Painting a Portrait of Canada: The 2021 Census of Population
1. Introduction

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The Census of Population at the heart of decision making

This document outlines Statistics Canada’s planned approach for the 2021 Census of Population.

Statistics Canada recognizes that it is important not only to successfully conduct the census, but also to be transparent and informative about the way those efforts are accomplished. Statistics Canada is interested in speaking directly to Canadians ahead of the 2021 Census of Population. The audience for this document is any group or individual with an active interest in data disseminated from the Census Program, including governments at all levels, Indigenous leadership, businesses, associations, community organizations, universities and academics, and the general public.

As Canada’s national statistical agency, Statistics Canada gathers data and produces statistics to ensure that Canadians have timely access to relevant and high-quality statistical information on Canada’s changing society.

Through the Census of Population, Statistics Canada provides information on changes in the Canadian population and its demographic characteristics—information that is used to inform debate, for research and analysis, and in public and private decision making.

Statistics Canada is required by law to conduct a Census of Population every five years (key legislation is presented in Appendix A). By law, the agency must provide population and dwelling counts for communities of all sizes across Canada. These counts are essential for maintaining Canada’s equitable representation, as they are used to set electoral boundaries; estimate the demand for services in minority official languages; and calculate federal, provincial and territorial transfer payments.

Census information has many other important uses in the day-to-day lives of Canadians. Local governments use the census to develop programs and services, such as planning for schools and health services. Businesses analyze census data to make critical investment decisions, and social agencies depend on the census to understand the evolving needs of members of their communities.

Census data are also a key component of emergency preparedness and crisis management. For example, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, crucial information on vulnerable populations—drawn from the high-quality results of the 2016 Census of Population—was provided to public health authorities and emergency services officials.

This document contains a number of statistical terms, many of which are explained or illustrated in the text. A glossary is also presented in Appendix B.

History of the census

The Census of Population has provided valuable information to Canadians and decision makers for hundreds of years. The first census was conducted in New France under Jean Talon in 1666. The results showed a large population difference between the number of men and the number of women, highlighting the need for more women to immigrate to New France.

The proclamation of the British North America Act, 1867 (now the Constitution Act, 1867) made it a constitutional requirement to take a census every 10 years. The next census, conducted in 1871, determined the appropriate representation in the new parliament. The census continues to play this key role under the Fair Representation Act.

After 1867, the Constitution Act, 1907 and the Constitution Act, 1930 were passed to further regulate certain transfers from the federal government to the Prairie provinces based on population counts from a census taken every five years.

Because of Canada’s rapid growth after the Second World War and large population movements between provinces and into urban areas, it became necessary to obtain population information more frequently. In 1956, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics (now Statistics Canada) carried out the first nationwide quinquennial census.

Since 1971, the Statistics Act has made it a legal requirement for Statistics Canada to hold the Census of Population (and Census of Agriculture) every five years, in the years ending in 1 and 6. The act also outlines the mandatory requirements for completing and returning census questionnaires.

In 2017, amendments to the Statistics Act strengthened the agency’s independence and reinforced Statistics Canada’s role as the national statistical agency. Formalizing Statistics Canada’s independence was an important milestone in ensuring that the statistics it produces are neutral, objective, accurate and reliable. For the outputs of a national statistical office to be credible, its national statisticians must operate—and be seen to operate—with a high level of professional independence from external authorities. The amendments to the act are in line with the United Nations Statistics Division and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Recommendation on Good Statistical Practice. 

Under the revised Statistics Act, the minister responsible for the agency continues to have authority over what statistics are produced. The Chief Statistician has authority over the agency’s methods, processes, analyses and dissemination. As a result, the census will follow the highest international standards and produce high-quality data on topics that are identified as relevant by the government, key stakeholders and data users. Census questions are reviewed by the Cabinet of Canada and approved by the Governor in Council, who issues an order in council, as required by the Statistics Act. The census questions are then published in the Canada Gazette.

Statistics Canada as the national statistical office

The Statistics Act mandates the agency to “collect, compile, analyse, abstract and publish statistical information relating to the commercial, industrial, financial, social, economic and general activities and conditions of the people” of Canada, and to undertake the Census of Population and Census of Agriculture.

The Statistics Act provides for a robust centralized statistical agency in Canada, mandated to collect information on almost every subject. This strong power to collect and access information is counterbalanced by an ironclad guarantee of confidentiality—all employees of the agency are personally liable for protecting the confidentiality of all information collected under the act.

The need for internationally comparable information means that the census aims to comply with international standards set at global and regional levels. The United Nations reviews and sets census recommendations and principles every 10 years to ensure international consistency.

Statistics Canada has committed to providing non-disclosure information (information that does not allow any individual to be identified) from the census to the United Nations and other international bodies for comparison purposes.

