Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

To Know Ourselves-Not

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

To Know Ourselves-Not

Article excerpt


"Count Yourself In" has been the slogan of recent Censuses of Canada. Most Canadians are, and have been, very willingly "counting themselves in" on censuses for 130 years, even before the motto was used. The Census offers the fundamental mirror in which we see ourselves reflected. We also see in that mirror a means to stage and enact our Canadian identities in ever-changing social and economic contexts.

The quest for self-knowledge inclusive of knowledge about one's country is nearly universal. Early population censuses were done for a variety of reasons: so that governments could govern or govern better, to know whether populations were growing and specifically which subgroups were growing, to assess where people live, to administer taxes, to assign political representation, the list goes on. Population headcounts or censuses have long been deemed matters of national importance in all countries, even those that are least developed. Censuses, done periodically in most jurisdictions in the world, enable benchmarking, or what Curtis (2001:306) terms a "codification of social relations," the quantitative assessment of what is happening in society. "Work in the social laboratory [of policy and governance] depends on incorporating objects of investigation in administrative structures of greater or lesser complexity and solidity. Censuses are made, not taken" (Curtis 2001:307). And censuses are unmade, with deep social and sociological meaning, as this paper explores.


On June 26, 2010, the Harper government unmade the Census of Canada. It slipped a statement into the Canada Gazette, a publication not widely read, with no fanfare or hint that it was coming, that there would be no long-form census in 2011. In accordance with the 1971 Statistics Act, the questions for both the Census of Population and the Census of Agriculture are prescribed by the Governor in Council through an Order in Council. Typically, this is a formality only. Questions on the census are not debated in Parliament or in Cabinet in Canada, as they are in some countries such as the US. The statement in the Canada Gazette on June 26, 2010 read as follows:

   Her Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the
   recommendation of the Minister of Industry, pursuant to subsections
   19(1) and 21(1) of the Statistics Act, hereby fixes May 2011 as the
   month in which a census of population shall be taken by Statistics
   Canada and prescribes the questions to be asked in the 2011 Census
   of Population, as set out in the annexed schedule.

And in the annexed schedule appeared only the short-form census with eight questions, thus abolishing the long-form census for 2011.

The account of the subsequent "drama" is told by the Chief Statistician at that time, Munir Sheikh (2011:18-19). The word "drama" is the Chief Statistician's own choice of descriptors. He notes that this decision precipitated widespread criticism. "Close to 370 groups objected to the decision" (Sheikh 2011:18). And they were highly diverse: from provincial and municipal governments to academic researchers to religious organizations and think tanks on virtually every part of the political spectrum. The National Statistics Council, select experts from across Canada from public and private sectors which provides advice to Statistics Canada, heard about the decision only when the public did, and was highly critical. Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, offered at least a dozen editorials on the matter, all critical of the government's decision, unprecedented in number on a single issue. The minister responsible for Statistics Canada, the Honourable Tony Clement, responded that he was seeking what he called "balance" in obtaining the needed data and citizens' interest in privacy. Statistics Canada has a world-wide reputation for meticulously protecting the privacy of all data provided by citizens as well as for carefully vetting all questions well in advance of each Census of Canada, with citizens' groups and with the Privacy Commissioner. …

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