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dave obee A census is coming -- but alas, it's not our own
December, 2001

By Dave Obee
The next few weeks promise to be busy ones for genealogists, those curious people who devote their spare time to researching their family histories. Blame it on the census, that wonderful research tool compiled once a decade in England and the United States.

At 1 a.m. Victoria time on Wednesday, the Public Record Office in England will open the 1901 census for research on the Internet. You'll be able to search the index for free, although there will be a small fee for downloading images of the actual hand-written pages of the census returns.

The census is being released, as is the custom in England, 100 years after the information was gathered. The 1901 census will be the seventh national one that's been released for England and Wales.

On April 1, the United States government will open the 1930 census to public access. It's not quite as high-tech as the English one, because the census will be available on microfilm, rather than the Web, and there won't be a national index.

But the important thing is that it's being made available. The release of the U.S. information comes under rules which prohibit access until 72 years has passed.

The opening of these two sources -- with information on millions of families -- represents a great step forward for genealogical research. Consider, for example, how many Vancouver Island families have roots to England or Wales in 1901 -- or the United States in 1930.

Of course, most of us have roots in Canada, too. In this country, the federal government observed a 92-year waiting period for the census returns from 1891 and 1901. The next national census due for release dates from 1911; under the 92-year rule, it would be unlocked in 2003.

But there's a catch. Statistics Canada officials say there was a promise of permanent confidentiality to our ancestors back in 1911, and they aren't about to break that vow.

That is bad news for the people (such as myself, to be honest) keen to get their hands on information about their ancestors. How important, you ask, is the census?

It records the names of all Canadians, grouping them with other people in the same household. It says when they were born, and where they were from. It records little details such as religion, occupation, and ability to read and write. It offers clues about income and social standing. It is a marvellous snapshot of a country at one moment in time.

Along with genealogists, historians make extensive use of census material, because it helps them to understand what life was like so many decades ago.

The 1911 census is especially important for those of us with lengthy roots in Western Canada. That's because the first 10 years in the 20th century saw a tremendous change in the West, with immigration hitting unprecedented levels.

The population of British Columbia, for example, more than doubled in the 10 years between 1901 and the next census just 10 years later. Manitoba's numbers were up 78 per cent.

Alberta's population rose 413 per cent in that period, and Saskatchewan's went up by 439 per cent. Compare that to Ontario, where the increase was just 15 per cent, or the Maritimes, where the change was in single digits.

In other words, for many people with Western Canadian roots, the 1911 census will be the first Canadian one that shows their ancestors. That makes this census a much bigger deal here than in Ontario, where, unfortunately, so many decisions are made.

A few years ago, a grassroots campaign was started to convince Statistics Canada to release the 1911 census. The campaign has included petitions and a letter-writing campaign directed at MPs and senators.

If the MPs I've asked can be any guide, all those letters aren't having a huge impact so far. Given everything else that MPs have to worry about, the letters have seemed, well, trivial in comparison.

But there has been movement, to a certain extent. A year ago, the federal government was handed a report by an expert panel that it had asked to look into the release of early census records. The report called for the records to be released as soon as possible.

The government's response was that the matter needed to be studied further, and called for comments from Canadians. The result -- after a year of waiting -- was the announcement that a series of town hall meetings would be held across the country.

The first of these meetings was held in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago, with 10 more scheduled for January. The only town hall meeting in British Columbia will be in Vancouver on Jan. 30. After these meetings, not surprisingly, the issue will go back to the government for more consideration.

Not all of our elected representatives are trying to ignore the issue. Ontario MP Murray Calder has tried twice, without success, to push a bill through the House of Commons calling for census documents to be opened after 92 years.

Sen. Lorna Milne, herself a genealogist, has been leading an effort in the Senate to have the early census records released. Her bill, basically the same as Calder's, has been working its way through the Senate for several months. If Milne's bill is passed by the Senate, Calder will champion it in Parliament.

It's taking a great deal of effort and a fair bit of time, but there's one thing we can be sure of -- the census records for 1911 and later will eventually be opened for research.

It's just too bad we have to go through a fight like this to gain access to our own heritage.

Dave Obee is editorial page editor of the Times Colonist newspaper in Victoria. This column appeared in the Times Colonist on Sunday, December 30, 2001. It also appeared in the Halifax Daily News, the Edmonton Journal and several other newspapers across Canada.

Reprinted courtesy the Times Colonist


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