Shaping government policy

The Census of Population Program supplies statistical information, analysis and services that measure changes in Canada’s population, its demographic characteristics and its conditions. It provides the Government of Canada with accurate population counts that are used as the basis for the Population Estimates Program, which in turn is used to determine transfer payments, such as the Canada Health Transfer, the Canada Social Transfer, the Health Reform Transfer, and Equalization and Territorial Formula Financing. All per capita measures in fiscal policies, arrangements and other economic analysis, as well as in program and service planning, are based on census information.

The Census of Population also helps define and establish federal electoral districts—and therefore, representation in the House of Commons—every 10 years, playing a critical role in the constitutional amending formula.

Statistics produced by the Census of Population range from the general demographic, social and economic conditions of the population to the socioeconomic conditions and well-being of specific population groups, such as lone-parent families; immigrants; seniors; language groups; and First Nations people, Métis and Inuit. The census also provides detailed information for small geographic areas that can be used to assess the effects of policy initiatives. As a result, the census serves as a foundation for other statistical surveys, as well as for population estimates and projections.

Census of Population data are important for all communities and are vital for planning purposes, such as developing services that support employment, education and health care. Data are used by governments, businesses, associations, Indigenous leadership, community organizations and many others to make informed decisions that affect all Canadians.

Broad trends in Canadian society

As detailed above, census data is essential to informing policy on virtually all aspects of society. A number of themes are presently front and centre for Canadians, including—but not limited to—the ethnocultural and demographic makeup of Canada, gender diversity, the labour market, the rich linguistic plurality present in some areas of the country, and the status of Veterans.

Statistics Canada is measuring some of these topics closely through various (non-census) social and economic survey programs, as well as data published from the 2016 Census. For instance, data from the 2016 Census indicated that 22.3% of Canadians belong to a population group designated as a visible minorityNote 1. Through population projections from 2018, Statistics Canada projects this percentage will rise to between 29% and 32% by 2031. In terms of age, Canada’s population continues to get older: the latest population estimates from July 1, 2019 indicate that the country’s median population sits at 40.8 years, with the proportion of seniors (65 years and older) at 17.5%.

“…data from the 2016 Census indicated that 22.3% of Canadians belong to a population group designated as a visible minority. Through population projections from 2018, Statistics Canada projects this percentage will rise to between 29% and 32% by 2031.”

In addition, Statistics Canada is committed to looking at its products through a Gender-Based Analysis (GBA) Plus lens, with the establishment of a Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics. There is also the expectation of increasingly disaggregated data. A data gap was present in the 2016 Census for the sex question as some Canadians indicated that they could not identify themselves, given only two response options (i.e., male, female). Sex is a distinct concept from gender. This will be addressed in the 2021 Census with a revised question on sex at birth, and a new question on gender.

Next, while the Labour Force Survey is one of the largest and most successful survey programs in the world, some key labour market information is not currently captured in the monthly labour statistics program. In the 2021 Census, new questions on the reasons for working part time only and for not working the full year will provide information on the precarious work situation for groups such as low-income families, population groups, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and Indigenous peoples, including the on-reserve First Nations population.

Canada is a diverse country, linguistically, as evidenced from 2016 Census data. For example, 19.4% of the population speaks more than one language at home; nearly eight million Canadians have a mother tongue other than English or French. However, a gap has persisted for some time in providing accurate information on the number of children whose parents have the constitutional right to send them to an official language (i.e. English, French) minority school. Statistics Canada will meet this need: for the first time, the Census of Population will collect data on the children of minority language rights-holders, as per section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"…for the first time, the Census of Population will collect data on the children of minority language rights-holders, as per section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Statistics Canada has published reports pertaining to Veterans in recent years, including the “Life After Service Survey, 2019” which looked at Veterans’ health and well-being. A data gap currently exists, however, in providing an accurate number of Canadians who have previously served or are currently serving as members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Existing data sources are limited to decades-old historical census data and various, incomplete administrative data. The 2021 Census will represent a strong step forward in this respect.

New data from the 2021 Census will further enhance Statistics Canada’s ability to accurately measure, and report on, these broad social trends. Later on in this document, Chapter 4 explores in detail the topics covered by the 2021 Census, including the new and modified content specific to the above-mentioned areas, alongside others. Statistics Canada is continually forward-looking in its orientation. This means having a heightened awareness of the environment in which the agency operates and keeping track of feedback and input from stakeholders, to address emerging data gaps and meet the evolving needs of Canadians.

