Painting a Portrait of Canada: The 2021 Census of Population
5. Data collection

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The Census of Population is the largest and most high-profile activity undertaken by Statistics Canada. Because it involves a count of the country’s population as a whole and informs decisions that impact the well-being of Canadians, the census always draws active public interest and intense media attention.

Because of the importance of the census, Statistics Canada’s collection procedures are designed to enable respondents to complete their census questionnaires quickly and easily while ensuring that high-data quality are obtained.

Inviting households to complete a census questionnaire

Statistics Canada uses a wave methodology throughout the collection period to remind the majority of Canadians to complete their census questionnaires. Other collection methods target specific populations.

The first wave takes place during the first week of collection when an invitation letter is sent out to most dwellings across the country. This first letter provides instructions on how to complete the questionnaire online with a secure access code, the date by which the questionnaire should be completed, as well as the census website address and toll-free Census Help Line number for support.

During the second week of collection, a reminder is sent to households that have not yet completed their questionnaire. This letter also provides instructions on how to complete the questionnaire, as well as the census website address and toll-free Census Help Line number for support.

By the third week of collection, households that have not yet completed a questionnaire will receive a final notice informing them that a Statistics Canada representative will be contacting their household or contacting them by phone to complete the questionnaire.  

Statistics Canada subsequently conducts follow-up activities with non-responding households to complete their questionnaires. An emphasis will be placed on telephone follow-ups, with any in-person follow-ups conducted only if absolutely necessary, with appropriate safety precautions.

While it remains Statistics Canada’s preference for Canadians to complete their census questionnaire online, respondents can request a paper questionnaire at any time during collection.

In rare cases, people refuse to complete their census questionnaire. Because completing a census questionnaire is required by law, refusal cases may be referred to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) at the end of collection. Once a case is referred to the PPSC, the decision to lay charges and the overall case management rest exclusively with the PPSC.

In 2018, the provision regarding the penalty of imprisonment for refusing to provide information or impeding access to information was removed from the Statistics Act. This reflects the general consensus in Canada that imprisonment for not completing mandatory surveys—including the census—is disproportionate to the offence. The fine for failure to respond to census questions can be up to $500.

Recruiting staff

Hiring trustworthy people is key to the success of the agency.

Statistics Canada recruits employees for the census under the provisions of the Statistics Act and the Public Service Employment Act. To be eligible for census employment, candidates must apply online, pass an application screening process and reference check, and have a Government of Canada security reliability assessment conducted.

In addition, all employees are sworn to secrecy when they are hired. This oath remains in effect for life, even after employment has ended.

Enumeration of private dwellings

The starting point for census collection is the dwelling. Most private dwellings receive a bilingual invitation letter by mail that includes a secure access code to allow them to complete their census questionnaire online. For a smaller portion of dwellings, census employees drop off a package that includes an invitation letter with a secure access code.

For most private dwellings, respondents are asked to complete the questionnaire for themselves and all members of the household. Private dwelling refers to a separate set of living quarters with a private entrance from outside the building or from a common hall, lobby, vestibule or stairway inside the building.

Remote, northern and reserve communities

In past censuses, remote, northern and reserve communities were enumerated using a traditional canvasser approach to data collection, where a Statistics Canada employee would administer the questionnaire in the dwelling of the respondent between February and March. Sometimes this would be done using employees dispatched to the community from southern parts of Canada. This approach will change in 2021 as a result of changes made to protect public health in these communities because the Census of Population will be conducted during a period when there is unlikely to be a vaccine for COVID-19 available. Statistics Canada will work closely with communities affected and provincial/territorial authorities to implement this new approach.

In these areas, self-response will be permitted for the first time in 2021. The approach to collection in remote, northern and reserve communities will involve the distribution of e-questionnaire invitations or paper questionnaires by Statistics Canada enumerators hired locally and following a protocol that avoids entry into the dwelling. 

Furthermore, to facilitate these changes, enumeration in these communities will no longer take place in February and March, but instead will coincide with the core operations of the census between April and July. However, the new period of enumeration will be chosen carefully, taking into account that traditional hunting, fishing, trapping and other activities may take place in the later months.

Collective dwellings

Collective dwellings are dwellings of a commercial, institutional or communal nature. These are the usual residence of many Canadians. Examples include lodging or rooming houses, hotels, motels, tourist establishments, nursing homes, hospitals, staff residences, military bases, work camps, correctional or custodial facilities, and group homes.  

Statistics Canada takes a practical and contactless approach to enumerating people living in collective dwellings, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, no enumerator will be permitted to visit or enter most collective dwellings, especially those housing residents who are vulnerable to COVID-19, such as seniors’ residences, hospitals and correctional institutions. All contact will be done by phone with the administrator of the collective dwelling, who will provide them with the key information required on each resident. 

Follow-up with non-respondents

In 2021, Statistics Canada will introduce new protocols to ensure the safety of Canadians in the nation’s fight against COVID-19. All attempts will be made to get Canadians to respond to the census without the involvement of a Statistics Canada employee. Follow-ups with households that do not respond will still be required, but these will be done primarily by telephone. The enumerator will have increased access to the phone numbers of respondents so that as much follow-up as possible can be done over the phone. A Statistics Canada employee will be sent in person to a dwelling for non-response follow-up only when absolutely necessary, and a new no-contact protocol will be followed.

