadians completing the census had never been asked this "opt-in" question before.
Indeed, past Canadian censuses, with all their name-specific personal information, have been made publicly available after a minimum 92-year waiting period — without a single word of complaint.
But the opt-in question undermined this sensible policy with unfortunate consequences. Only slightly more than 50 per cent of Canadians agreed in 2006 to make their census information available to future generations — including their descendants. That number rose to about 66 per cent in 2011 and then 80 per cent in the most recent census.
So, what's the problem?
Every day in Saskatchewan, people put all kinds of personal information on Facebook and similar social media. But will that information be available and accessible in the future, given the ephemeral nature of the technology? Not everybody, moreover, posts details of their life online.
At least people doing family research today can access past censuses and other sources of historical information, such as Saskatchewan homestead files, school records or Great War attestation papers.
What information will be available for future Canadians?
But what material will be available in the future about individuals living today? How will grandchildren and great grandchildren learn about their ancestors and their lives without access to personal census information if it is forever closed?
Remember, one in five Canadians said no in 2016 to having their responses available in the future, long after they are dead.
It does not have to be this way.
A clause in the 2005 act to amend the Statistics Act requires a review of the "administration and operation" of the informed-consent question "no later than two years before the taking of the third census of population ...by any committee of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament that may be designated or established for that purpose."
Another clause requires a report on the matter.
Act to receive first reading in House of Commons
That mandatory review, for some inexplicable reason, was never undertaken before the 2016 census. Nor is it mentioned in a new piece of legislation — Bill C36, An Act to Amend the Statistics Act — that is scheduled to receive first reading in the House of Commons this month.
The failure to review the opt-in question is not a trivial matter.
Canadians need to know that the statistical integrity of the census as a source of genealogical and historical information, of population trends and movements and especially of information about everyday Canadians has been irreparably compromised by the informed-consent question.
They need to realize that their descendants could be deprived access to family information that might not be otherwise available.
No opt-in question in the U.S.
And they need to be aware that the United States does not have an opt-in question and that Americans secure access to name-specific census data after only 70 years.
The opt-in question should not stand in the way of family and historical research.
Everyone, especially in this Canada 150 year, deserves to be remembered and have a place in the history of Canada. Now, that's a birthday present.