The timing of the census

The Census of Population is conducted every five years. The requirement for a nationwide quinquennial census has been part of the Statistics Act since 1971 as Section 19 of the act stipulates that “a census of population of Canada shall be taken by Statistics Canada in the month of June in the year 1971, and every fifth year thereafter in a month to be fixed by the Governor in Council.” In recent cycles, the census has been conducted in May. Furthermore, under the Constitution Act, a decennial census is to be conducted every ten years in the year ending in “1” and the 2021 Census will take place in May.

The spring timing of the Census of Population is driven by the need to maximize the number of Canadians who are at home during enumeration and allows sufficient time to conduct follow-up activities before the summer holiday period.

Determining census content

Preparation for each cycle of the census requires several stages of engagement, as well as testing and evaluating data in order to recommend questionnaire content for the upcoming census. These steps include content consultations and discussions with stakeholders and census data users (see Chapter 2), content testing that includes the qualitative testing of proposed changes and new content, a quantitative test to evaluate content and respondent behaviour on a larger scale, and an evaluation of the test results guided by a content determination framework to propose the recommended census questions to Cabinet of Canada for approval. 

Once Cabinet has approved the census questions, the Governor in Council reviews the questions and an order in council will “prescribe the questions to be asked under section 19 or 20” of the Statistics Act. Within 30 days of the signing of the order, the census content is published in the Canada Gazette.

When proposing content for the 2021 Census of Population questionnaire, Statistics Canada follows the Census Program’s content determination framework, which balances information needs with other factors, such as data quality, response burden and costs. More information on this process is available in the Final Report on 2016 Census Options: Proposed Content Determination Framework and Methodology Options.

Census test

Testing is a critical phase of preparation for Census Day.

The purpose of census testing is to verify that Statistics Canada is able to collect the high-quality data needed to fulfill the Census Program requirements. The 2019 Census Test validates respondent behaviour to ensure that questions and census materials are understood by all participants. Testing also determines whether the systems and processes that are used to help manage the complex challenges involved with conducting a census run smoothly.

Testing helps improve quality and efficiencies, minimizes risks related to the program’s ability to effectively respond to unexpected challenges, verifies or supports the credibility of the results produced, and ensures a meaningful understanding of the limitations of those results. Statistics Canada has world-class experts guiding its efforts, to ensure a scientific and rigorous evaluation process.

Testing activities for the Census Program are planned, implemented and evaluated in accordance with standards such as UNECE’s Generic Statistical Business Process Model and Statistics Canada’s Quality Guidelines and Quality Assurance Framework.

Behaviour tests

To improve the overall efficiency of census testing, Statistics Canada has moved from a dress rehearsal approach to testing that was traditionally used in census operations preparation. In recent cycles, the testing has focused more on specific aspects of the program, generally those that impact respondent behaviour or the behaviour of census collection staff.

Communication material qualitative test

Statistics Canada conducts a series of cognitive interviews with census respondents. Participants are asked about their previous knowledge of the census, their views on the census communication process and their reactions to the communication materials (e.g., letters and envelopes) used during collection.

The objectives of the cognitive interview are to assess how well census messaging is understood and how it influences respondent behaviour with regard to questionnaire completion.

The communication material qualitative test took place in January 2018. Observations from the interviews were compiled, and new resulting materials were included in the 2019 Census Test.

Questionnaire content qualitative test

The process of reviewing and testing questionnaires is instrumental to data quality, particularly response accuracy.

Statistics Canada’s Policy on the Development of Questionnaires requires that all new and revised questionnaires be tested before they are used to collect data from the public. From April to November 2018, following the findings of content consultations and discussions, qualitative tests were conducted to provide insight into how respondents reacted to proposed changes to questionnaire content. In-depth one-on-one interviews were conducted to test and evaluate participants’ understanding of the concepts, terminology, question sequencing and questionnaire format. They were also used to assess alternate wording. Interviewers also examined participants’ thought processes as they answered questions to assess whether the questions were clear. Potential sources of response error were corrected.

In preparation for the 2021 Census of Population, over 550 interviews were conducted across the country to test both the electronic and paper formats of the short-form and long-form questionnaires in both official languages, including approximately 100 interviews with First Nations people, Métis and Inuit. New questions were introduced; existing questions were reworded; some questions were removed; and answer categories, instructions and question flows were adjusted. All topics included in the 2016 Census were modified in some way, and multiple versions of changes were tested.

2019 Census Test

The 2019 Census Test evaluated changes in questionnaires and collection and operating processes in preparation for the 2021 Census of Population.

In May and June 2019, census invitation letters and questionnaires were delivered to a sample of approximately 250,000 dwellings across the country. To ensure accurate results, participation in this test was mandatory under the Statistics Act.

The test consisted of two components: a content test and a field operations test.

