Where have all the censuses gone? A Problem with Digital Data

By Thomas Peace

This post is a little late in coming, but hopefully it will be useful for those of us working in pre-twentieth century North American history or with online resources. About a year ago, I discovered that one of the most useful reference resources I use, Statistics Canada’s E-Stat tables of the Censuses of Canada, 1665-1871 had been removed from their website. Living in a country where the current federal government has a bit of a history mucking around with censuses and data collection (for good examples see here, here and here), the removal of this resource upset me. Why had I not heard about E-Stat’s impending demise? Where could I retrieve the valuable and accessible data formerly available for download through this website? And (of course) what type of subtle political purpose could be behind the removal of data from Canada’s early censuses?

Stats Can - 2014

In providing the Censuses of Canada, 1665-1871 in downloadable datasets, E-Stat made it incredibly easy to gather demographic data about Canada’s early history. Although this information has been available in print for well over a century, presenting the information in digital form provided the opportunity to manipulate the data without needing to constantly replicate the data entry. It also made it much easier to assign census information to students, giving them an opportunity to practice basic historical demography and statistics. Western University provides a concise description of what was available through this project. You can get a good sense of what used to be available from Censuses of Canada, 1665-1871 based on what Statistics Canada has left active from the project. Here you’ll find basic demographic data about early Canada and even lesson plans and learning resources that draw upon the material. You will not find the specific census data that used to be featured on the site. What has been left online remains an excellent resource for students, but it is a fraction of its former scope.

Now to be clear (to use the words of so many federal cabinet ministers), there was some warning about the impending demise of E-Stat. Although few historians seem to have known the project was coming to an end (likely because the resource targets the school system rather than historical researchers and university professors), other professional associations were aware of the changes. The Canadian Society for the Study of Education, for example, posted a letter to teachers informing them of the upcoming changes to Statistics Canada’s education program and the end of E-Stat. Written by Mary Townsend, the Chief of Education Outreach at Statistics Canada, the letter clearly indicated that Statistics Canada’s Education Outreach Program would end in June 2012 with E-Stat being fully removed from Statistics Canada’s website on July 1 2013.

Although some people were aware of these changes, I was not alone in my ignorance. Indeed, still today, many university libraries continue to hyperlink to non-existent URLs at Statistics Canada and/or continue to have E-Stat listed in their library resources. The University of Toronto, for example, sends its students to this resource, though through their other censuses you can follow a hyperlink to a digital copy of the nineteenth century publication. Western University is similar. You can get to E-stat through their library catalogue only to click through a series of links, arriving at a Statistics Canada page informing you that the project was discontinued. These universities are not alone. A quick internet search reveals that many institutions and digital-history projects continue to use hyperlinks that lead to the now-defunct E-Stat program.

Even Statistics Canada seems a little unclear about what happened to the data. Some universities, such as Kwantlen Polytechnic University, still link to a live Statistics Canada website that suggests the E-Stat data is still accessible. Following through with the links brings you to the same dead pages. Furthermore when the program closed, interested parties like the Canadian Society for the Study of Education were told that many of the resources would migrate to a new site dedicated to learning resources. Today, www.statcan.gc.ca/learningresources is itself a dead link. When I first contacted Statistics Canada to find out where this data had gone, I was told that much of E-Stat had moved over to the new CANSIM program. Working through the steps they initially sent, I was unable to find the resource. Contacting them again, I was told that historical census data was no longer available through Statistics Canada’s website. I would need to access the information through a depository library.

The only place this data seems to be available in its former form is through Queen’s University (where a number of universities such as the University of British Columbia, University of Saskatchewan and Laurier University direct their students). Through their Maps, Data and Government Information Centre, the old Censuses of Canada, 1665-1871 datasets are available. Jeff Moon, the director of Queen’s Research Data Centre, explained to me that following the decision to remove this resource, the Data Liberation Initiative (DLI) – a partnership between post secondary institutions and Statistics Canada –  lobbied the government agency to continue providing access. This meant that the files running the Censuses of Canada were placed on DLI’s FTP site. Unfortunately, this site is not accessible to the public, prompting Moon and his colleague Alexandra Cooper to make the resource available through Queen’s University’s library system. Aside from the nineteenth century volumes – copies of which are available through the Internet Archive and Google Books – this website is the only place where these digitized datasets are available to the public.

