Frequently asked questions—General information

1. What is the census?

Every five years, Canadians are invited to participate in the census to help paint a portrait of Canada's diverse population and the places where we live.

The Census of Population provides high-quality information on key socioeconomic trends and analysis that helps Canadians make important decisions that affect our families, our neighbourhoods and our businesses.

The Census of Agriculture is conducted at the same time and collects information about every agricultural operation in Canada.

The next Census of Population and Census of Agriculture will take place in May 2021. Census Day is May 11, 2021.

2. Why is the census important?

Information from the census is used by governments, businesses, associations, community organizations and many others to make important decisions for your community, your province or territory, and the entire country.

The information you provide ensures that the 2021 Census of Population accurately reflects Canada's changing society. Your responses ensure that your community has the information it needs to plan services that support employment, schools, public transportation and hospitals.

The Census of Agriculture provides information on all aspects of the Canadian agriculture industry—from the township, rural or municipal level to the national level. Both public and private agricultural organizations use the data collected from the Census of Agriculture.

3. Who is included in the census?

The Census of Population enumerates the entire Canadian population, which consists of Canadian citizens (by birth and by naturalization), landed immigrants and non-permanent residents and their families living with them in Canada. Non-permanent residents are the persons who hold a work or student permit, or who have claimed refugee status (e.g., asylum seekers).

The census also counts Canadian citizens and landed immigrants who are temporarily outside the country on Census Day. This includes federal and provincial government employees working outside Canada, Canadian embassy staff posted to other countries, members of the Canadian Forces stationed abroad and all Canadian crew members of merchant vessels, as well as their families.

4. Why does Canada have a census every five years and not every 10 years like in some other countries?

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. A five-year census interval allows for more up-to-date, detailed information about the country and its population.

As Canada continues to grow and evolve as a nation, it is important to understand its makeup to respond to its ever more diverse needs. Providing governments, businesses, organizations and Canadians with important information on the country's rich cultural and ethnic background, linguistic profile, and diversity of families is but a sample of how the census informs all Canadians.

Understanding the changing nature of the labour market and the skills people bring to it is critical for Canada to remain competitive in a global market economy.

5. How many households must complete a short-form census questionnaire, and how many must complete a long-form census questionnaire?

Seventy-five percent (75%) of Canadian households receive a short-form Census of Population questionnaire, which collects basic demographic information, such as age, marital status and language.

A sample of 25% of Canadian households receive a long-form questionnaire. The long-form questionnaire collects the same demographic information as the short-form questionnaire, as well as information about the social and economic situation of the people across Canada and the dwellings they live in. 

All farm operators in Canada receive the same Census of Agriculture questionnaire.

6. Are people required by law to complete the census questionnaire?

In accordance with the Statistics Act, all residents of Canada are legally required to complete the census questionnaire.

Statistics Canada is bound by law to protect the confidentiality of the information respondents provide in the census. Only Statistics Canada employees who have taken the oath of secrecy have access to census questionnaires.

7. What is the legal authority for the census?

The Statistics Act requires that the Census of Population and the Census of Agriculture be conducted every five years (for years ending in "1" and "6"). The act outlines the mandatory requirements for returning census questionnaires as well as the penalty provisions for anyone not doing so.

8. Are there penalties for not completing the census questionnaire?

Yes. Completion of the census questionnaire is mandatory under the Statistics Act.

The act stipulates that a person who refuses to complete a census questionnaire can be fined up to $500. The court may also require the completion of the census questionnaire.

9. How does Statistics Canada determine what questions to ask?

As part of each census cycle, Statistics Canada leads comprehensive consultations and discussions on census content requirements and data dissemination strategies. During these engagements, Statistics Canada hears from individuals and organizations in many sectors of Canadian society, including

  • federal departments
  • provincial and territorial ministries and organizations
  • municipal governments
  • First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities
  • non-governmental organizations
  • researchers and academics
  • businesses
  • the general public.

The feedback from data users leads to proposed changes to the census test questionnaire. Those changes are tested through a qualitative test 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.

