Making a Nation Count — the Census of Canada
The next Canadian census will take place in May of 2016, with census letters and packages going out to all Canadian households starting on May 2.
A census, the detailed counting of the people of a region, state or nation, is one of the marvelous accomplishments of humankind — or at least of "governmentkind". It gives a detailed picture of the state of a nation, but once it becomes history, it offers insight into the past, and comprises a record of the individual names, birthdates and birthplaces of your ancestors. In Canada, each census is used to shape government, business and social policy, and to determine the parliamentary representation for each province.
Aggregate and Nominal Censuses
The aggregate census is the summary count of people, their households and other various characteristics, including language, employment, housing, ethnicity and religion. The nominal census is the original listing of each individual citizen’s name, along with age, sex, birthdate, birthplace and other personal data. Under Canadian law, this personal information is not publicly available until 92 years after the data is collected. This means the latest nominal census available is for 1921.
For an overview of nominal Canadian censuses up to 1921, see the Toronto Public Library post Guide to Census Records. The nominal censuses are of special interest to genealogists and local historians.
History of the Census in Canada
The first census in what is now Canada took place in 1665-66 in New France. Others were taken in various parts of the country, throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. For a full list of censuses before Confederation, see the archived Statistics Canada site. Under the terms of the British North America Act of 1867, a census was required to be taken in 1871 and every ten years thereafter. The new country comprised the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and as additional provinces joined, they too were included in the national census.
Alberta and Saskatchewan joined the country in 1905, and in 1906 a census of the Prairie provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) was taken, and this special census was repeated every ten years until 1946.
1951 marked the first Canadian census to include all ten provinces and two territories. A second mini-census, for population and agriculture for the entire country, was held mid-decade in 1956, 1966 and 1976. By 1986 this mid-decade census became a full census. Presently, there is a national census every five years.
The census to date has always been published in print, but changing technology over the years means that there are now multiple places to access the information. The Toronto Public Library catalogue and website are difficult to use for locating census records. The most complete holdings are at Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge Street, and are available through the Humanities & Social Sciences Department on the 2nd floor, and the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre on the 5th floor.
Accessing the Census
Ask in the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre, 5th floor, Toronto Reference Library:
1850-51, 1860-61—Census of the Canadas. This included Canada East (Quebec), Canada West (Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
1870-71—First census after Confederation. Comprises the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
1880-81—Second census after Confederation.
1890-91—Third census after Confederation.
Ask at the 2nd floor Information Desk, Humanities & Social Sciences Department, Toronto Reference Library. Copies are in Stacks (storage). Retrieval time 15-30 minutes:
Call number 317.1 C118—
1901 and every decade to 1951, plus the special 1916 Census of Manufacturers.
1956 and every five years to 2011.
Call number 317.12 C12.2—
Census of the Prairie Provinces (also known as the Census of the Northwest Provinces) from 1916 to 1946.
Call number 317.126 C12—
Census of Manitoba 1885-86.
Copies of the 1850-51 to 1890-91 aggregate census are available through Early Canadiana Online:
2 Volume set
2 Volume set
5 Volume set
4 Volume set
4 Volume set
NB: None of the aggregate censuses from 1901 to 1991 are available online.
In 1996 and 2001, the main part of the census was published in print, and supplementary material was published only on CD ROM. Part of the print edition is also online through the Statistics Canada website. The print and CD ROM material is available in the 2nd floor Humanities & Social Sciences Department, Toronto Reference Library.
1996 CD ROM supplement-in library only
2001 CD ROM supplement-in library only
While microfiche is not the easiest medium to work with, it does allow you to save a digital copy to a USB stick. This is useful for those censuses from 1901 to 1991 which are not online. The fiche readers also allow you to print copies.
Ask at the 2nd floor Information Desk, Humanities & Social Sciences Department, Toronto Reference Library:
Call number Film F C21115 (Fire Insurance Fiche & Census cabinet)
1851 and every decade to 1991.
1956 and every five years to 1996.
Census of the Prairie Provinces from 1906 to 1946.
Toronto Census data
The 1951 census was the first to break cities, including Toronto, down into smaller units called census tracts. Census tracts provide detailed data for smaller geographic areas within cities. Each tract has a population of between 2,500 and 8,000 people.
Print copies of the portion of the national census devoted to Toronto from 1951 to the present are in the Law Section, 2nd floor, Humanities & Social Sciences Department, Toronto Reference Library.
The City of Toronto has analyzed the census tracts for Toronto to produce detailed breakdowns of the main characteristics for each ward and neighbourhood in Toronto. Print copies based on the 1991 and 2001 census are available in the Toronto Collection, 2nd floor, Humanities and Social Sciences Department, Toronto Reference Library. Census years 2001, 2006 and 2011 are available online:
Recent Census news
The census may seem dry and statistical, but it is not without controversy. Most recently in Canada, the detailed census sampling, known as the long-form census was replaced by the voluntary National Household Survey in 2011. The Conservative government, with minimal consultation, claimed that some Canadians found the form a violation of privacy, and the penalties coercive. Munir Sheikh, Canada’s chief statistician, resigned a few weeks later, saying the voluntary survey could not possibly meet the standards of previous mandatory data. The new government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced that the long-form census will be reinstated for 2016.