Given that this data still exists and remains freely accessible for download, perhaps this isn’t the crisis to which I alluded in my introduction. If we reflect a little more deeply, however, it should give us pause. First, what happened with E-stat reflects broader changes in the Government of Canada’s management of information. Indeed, earlier this summer on this site, Veronica Strong-Boag pointed to a recently created website in the United States that digitally preserves Parks Canada documents. She situates the creation of this Canadian-focused but not Canadian-based resource within the context of severe government cutbacks that have hampered access to publicly-funded (and formerly accessible) information. Strong-Boag is not alone. This spring Amanda Wakaruk, the Government Information librarian at the University of Alberta wrote a detailed article outlining the severity of mismanaged cutbacks and digitization strategies. Throughout her article, she emphasizes the profound loss of data brought about by Canadian Government policies. She writes:

[The Web Renewal Action Plan], would remove up to 60% of web content before July 31st, 2013. At the time, of course, we had no official documents or communication confirming or denying these claims. What we were told, directly, was that Statistics Canada was planning to remove publications less than 2-3 years old from their website. In addition, we were seeing web content disappear on an almost daily basis.

Parks Canada removed hundreds of lesson plans from its website, the Aboriginal Portal of Canada was closed with two weeks’ notice, access to tables of 1665-1871 Census statistics disappeared with the decommissioning of E-Stat, and we started to notice serious lapses in content on once trusted websites (i.e. ministerial speeches were no longer being added to departmental websites). To make matters worse, we were learning about restricted access to publications which used to be freely available.

Within this much broader context, the decision to selectively remove the data from the Censuses of Canada, 1665-1871 while retaining the site’s general infrastructure and lesson plans seems a little more sinister and intentional. For a government that seems to push for “open data” and engagement with Canada’s past, Statistics Canada’s decision seems confusing. Though their involvement with the DLI should be applauded, if freeing up web space was seen as an important policy, why the decision to only remove the specific data that might actually help us learn something about the past, while retaining the more general information? Why not get rid of it all? And why not make this resource accessible through an allied government agency like the Open Data program or Library and Archives Canada rather than the closed DLI FTP?

The end of E-Stat also points to a fundamental problem outlined by others on this website (see Ian Milligan’s posts here and here): digital data is not permanent; resources come and go, and we need to be vigilant about, and protective of, the online resources that we value. Thankfully, Cooper and Moon’s work at Queen’s University has preserved the census datasets that were formerly part of E-Stat. Without their initiative this valuable digital information would be lost.

What this experience amply demonstrates, then, is the profound need for a deliberate digitization preservation strategy. What the closure of E-Stat and many other initiatives suggest is that on this front there needs to be considerable improvement in the Canadian Government’s behaviour and that of its agencies. The rhetoric of digitization was a useful distraction while Daniel Caron was systematically dismantling Library and Archives Canada, but now it’s time for the Government of Canada to begin a much more strategic initiative, ensuring that the data generated by tax payers of the past is continued for the public of the future.

Thomas Peace is an Assistant Professor at Huron University College

6 thoughts on “Where have all the censuses gone? A Problem with Digital Data

  1. Hi Nadine,

    Thanks for pointing readers to the Strong-Boag’s post – Tom draws on it heavily in the latter part of his piece. While I disagreed with the tone of her piece, she certainly did point to the problem of cutbacks in this field.

  2. Thanks for sending the link to your post Lisa. I hadn’t seen it and it was only in the past month or so that I discovered the Queen’s resource (also through Laurier). Hopefully between your and my post, this resource will be easier to find.

  3. Hi, thank you for pointing out an old link on the UofT data library website. Due to an incremental migration of 25 years of web page content we left the old site running in parallel wit the new. We will soon phase out the old pages and welcome you to visit the new site http://data.library.utoronto.ca/ – were we do indeed link to the great rescue effort of Queen’s.

  4. ARGH! Thanks for writing this post Tom. And my apologies for coming to this late.

    I noticed the missing data sets this fall as I started teaching the Canadian history survey course again. I used this resource a lot in the past and I needed to confirm figures and kept running into dead links everywhere. I hoped that the new CANSIM system might have the lost data sets, but I couldn’t find them in there:

    http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/a01?lang=eng

    This is an excellent example of the poor state of digital archiving at the federal level. I know Ian and others have written about this extensively on this site so I won’t go on. Thanks to Queen’s for salvaging the lost data.

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