Under this protocol, no interviews will be conducted inside the respondent’s dwelling. Statistics Canada will be conducting a contactless census, meaning that these interviews will instead be physically distanced and may involve the use of personal protective equipment for the safety of both the respondents and employees.

People living abroad

Canadian officials who are working outside Canada (e.g., working overseas in embassies or for the government) are included in the census count. This includes federal and provincial government employees and their families, as well as members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families.

Statistics Canada coordinates the enumeration activities of these groups with designated representatives from departments and agencies across the country.

Alternate languages and formats

For the 2021 Census of Population, the questionnaires are available in English and French. However, reference material—including the questions and explanations of why they are asked—is available in a number of other languages, including Indigenous languages. Respondents can obtain a copy of these materials by visiting the census website or calling the Census Help Line.

The questionnaire is available in large print, and reference material (including the census questions and explanations) is available in braille, and audio and video formats.

The large-print version of the short-form and long-form questionnaires is printed on legal-sized paper in a large font size and has space to enumerate two individuals rather than five (for the long-form questionnaire).

Respondents who need assistance to complete the questionnaire—such as people who are blind, have vision loss, have reading difficulties, are deaf or have hearing loss—can contact the Census Help Line by phone or teletype machine.

Verification initiatives

Statistics Canada takes a number of important steps to ensure that the census results will be of very high quality. The following activities are undertaken before and during the census collection period to increase quality and accuracy:

Failed edit follow-up

This step helps resolve cases of missing and incomplete responses on the census short-form questionnaire. Respondents are contacted by phone to collect the missing information or fix inconsistencies.

Apartment occupancy verification

Apartment occupancy verification is used to determine whether non-responding units in an apartment building were occupied on Census Day. In preparation for this operation, tracing may be required to collect the contact information of managers or superintendents of large apartment buildings.

Dwelling occupancy verification

Dwelling occupancy verification is used to identify dwellings that are unoccupied as close to Census Day as possible. This helps improve the accuracy of the census count.

Dwelling Classification Survey

Following census collection, a survey is conducted on a sample of dwellings classified as either unoccupied or non-response by census employees during field follow-up operations. This step confirms the occupancy status of these dwellings to ensure the census data are of high quality.

Easing response burden

Supporting online collection

Online collection of the Census of Population aligns with the Government of Canada strategy that calls for a digital-first approach to government services.

Since its introduction in 2001, the online census questionnaire has only increased in popularity. In 2016, 68.3% of private occupied dwellings completed the census online, up from 53.9% in 2011 and 18.3% in 2006. In 2021, the objective is to further increase that percentage.

Since its introduction in 2001, the online census questionnaire has only increased in popularity. In 2016, 68.3% of private occupied dwellings completed the census online, up from 53.9% in 2011 and 18.3% in 2006. In 2021, the objective is to further increase that percentage.

Online questionnaires provide cost savings and data quality gains over paper questionnaires. The quality of the data obtained from online questionnaires is also higher because there are prompts for respondents when invalid data are entered or when responses to questions are missing. In the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, responding online is the best way to stay home and stay safe while fulfilling your census obligation. Whenever follow-up activities are required, Statistics Canada will be using practises aligned with a contactless census.

The online census questionnaire prefills fields based on information provided by the respondent at the start of the questionnaire (e.g., names of household members). This reduces the likelihood of one member’s answers being recorded under another person’s name. Automated skips alleviate response burden by skipping questions that are not applicable. The online questionnaires also contain additional information about the census questions to help respondents who require more information. The online long-form questionnaire allows respondents to exit the questionnaire and return to complete it later.

Completing the questionnaire online is an easy, secure and convenient option that can be used anywhere, anytime. The latest technologies are used to ensure that Statistics Canada’s strict security and confidentiality requirements are met. The online census questionnaire does not require preregistration or involve lengthy download processes.

Designing a device-friendly census

In 2016, the Government of Canada adopted a mobile-friendly approach for all websites to prepare for the increase in mobile users in Canada. The 2016 Census online questionnaires were scalable, i.e., they were designed to be adapted according to the type of device used by the respondent.

In 2016, among households that completed an online questionnaire, 79.6% used a personal computer, 12.9% used a tablet and 7.5% used a smartphone to submit their census questionnaire online. In 2021, the trend toward mobile device use is expected to grow, and developers have designed online forms using the same device-friendly principles.

Leveraging administrative data

Statistics Canada uses administrative data (data provided to other government organizations and made available to Statistics Canada under strict rules of confidentiality) to supplement its statistical programs. For example, in the 2016 Census, income data for all respondents was provided by the Canada Revenue Agency instead of including income questions on the long-form questionnaire.

Information obtained from administrative sources is often more accurate than information collected through survey responses, as using administrative data reduces some reporting errors. In addition, some administrative data sources are used to validate and certify census results.

The use of administrative data reduces collection costs and response burden. By increasingly using administrative data, Canadians are spared from supplying the same information they have already provided to another government department or agency.

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