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Rights + Justice

The Census Is Back! Here’s Why that’s Exciting

Data lovers, rejoice. This one will capture a particularly fascinating snapshot of our history.

Christopher Cheung 7 May 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

Got your census invitation in the mail? Wondering when you should complete the questionnaire? “Right away!” says Kwong Wong, Statistics Canada’s regional assistant director for the Pacific region.

Canadian residents should have received their census invitation in the mail on Monday, with a deadline to complete it by this Tuesday.

It may seem odd to be responding to census questions with pandemic answers that might be vastly different from previous years.

But the whole point of the once-every-five-years exercise is to capture a historical portrait of our country’s residents at the time they sit down to fill it out — especially in a state of emergency.

Unlike B.C.’s mail-reliant election last year, the census has seen increasing online participation since the option was introduced in 2001.

“It’s the best and safest way,” said Wong.

Mail invitations contain a code to access the online questionnaire, with hardcopies available upon request.

Census employees will be sent to follow up in person with individuals who do not fill out the census, which is a legal requirement of all Canadian residents, according to the Statistics Act.

Due to COVID-19, they won’t enter people’s homes and will be masked and physically distanced when asking questions.

Statistics Canada is aware that this year’s census may result in responses that deviate from past trends, including people’s pandemic work, education, commutes and spending habits.

But Wong says the agency is very much interested in how residents are doing in the current moment.

What they’re after: “An accurate snapshot of Canadian society at this point of time in our history.”

Wong’s boss, the country’s chief statistician Anil Arora, has told media that the pandemic census will offer important data for future policymakers to make decisions on things like public health campaigns.

For Canadian residents who do not know English or French, Statistics Canada has the questionnaire available in 25 languages, including 13 Indigenous languages and dialects.

The questionnaire can also be requested in print, large-print, braille, audio and video formats through Statistics Canada’s help phone line.

However, the census invitation is only in English and French, and answers can only be submitted in them as well.

There are some revisions to the census this time around, a tricky thing to do for a government questionnaire that has been called the “gold standard” of population data.

“Any minor changes can affect comparable analysis,” said Wong, but Statistics Canada does consult with the public and stakeholders who use their data to ensure that the questions capture a more accurate picture of society.

One revision this year concerns the question on gender, giving the option to identify as transgender or non-binary.

Questions about whether one is a “visible minority” have remained this time around, despite the fact that the United Nations has repeatedly pointed out that the term lumps together non-white groups and has led to the erasure of differences among them.

However, Statistics Canada keeps the wording because “visible minority” is a term defined by the Employment Equity Act to help capture discrimination.

About one-quarter of Canadians are expected to receive the long-form census, which contains more detailed questions.

Those who do will notice a question about religion, which is only asked once every 10 years and was not asked in 2016. There will also be more options to choose from than in the past, such as specific religious denominations.

In recent decades, the number of Canadians without a religious affiliation has been rising. Christianity is on the decline, while some religions like Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism are on the rise.

This will be the second year featuring the return of the long-form census, which was dropped in 2011 by then-prime minister Stephen Harper in favour of a voluntary National Household Survey.

It was a heavily criticized move — some social scientists even called the Harper survey “worthless” — and caused the head of Statistics Canada to resign.

The results of the 2021 census are not expected to be delayed by the pandemic, which will be publicly released over the course of the following year in the usual staggered fashion.  [Tyee]

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