  1. Content test: The content component of the 2019 Census Test involved a sample of 135,000 households. The purpose of this component was to evaluate the new and modified questions that were based on the results of the content consultations and discussions, the questionnaire content qualitative test, and the needs of policy makers and data users. It aimed to validate respondent behaviour with regard to question and instruction changes and ensure the questionnaire yields high-quality data.

After analyzing the results of the test and considering factors such as costs, operations, respondent relations and safeguards against quality loss, Statistics Canada submitted the final content of the 2021 Census of Population questionnaire to Cabinet for approval.

  1. Field operations test: The field operations component of the 2019 Census Test involved a sample of 115,000 households. The purpose of this component was to assess new and modified procedures and technologies for use in data collection. It aimed to validate the behaviour of field staff and respondents with regard to new procedures, systems and tools. This test also evaluated changes to the recruitment and training process for field staff; the delivery of invitation letters and census packages to households; the enumeration of collective dwellings (e.g., hospitals and seniors’ residences); and the follow-up activities for other field operations, such as non-response follow-up.

2021 systems tests

The census information systems infrastructure is complex. Its functioning depends on the proper operation of each component, as well as seamless communication between components. A series of tests is planned between September 2020 and January 2021 to ensure that all systems are operating as expected, including an end-to-end systems test, a volume test, a system readiness test (including adequacy of cybersecurity protection) and an operational readiness test.

End-to-end test

An end-to-end test of all systems is conducted in the quality assurance environment one year before census collection to ensure all elements are operating as expected.

Volume test

For the volume test, non-live systems tests are conducted using a large volume of data to determine or confirm system capacities. These are also known as load or stress tests.

System readiness test

For the 2021 Census, the system readiness test verifies that systems are properly installed, secure, complete and fully operational.

Operational readiness test

The operational readiness test is conducted to check all or a specific scope of operations, processes and procedures before the start of operations. Particular attention is given to contingency plans and escalation procedures.

Success criteria for the census

The census supports decision makers across Canada by providing them with high-quality information that reflects the country on Census Day.

“The 2016 Census of Population was the most successful census in Canada’s history, with almost 9 in 10 respondents completing their questionnaire without assistance from Statistics Canada and an overall 98% collection response rate.”

The 2016 Census of Population was the most successful census in Canada’s history, with almost 9 in 10 respondents completing their questionnaire without assistance from Statistics Canada and an overall 98% collection response rate. The self-response rate of 88.8% made the 2016 Census among the most effective traditional censuses conducted in the world.

Each census cycle, Statistics Canada strives to improve all elements of the Census Program and build on successes of past censuses while recognizing that unique challenges can emerge. Therefore, the data collection operations of the Census of Population have been adapted to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (described later and referred to as a contactless census). It is expected that the quality of the census data will remain high.

Key census design features for 2021

The 2021 Census is designed to be accessible and straightforward to complete online.

The census is designed to take the needs of respondents into account so that they are engaged and understand that their participation is important to ensure that their community is well represented in the census data. 

Census advertising and communications are designed to promote the importance of the census and encourage all Canadian households to complete their questionnaire. 

Initial contact with the majority of households is done through an invitation sent by mail encouraging respondents to complete the census questionnaire online. The invitation includes a unique secure access code and the census website address. Paper questionnaires are available upon request. Follow-up activities are planned to ensure full participation and high-quality results.

Online completion is easier for many individuals. Furthermore, members of the public have become more familiar with receiving services online from both the private sector and the government, so the agency anticipates increased use of online questionnaires.

Statistics Canada plans to provide a wide range of services to the public to encourage and support the completion of census questionnaires, including

Administrative data

Statistics Canada has a long tradition of using data from administrative sources in its statistical programs. The use of administrative data to replace questions on the census not only reduces collection costs and response burden, but is often more precise.

In some cases, using administrative sources may be the only feasible way to collect important statistical information. As with the 2016 Census, Statistics Canada will use existing administrative data sources, such as immigration records and personal income tax and benefit data, to reduce response burden and increase data quality. 

Data protection and privacy

Statistics Canada places the highest priority on protecting the confidentiality and security of individual questionnaires. Stringent measures and procedures have been implemented to ensure that confidentiality is protected at all times. For example, census data are processed and stored on a highly restricted network and cannot be accessed by anyone who has not taken the oath of secrecy.

Only Statistics Canada employees with a need to know have access to personal and confidential information. These employees are able to collect, process and analyze completed questionnaires. All Statistics Canada employees must take an oath of secrecy under the Statistics Act, which remains in effect for life—even after their employment has ended. All Statistics Canada employees are subject to fines and/or imprisonment if they reveal identifiable information derived from the census.

Statistics Canada is bound by law to protect the identity of individuals in any data it publishes. Publications and electronic data releases are screened to ensure anonymity. Names, addresses and telephone numbers are not part of the census database used for dissemination, and private contractors do not have access to confidential data.

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