Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Statistics Canada’s website crashed this week as residents rushed to fill out a mandatory form. Fifty-five years ago, Canadians were a little more skeptical.
There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this year’s census in Canada, it seems. Statistics Canada’s website crashed for a full 45 minutes this week as Canadians rushed to fill out their mandatory forms.
Mandatory again, that is. Canada’s long-form census, known as the National Household Survey, was made optional by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government back in 2010. As a result, participation in the NHS plummeted from 93.5 percent in 2006, to 68.6 percent four years later. “Voluntary surveys are simply a waste of money,” Munir Sheikh, Statistics Canada’s chief statistician who resigned over the switch, told CityLab last year. “[They] cannot provide you the kind of accurate information that you need to make your policy decisions.”
Thankfully for data fans, the newly elected liberal government made the long-form census mandatory again last November. The regular census form that everyone gets (also mandatory) is only 10 questions long, but one in four randomly selected households will receive the 36-page NHS.
The collection of crucial demographic data wasn’t always this exciting in Canada. As reported in a June 1961 episode of CBC Newsmagazine, Canada’s 27,000 enumerators for the ‘61 census were still being met with occasional hesitation.
Data collection at the time completely relied on enumerators meeting with residents in person, no matter how remote their location. Some Canadians interviewed on the street told the CBC that they supported the census but felt uncomfortable disclosing personal information if an enumerator was from the neighborhood. One enumerator told the network that some housewives didn’t know their husband’s income, meaning the enumerator would then have to call back when the breadwinner returned from work. Others simply wanted to make their house tidier before having a guest.
But only one man, as far as the network could tell, was refusing to participate. Alec Beasley, a chicken farmer in British Columbia, had paid for ads in the Vancouver Sun announcing any census taker would “not be welcome” at his place.
Ultimately, of course, his one-man “crusade against encroaching restrictions and regulations,” proved futile. The government’s brand new multi-million dollar census reader is featured towards the end of the show. Stationed in Ottawa, it could process data from 600 census forms a minute, moving the results onto magnetic tape before being fed into another computer which produced the final statistics.
That year turned out to be the second-to-last Canadian census that depended entirely on enumerators. Since 1971, Canadians have been mailed a form to fill out and mail back instead. In 2006, a digital version was introduced.
This year’s census forms are due by May 10. Canadians inspired by the chicken farmer from B.C., beware: Refusing to participate in the census can lead to a $500 (CAN) fine or three months in prison.