By Patricia Kmiec
If you live in Canada, you have likely received your invitation to complete the 2016 Census of Population this week. The 2016 census is a celebration of sorts in Canada, with many historians, researchers, educators, policy-makers, and members of the public relieved to hear that this year’s census comprises a mandatory short-form (completed by the entire population) and a mandatory long-form (completed by approximately 25% of the population). This is unusually celebratory news as the previous Conservative government eliminated the long-form census and replaced it with a voluntary survey for our last census year, 2011. Not surprisingly, much of the data collected from the voluntary survey was found to be unreliable, and, in many ways, useless to researchers.
While it is certainly good news that the mandatory form has returned, I hope that Canadians will continue the conversation about how accurate census data is essential in providing a strong understanding of the population. Unfortunately, assumptions about Indigenous identities, race, and labour, all deeply rooted in historical biases, continue to shape how questions are posed, how information collected is categorized, and how present-day realities for many populations are made invisible.
Forcefully collecting data on Indigenous people is a colonial practice that continues with our current census. As others scholars have noted, Canada has a long history of using data collected from Indigenous communities to limit their access to resources and to allow agents of the state to engage in various oppressive colonial practices. Equally significant, however, is how Indigenous individuals and communities have, and continue to, resist participation in the state census. On the current 2016 census, Indigenous people are asked to define themselves as First Nations, Inuk/Inuit, or Métis; as well as note their legal “Indian Status” (yes, it is still called that), and their band or national membership. The issues of continued colonial power that present themselves through this section of questions are many, and can only begin to be resolved by acknowledging the legacies of the historical colonial relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian state.
Beyond the legacies of settler-colonialism, our collection of data on racialized populations is concerning for a number of other reasons as well. This is evident in how mixed-raced populations are made nearly invisible in the data collected. As with previous years, the Canadian census includes one question on race, which asks respondents to note the population groups to which they belong. Neither the terms “race” nor “visible minority” are used, although this data is used primarily for employment equity purposes (where accurately presenting the number of visible minorities is pertinent). The question (#19) allows respondents to choose one or more of the populations they belong to from the following list: 1. White; 2. South Asian; 3. Chinese; 4. Black; 5. Filipino; 6. Latin American; 7. Arab; 8. Southeast Asian; 9. West Asian; 10. Korean; 11. Japanese; 12. Other-Specify. Visible minority populations are defined as those who are neither white nor Indigenous.
Placing individuals into these categories is more complex than it may initially seem. First, respondents who identify as Indigenous in the previous question are instructed to skip question 19 entirely. This means that no individuals may claim both an Indigenous and another “racial” identity. Again, we see the legacies of a clear racial divide (and hierarchy) between Indigenous people and settlers here. This persists to the point where Statistics Canada has no way to count those who may identify with a mixed-raced identity that includes both Indigenous and additional racial groups. In contrast, all non-Indigenous respondents, however, are encouraged to mark more than one answer, if applicable. Chris Andersen has engaged with the particularly significant implications of this for Nationhood rights of the Metis in Canada.
But it is not only mixed-race Indigenous populations who are made invisible through the visible minority question. While respondents are directed to mark as many responses as applicable, they are not given the details on how these multiple responses will be counted. Statistics Canada explains to researchers in their reference material that:
In accordance with employment equity definitions, persons who reported ‘Latin American’ and ‘White,’ ‘Arab’ and ‘White,’ or ‘West Asian’ and ‘White’ have been excluded from the visible minority population.
These persons are included in the ‘Not a visible minority’ category. However, persons who reported ‘Latin American,’ ‘Arab’ or ‘West Asian’ and a non-European write-in response are included in the visible minority population.”
The fact that that those of only certain mixed-raced populations are counted as non-visible minorities is a direct legacy of ideologies of white supremacy and racial hierarchies that have plagued Canada’s history. Although we have come quite some way since the 1941 Canadian Census, when enumerators were instructed to record the race of “coloured stocks” as “Negro, Japanese, Chinese, Hindu etc.,” there are many limits to the current question that classifies visible minority, aboriginal, and non-visible minority populations into the a category without asking respondents how they themselves identify.
It is not only the questions and categorizations of race that continue to be outdated and behind general understandings of these terms. Questions about labour also need to be revisited. The current long-form census includes a series of questions related to employment, but for most of these questions (including type of occupation, language spoken at work, method and length of commute to work) respondents are instructed to reply with only the job at which they work the most hours. This means that for the many Canadian residents who work multiple jobs, much of this important information is left out. Recent studies have indicated that in some regions more than 50% of the population is engaged in precarious work, yet the census continues to assume that most respondents have only one job or only one primary job. Information on unpaid internships is also not collected on the census form, leaving those in this type of employment invisible to researchers and policy-makers. Many other areas, including religion, sex, ethnicity, and disability, would also benefit from updating both the census questions and categorizations of responses.
It is essential that the conversation about accurate data that began with the 2010 decision to eliminate the long-form census continue even now that the long-form has been reinstated. Statistics Canada’s efforts to include input from marginalized populations to improve the accuracy of data falls short as questions continue to be asked from a position of state power with respondents’ identities often being minimized or erased in the process. Additional solutions to these areas of concern include allowing multiple, write-in responses for every question; including details on the form on how responses will be categorized; including terms such as “identity” or “identify with”; and actively revisiting each question’s relevance in the current era. Not only will such changes allow for more inclusive and accurate data for researchers and policy-makers, but they will also benefit future historians who continue to rely on the census as a foundation for population data.
Patricia Kmiec is a contract faculty member at the University of Toronto where she teaches various courses in History, Gender Studies, and Equity Studies.