Politics

Citizenship question causing an uproar in U.S. has been part of Canada's long-form census since 1901

A politically divisive debate continues to rage over Donald Trump's push to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census. The same question has been part of Canada's census form for over a century without a ripple.

Trump's continued fight for citizenship question has huge political, financial stakes

Census protesters gather at the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 27, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

A politically divisive debate continues to rage over U.S. President Donald Trump's push to add a citizenship or nationality question to the U.S. census.

That same question has been part of Canada's long-form census for over a century without a ripple, although it's not part of the short-form questionnaire.

Trump has been waging a fierce fight to add the controversial query to the 2020 census, and said Friday he's now considering an executive order to get it done after a Supreme Court ruling blocked his efforts.

Canada's own long form census asks: "Of what country is this person a citizen?" Respondents have a choice of three possible answers: "Canada, by birth," "Canada, by naturalization" or "Other country - specify."

A spokeswoman for Statistics Canada, which manages the census, said the citizenship data is vital to various programs.

"The citizenship question has a long history on the Canadian census, being introduced for the first time on the 1901," said Emily Theelen in an email.

"This information is used to estimate the number of potential voters and to plan citizenship classes and programs. It also provides information about the population with multiple citizenships and the number of immigrants in Canada who hold Canadian citizenship."

Before January 1, 1947, a person born or naturalized in Canada was considered a British subject, and the terms "Canadian citizen" or "citizenship" used in some statutes before that date did not create the legal status of Canadian citizenship.

Before the Canadian Citizenship Act, there was no such thing as legal status attaching to Canadian citizenship. The Act gave legal recognition to the terms "Canadian citizen" and "Canadian citizenship."

Theelen said Statistics Canada's data quality assessment indicators have not flagged any issues specifically related to the citizenship question. The Library of Parliament could not find any significant debate, controversy or court case related to the inclusion of a citizenship question on the Canadian census form.

In the U.S., the Republican administration's push has triggered a partisan firestorm because of the enormous political stakes.

The once-a-decade population count determines the distribution of seats in the House of Representatives among the states, and the disbursement of about $675 billion in federal funding.

The citizenship question had been asked on the main U.S. census form (short form) until 1950, and had also been asked on the long-form census. In 2010, the last time a census was conducted in the U.S., there was a single census form which did not include a question on citizenship.

Disadvantage for Democrats

The Census Bureau's own experts have said the question would discourage immigrants from participating in the census, which would result in a less-accurate census. That, say critics, would redistribute money and political power away from Democrat-led urban districts — where immigrants tend to cluster — and toward whiter, rural areas where Republicans do well.

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman said the political and electoral landscape in Canada is drastically different from the one in the U.S. and would not allow for that kind of "gerrymandering" — the manipulation of electoral boundaries to favour one party over others.

"In Canada, we have an impartial electoral commission that redistributes the electoral boundaries according to the law based on objective criteria," he said. "It's not an issue here at all, because we don't have that kind of gerrymandering that they have in the U.S."

No sign of abuse in Canada

Waldman said it's possible a census result showing a high percentage of undocumented people in a specific region of the U.S. could lead to stepped-up Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) patrols there.

Up to now, there has been no evidence that census information has been abused in that way in Canada.

Canada's census questionnaires have included citizenship questions since 1901. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The U.S. Justice Department said Friday it will continue to look for legal grounds to include the question on the census, but it did not say what options it's considering.

The U.S. government already has begun the process of printing the census questionnaire without the citizenship question, but Trump suggested Friday that officials might be able to add the citizenship query to the questionnaire after it's been printed.

In the Supreme Court's decision last week, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four more liberal members in saying the administration's justification for adding the question "seems to have been contrived."

The Trump administration has said the question was being added to aid in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters' access to the ballot box.

Canada conducts a census every five years. The next census is due in 2021.

Corrections

  • This story has been updated from a previous version that stated incorrectly that Canada's census is conducted every four years. In fact, the census is every five years, with the next one in 2021.
    Jul 06, 2019 6:45 AM ET

With files from The Associated Press

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

...

Thank you for subscribing to CBC Newsletters. Discover more CBC Newsletters.

Happy reading!

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.