After research, consultations and testing, Statistics Canada develops content for the census and submits the proposed questions to Cabinet.

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.

10. Why is Statistics Canada using administrative data as part of the 2021 Census?

Statistics Canada has a long tradition of using data from administrative sources to meet its objectives.

Using administrative data reduces the response burden on Canadians, saves time and money, and ensures that the census remains accurate, relevant and efficient.

Increased use of administrative data can mean that Canadians supply the same information only once—for example, if Canadians provide information to one government organization, that information can be reused by Statistics Canada.

In some cases, using administrative sources may be the only feasible way to collect important statistical information that helps Canadians make timely evidence-based decisions.

11. What administrative data sources will be used?

As with the 2016 Census, Statistics Canada will use existing administrative data sources such as immigration records and personal income tax data to manage the response burden on Canadians. 

Statistics Canada draws information such as employment income, income from government transfers, and the amount of income tax paid from Canada Revenue Agency tax and benefits files. 

Information on immigrant admission category (e.g., economic immigrant, refugee, immigrant sponsored by family) and applicant type is drawn from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada records. In addition, for the first time, the 2021 Census will use administrative data to replace census questions on immigrant status and year of immigration.

12. How are the administrative data used?

Administrative data are used to supplement or replace information collected by the census, as an alternative to asking additional questions.

This reduces collection costs and the response burden on Canadians. Some administrative data sources are also used to validate data collected by the census or to complete analytical projects.

Statistics Canada links census and administrative data internally, using keys based on personal identifiers (e.g., name, date of birth, sex, address) available from both the census and administrative files. Statistical methods can adjust for slight differences in spelling on each file. Personal identifiers such as names and exact addresses are removed from the files used for analysis and tabulation.

Of note, Statistics Canada employees take the confidentiality and privacy of Canadians very seriously. All information collected is kept confidential, anonymized, and used for statistical purposes only. Statistics Canada uses state-of-the-art tools, software and processes that prevent disclosure and ensure the confidentiality and privacy of individual data.

13. How does Statistics Canada protect my confidentiality, security and privacy?

Statistics Canada places the highest priority on maintaining the confidentiality and security of completed questionnaires. Stringent measures and procedures are followed to ensure that confidentiality is maintained at all times.

  • All Statistics Canada employees take an oath of secrecy, which is in effect for life—even after employment has ended. According to the Statistics Act, employees are subject to fines and/or imprisonment if they reveal identifiable information derived from the census.
  • Private contractors do not have access to confidential data.
  • Only Statistics Canada employees with a need to know have access to personal and confidential information. All these employees go through a justification and approval process. These employees are able to collect, process and analyze completed questionnaires. They may access only the data they are working on.
  • When questionnaires are completed online, the information is protected through a number of measures, including a secure login process and strong bidirectional encryption between your browser and Statistics Canada's servers.
  • Access to Statistics Canada buildings is controlled by a combination of physical measures and access procedures.
  • Census data are processed and stored on a highly restricted internal network and cannot be accessed by anyone who has not taken the oath of secrecy.

Any possible breach of the confidentiality of census questionnaires is a serious matter that is investigated immediately and thoroughly and is subject to the full force of the Statistics Act.

14. How has COVID-19 impacted the 2021 Census?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a number of issues for the 2021 Census of Population, as Statistics Canada was in the final stages of preparing for data collection when it struck the country in 2020.

The Census Program adapted to the situation to ensure that the 2021 Census of Population is conducted throughout the country in the best possible way, using a safe and contactless approach.

Whenever follow-up activities are required, Statistics Canada will be using practices aligned with a contactless census. A Statistics Canada census employee will be sent in person to a dwelling only when absolutely necessary, with no enumeration activities taking place inside the dwelling. All interviews will be physically distanced, in accordance with directives from public health authorities.

Census data will be even more crucial to policy and decision makers, as results are released for the various topics of the 2021 Census. Statistics Canada is proud of its ability to rethink and rework all of the key aspects of this country's largest peacetime activity—while ensuring at all times the safety of Canadians, including our employees.

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