Statistics Canada reintroduces the long form census

canada 2016 census

Better data are facilitated for planning, public programs and projects


On November 5, 2015, the day after the newly elected Liberal government took office, they announced that the mandatory long-form census would be reinstated, reversing the Harper government’s replacement in June, 2010 of long-form census, mandatory since 1971, with a voluntary National Household Survey.

The previous government’s justification for replacing a mandatory census by a voluntary survey was that it wanted to ‘protect privacy’. The Liberal Government decision to reintroduce the long-form census was a response to concerns about low response rates, poor quality of data, and increased costs connected with the Conservative government’s voluntary 2011 National Household Survey.

canada 2016 census


Census data are crucial for planning in Vancouver. Census data is the foundation for work done by every City department and agency, and other boards and service providers. It informs community planning, infrastructure development, child care, schooling, transportation, housing, skills training, police and fire services, and more. Statistics Canada’s census program is essential to planning a more sustainable, healthy, prosperous, and liveable city.

The Census of Canada occurs every five years. Households receive a basic 8-question short form version but one in five households receives a longer and far more detailed 61-question form. The most recent census ran from May 2-10, 2016. Completion of the forms is mandatory, with those who do not fill it out immediately first receiving written reminders, then phone calls, and finally a potential visit from an enumerator. Those who refuse to fill out the forms by the end could face fines of up to $500 or up to three months in jail.

Not only are census data crucial for the proper functioning of government, but diverse interests and groups rely on this information. For community groups, they require this information in order to develop and apply for funding for their programs, whereas businesses use it to know where to locate stores, tailor marketing, and understand local markets. Think tanks, public-policy groups and researchers all require robust data that are sufficiently detailed to permit comparison over time, assess what is happening in smaller metropolitan centres, and develop evidence-based policy work.

Statistics Canada’s mandatory long-form census was abolished in 2010 by the Conservative government despite protests from all sectors of society and testimony from the country’s two most senior statisticians, who claimed that the voluntary census would result in “useless” data. The elimination of the mandatory long-form census contradicted advice from experts and professionals, including statisticians, economists, business people, doctors, lawyers, police officers, faith groups, anti-poverty groups, scholarly societies and advocates for linguistic minorities. At least 370 organizations from a wide cross-section of Canadian society have expressed their displeasure with the government’s decision.

With the release of the data from the 2011 census, critics have confirmed that the low response rate and new methodology renders the National Household Survey incompatible with previous mandatory long-form censuses. The National Household Survey also compromises other StatsCan surveys which use the general census results as an anchor.

Canadians welcomed back the reinstated long-form census with significant enthusiasm; the website crashed on the first day due to high traffic, and once the census was completed, Statistics Canada called it the “best ever” census. The overall response rate was 98.4%, higher than in both 2011 and 2006. The long-form itself had a 97.8% completion rate, the best ever recorded. This census also garnered attention for its efficiency, setting a world record with a 68.3% online response rate and having 88.8% of people able to complete it without assistance from staff.


Canada’s Constitution sets out a legal requirement for a census and places this responsibility in federal jurisdiction. Statistical information provided through a mandatory census is a low-cost source of reliable and robust information about how our society works, offering the best information for evidence-based policy making. The data collected through the census helps a wide spectrum of governmental and non-governmental bodies reliably pinpoint trends and areas of concern, allowing for policy decisions to be made based on accurate information or evidence.

The mandatory long-form census was implemented in 1971. Since that time, the census has been comprised of two census forms: a short form and a long form. The short-census includes 8 questions and probes basic household composition information. The long-form census includes an additional 53 questions, probing respondents on a variety of demographic, social, and economic subjects, including things like citizenship and immigration status, ethnic origin, religion, place of birth of parents, education, income and housing, child care and support payments, labour market activities, and unpaid/household work. This data is used to plan public programs and projects such as equalization payments, Employment Insurance benefits, the Old Age Security program, and the Canada Pension Plan. The data also has an impact on public transit and transportation infrastructure, health-care infrastructure, social services, and education.

The short form is sent to 100% of Canadians and is mandatory. Until 2010, the long-form was mandatory, and was sent to 1 in 5 Canadians, with the data extrapolated to the rest of the population. While it was mandatory, the response rate for the long-form census was approximately 94%, producing data from a non-biased sample of the population and serving as one of the most important planning tools in Canada. Because this data is considered representative, data from the mandatory long-form census has been used as an “anchor”, reducing the risk of bias in other StatsCan surveys.

Because of its breadth and high-response rate, the mandatory long-form census has been one of the most reliable data sources in Canada. Reliable statistical information about all parts of society also supports government decisions to fight poverty and reduce the marginalization of disadvantaged groups. Measuring equality requires good, long-term and repeated data in order to determine if we are making progress. Without it, we simply don’t know.

On June 28, 2010, the Harper government replaced the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary National Household Survey (NHS). The government’s justification was that it wanted to ‘protect privacy’. However it was difficult to reconcile this argument with the fact that all the data is depersonalized for statistical purposes, meaning that it cannot be traced to any individual. The former federal Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, had called StatsCan’s protection of privacy exemplary, noting that for the 20 years prior to the 2006 census, the office had received just 50 complaints, only some of which were about the mandatory long-form census. The government also described the mandatory long-form census as coercive. No one has ever been jailed for refusing to answer census questions, and the government still chose to keep the 2011 Census of Agriculture and the short-form census mandatory.

In addition to eliminating the mandatory nature of the census, changes were introduced to the types of questions asked and some questions, for example the unpaid work question, were removed. Because the mandatory long-form census was cancelled with very little notice, StatsCan was unable to properly test run the new questions and assess how people would respond to the new methods.

In 2006, the mandatory long-form census was sent to approximately one in five Canadian households with a response rate of 93.5%. The sampling rate for the NHS was set at one in three households, increasing the cost of the census by $22 million. The larger sampling size does not solve the issue of non-response bias. The response rate for the 2011 NHS was 68.6%, with much lower responses in many mid-sized cities, smaller communities and rural areas. If the NHS were held to the standards of the 2006 census, the responses from 67% of Canadian neighborhoods would not be considered reliable, and therefore excluded. This suggests that the data may not be usable at the community level for planning purposes.

This low response rate confirms that StatsCan does not have the information necessary to conduct accurate critical assessments of Canada’s economic and social needs. In addition to the low response rate, the new methodology renders the NHS incompatible with previous mandatory long-form censuses for comparison purposes, and the biases in the NHS will compromise other StatsCan surveys which use the general census information as a baseline.

Many cities and municipalities decided that they would not use the 2011 NHS data to make any historical comparisons with the 2006 census. The President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the main lobby group for Canadian municipalities, expressed concern that gaps in the NHS data will compromise infrastructure planning, as well as planning around affordable housing, transportation and bus routes, and programs for new Canadians. A range of health policy experts, urban planners, and various consultants have stated that the data quality is worse than they anticipated, masking poverty and income inequality, and preventing analysts from accurately tracking historical trends.