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By Bill Waiser
Department of History
University of Saskatchewan
It is the most important question that Statistics Canada has ever asked in a census. Indeed, the future integrity and usefulness of the census as a research tool is riding on each individual response.
These words might seem alarmist. But there is nothing exaggerated about the critical role that respondents will now play in deciding whether personal census information ever becomes publicly available in the distant future.
In 2005, Parliament passed Bill S-18, an Act to Amend the Statistics Act. The legislation, in typical Canadian fashion, was a compromise, intended to end the decade-long tug-of-war over access to historical census materials.
As part of the deal, all census returns from 1911 to 2001 will be released by Library and Archives Canada (formerly the National Archives) on a regular basis after a 92-year waiting period. The 1916 census, for example, will be made available for public consultation in 2008.
This legislated release schedule represents quite a breakthrough, especially given past wrangling over the issue. Since the late 1990s, there’s been a federal Expert Panel review, public consultations, an investigation by the federal Information Commissioner, ongoing negotiations between Statistics Canada and Library and Archives Canada–even a legal challenge in the Federal Court (Beatty et al. v. the Chief Statistician).
But this access to past censuses comes at a hefty price–the other part of the compromise.
Starting with the 2006 Census, participants will now be asked to indicate–by checking a box–whether they consent to having their responses made public after 92 years (in 2098). This “informed consent” might seem justifiable, even necessary, in this age of heightened concern over the protection of personal information.
But if only a small percentage of Canadians decide to keep their census data permanently inaccessible, then the integrity of the census as a source for genealogical and historical information will be forever compromised. And that would be a national shame.
Future generations will not be able to find their family histories, while historians will be prevented from fully researching Canada’s past.
Some might argue, so what? My personal data is my business alone. Who cares if my census information is not made available? Who cares if a future granddaughter or another relative can’t access my record?
Genealogists, however, do not simply use the census to build their family tree. They are also searching for information that is otherwise not available in other sources. Evidence of inherited diseases is just one example.
In fact, millions of Canadians have enjoyed unrestricted access to historic census materials, including Newfoundland returns from 1945, without a single complaint being filed with the Privacy Commissioner. Since Library and Archives Canada put the 1911 census on line following its release under the new law last year, the data is getting on average nine hits per second! Visits to the site, meanwhile, are pushing the web capacity to its limit.
The other problem with the new opt-in question is that is impossible to know today what might be historically important tomorrow. Can you imagine what records might not exist if parents of residential schools students, Japanese-Canadian evacuees, or prairie homesteaders had first been required to give their consent before their government forms (with personal information) were transferred to Library and Archives Canada? The rights of those citizens and their descendants to redress would have vanished.
The census, dating back to 1660, has long been a historical treasure in Canada. It represents one of the best—and in many cases, the only—source of information on the lives of ordinary Canadians.
But unless researchers have access to a complete record, our history will suffer and our identity will be significantly compromised. The United States, by contrast, does not use a consent clause and releases its census with much fanfare after only 70 years.
So, on May 16, national census day, Canadians must say “yes” to question 53 and allow their census returns to be made publicly available in 2098. They must say “yes” to genealogy, “yes” to Canadian history, “yes” to their sense of identity and belonging as Canadians, “yes” to grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will want to know this information. Future generations will thank them.
Bill Waiser, a professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan, is author of Saskatchewan: A New History.