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Future Historical Studies of Canada Imperilled by Low Percentage Consenting to Release of Census Data

For historical research on Canada, no single primary source is more important than the Census of Canada. Unfortunately, the returns of the 2006 census are now in and only 56 per cent of respondents consented (by checking a new box on the form) to the release of their personal census records 92 years from now. As a result, the 2006 census is effectively gutted as a useful research tool. Any Canadian who cares about understanding their country, its social patterns, demographic make-up, community development, and family connections will be bitterly disappointed 92 years from now to discover that access to 44 percent of these records will be prohibited.

Until a decade ago, Canadians enjoyed unrestricted access to historical census records 92 years after the census date, as permitted in the regulations of the Privacy Act. New concerns about privacy raised in the mid-1990s threatened this access and led to coordinated effort by historians, genealogists, archivists, and other researchers to maintain the traditional policy of releasing census data 92 years after it was collected.

At first, the signs were promising. Statistics Canada agreed to release to Library and Archives Canada both the 1906 special census of the Western Provinces. Despite the fact that not a single complaint had been filed with the Privacy Commissioner as a result of unrestricted access to any earlier census record, the fate of subsequent census data still remained in doubt.

Lobbying efforts continued and in 2005 Parliament passed a Bill (S-18) to amend the Statistics Act that represented the only achievable compromise possible at the time, one to which researchers agreed reluctantly. Under the provisions of the act, all census returns from 1911 to 2001 will be transferred from Statistics Canada and then released by Library and Archives Canada after a 92-year waiting period. This is the good news. The bad news is that, in keeping with the new emphasis on privacy, Canadians filling out future census forms would now be asked to signal their consent to the release of their personal census information after 92 years. Since the census form provided little guidance on the matter and the campaign mounted to encourage people to count themselves into history as well as into the census was very underwhelming, there was a disappointingly low rate of positive responses to the decontextualized question.

Unless there is a significant change in legislation or in  future responses to such questions on the census forms, researchers in the twenty-second century will be gravely impaired in their capacity to document and interpret the history of this country. The Canadian Historical Association has called upon its members to write to Dr. Ivan Fellegi, Chief Statistician of Canada, the Honourable David Emerson, Industry Minister of Canada, and Dr. Ian E. Wilson, Librarian and Archivist of Canada, to express their views on the subject, and to seek the mandated review of the ‘informed consent’ question now, before another national census is compromised for research purposes. The future practice of Canadian history will depend on researchers making their voices heard on this critical issue.

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