Dave Obee       Local History / Family History

Genealogy Columns   |   Victoria History   |   Book Reviews

dave obee Still fighting for a peek at our past
December, 2002

By Dave Obee
This should be a time of celebration for historians and genealogists across Canada, because 2003 will mean 92 years has passed since the federal government took its census of 1911.

Old census records are valuable tools for anyone doing research into families, communities, demographics and more. And the government ruled in the 1980s that old censuses are to be opened 92 years after the information was gathered.

That's why so many researchers were so busy back in early 1993 -- the 1901 census was opened that year, with microfilm copies made available through hundreds of libraries.

But when it comes to the 1911 census, there's a catch -- so all those researchers aren't celebrating, they're firing letters and petitions and freedom-of-information requests off to Ottawa.

Census records are made available to the public through the National Archives of Canada, which in turn gets them from Statistics Canada. But Statistics Canada won't release any more microfilms, citing confidentiality agreements made three generations ago.

The National Archives is keen to get its hands on the census, and Canada's Information Commissioner, John Reid, says he's prepared to take Statistics Canada to court to ensure that the material is released. Statistics Canada is standing firm.

While this little tussle makes for fascinating politics, it doesn't help the people who are trying to gain a better understanding of our nation's history.

There have been census enumerations of one sort or another in Canada since 1666, when Jean Talon put together a list of everyone living in New France. The first post-Confederation census came in 1871, including only Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Ten years later, the people were tallied again, and this time the census included Western Canada and Prince Edward Island as well as the original four provinces.

National censuses have been taken every 10 years since.

For the record, the census isn't taken just to give researchers a great source of data a century or so into the future. The census is a key part of government planning and spending; grants can be based on the population of different areas, and representation in the House of Commons is based, to a certain extent, on what the census-takers learn. (That's why a redistribution is always done after the first census of each decade.)

So the use of the returns by researchers is only a byproduct, a great way to get added value from some old government forms that would otherwise simply be taking up space.

There's a bit of a tussle over the special 1906 Prairie census, which the government has declined to release for public consumption. The theory is that getting the 1906 enumeration made available will set a precedent for release of the returns from 1911 and later.

This begs the question: If the 1901 census is already out -- in fact, it's available online on the National Archives Web site -- why is one from a decade later so important?

Well, it depends on a person's area of interest.

For those with a desire to learn more about the people and development of Western Canada, the 1911 count is crucial. This is the census taken during the largest influx of immigrants in our history -- and most of those new arrivals came to the four western provinces.

Consider these numbers: In 1911, the population of Saskatchewan was up 439 per cent from 1901. Alberta was up 413 per cent. British Columbia's population grew by 119 per cent, and Manitoba's numbers rose by 78 per cent. Ontario, on the other hand, saw its population rise by only 15 per cent, and Quebec's was up by just 21 per cent. That's healthy growth, but almost insignificant compared to what happened in the West.

The reluctance at Statistics Canada to release the 1911 census means that a major resource to use in the study of Western Canadian development is simply not available. It also means that many people whose ancestors came to Canada in the early years of the 20th century -- again, the western provinces were the primary destination then -- are shut out of research using census returns.

The little tussle between bureaucrats would be comical if our access to so much of our history was not being cut off. But it is, just because the good people at Statistics Canada read the rules one way, and the people at the archives read them quite differently.

A couple of months ago, the government announced that it would come up with legislation that would allow access to the old census returns. There has been little movement since then, but that's no great surprise -- consider how long it took for the legislation on endangered species to work through the system.

The ancestors we will find in the 1911 census are, for the most part, dead already. So researchers can't claim the urgency of a species at risk. They'll just have to rely, I guess, on common sense.

An expert panel on access to historical records has already said the census should be opened. So has the National Archives and the Information Commissioner -- but as long as Statistics Canada has the key to the microfilm cabinet, those reels will stay locked inside. The 1911 census could be released in 2003, as it should be, if the federal government decides to do it. It's as simple as that.

All it would take is legislation that would be clear to all the bureaucrats involved.

Dave Obee is editorial page editor of the Times Colonist newspaper in Victoria. This column appeared in the Times Colonist on Saturday, December 28, 2002. It also appeared in the Toronto edition of the National Post, as well as the Windsor Star.

Reprinted courtesy the Times Colonist

Search this site with Google:


Copyright 1997-2017 Dave Obee. All Rights Reserved.
Hosted by Islandnet.com