Census Excitement and Chagrin

This past week, I had the opportunity to complete my first Canadian Census! In previous years I either lived with my folks or in student residence, but as an independent, rent-paying Canadian, I received a census form for my very own apartment. Both my room-mate and finance were puzzled by my excitement, but as a historian who accesses early census records on a daily basis, it struck me as a right of passage to be finally completing a census form for myself.

Unfortunately, the ten questions did not satiate my desire to provide an excellent resource for genealogists investigating their lineage one hundred years from now (although a voluntary National Household Survey will be circulated approximately four weeks after the census and include questions normally asked on the census long form). Unlike the hand-wringers who are worried about access to their personal information, I believe that the census forms a vital part of the historic record and access to those records in 92 years is my right as a historian and as a Canadian.

The aspect of the census that historians and genealogists are taking aim with is the “Permission Question” featured at the end of the census. The census taker has to tick a box indicating “Yes” to whether they would like their information released when the census becomes publicly available in 92 years. If the census taker ticks “No,” their information will never be publicly available; if the census taker does not tick either box, their information remains concealed. I can appreciate the importance of providing Canadians with some say in how their personal information is handled. However, I believe the “Permission Question” should be reworked so those who do not respond to the question have their information automatically released instead of kept secret. The question should be: “Do you refuse to release your information in 92 years?” not “Do you agree to release your information in 92 years?”

Additionally, it should be more immediately relevant why it is important that this information be released in 92 years. The 2011 Census website does have a link explaining the position of the historian/genealogist (Genealogy Corner,) a description of one casual genealogist’s use of currently available censuses (1911 Census: A Personal Perspective,) and a page entitled Release of Personal Data after 92 Years, but this is not enough! These links are available but I’m not convinced that every census taker will browse the website and discover them. An encouragement from Library and Archives Canada embedded in the census itself, just before the “Permission Question” would do much to bring this topic to the forefront in many census takers’ minds. To the casual person answering a census online, it is a knee-jerk reflex to answer “No” to any questions related to access to your personal information. If Library and Archives Canada had a short blurb indicating how this census information will be used in 92 years, it might go a long way to quelling the insecurities of census takers (and curb the fretting of historians and genealogists.)

The Lambton Room is happy to provide online and microfilm access to Canadian census records, including 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911. We often bemoan the poor hand-writing and spelling ability of early census takers, and wish that those records were not often hard to read and incomplete. Well, the computer age may have solved the hand-writing and spelling problems for the 2011 Census; but future historians will undoubtedly be at a disadvantage because of the privacy restrictions that are currently in vogue.

Complete the 2011 Census online with your 15-digit Secure Access Code, and remember to tick your Permission Box!

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