The Long Form Census is Back, but it is Far From Perfect

By Patricia Kmiec

census image2If 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.[1] Equally significant, however, is how Indigenous individuals and communities have, and continue to, resist participation in the state census.[2] 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.[3]

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.


[1] Bruce Curtis. The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

[2] Brian Hubner. “’This is the Whiteman’s Law’: Aboriginal Resistance, Bureaucratic Change and the Census of Canada, 1830-2006.” Archival Science 7, no. 3 (September 2007): 195-206

[3] Chris Andersen. “From Nation to Population: The racialisation of the ‘Metis’ in the Canadian Census.” Nations and Nationalism 14 ,2, (2008), 247-368.

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2 thoughts on “The Long Form Census is Back, but it is Far From Perfect

  1. Kristi

    I love most of the ideas you have here, BUT
    I would actually like to disagree with “identify with” being ised as the proxy of race instead. I am a mixed-race person who is White and Black but is seen (and labeled) as “brown” by others because of my phenotype (I came out with Caucasoid features&hair ,bt with skin too “brown” in tone to be considered white) , therefore everyone assumes I am either “middle eastern” or “Native.”
    (I put the assigned race in quotation because it’s not my *actual* race)
    Now, I have not one “brown” relative on either side and do not amd will not identify as “brown” , but that is how I experience racism.
    If you ask me how I “identify” I would say Hungarian, because that’s what feels true to me , but what feels true to me has nothing to do with the way I experience racism.
    Identity has more to do with culture.
    The way you are racialized has more to do with the way you are seen (or who you are immediately or -even subconsciously -presumed to be by others.)
    Just because I identify as Hungarian doesn’t stop me from being followed around by cops for months after every world terrorist attack, nor does it stop me from being physically thrown out of a 7/11 for being assumed to be a “homeless” aboriginal person (I fainted due to low blood pressure issues and the shop keeper assumed I was just another come of “them” fainting from an overdose.) I am not in the least bit either Arabic or Aboriginal and I do not identify as such , but those are the two most common ethnicities which people read me as and that is how I experience racism.
    In my case, my cultural identity (Hungarian) and biological race (white and black, or “mulatto”) both have NOTHING to do with the way I experience racism.
    The census would probably have thrown me into the category “black”, but I don’t experience the world as black.
    Because of my “white” hair and features, no one sees me as black.
    I feel like this is a common issue with biracial people: that MANY OF US DON’T LOOK LIKE WHO WE ARE , and that may of us are commonly mistaken as a “third race” (different from each of our parents, and different from our identified race).
    I feel like the over-focus on identity can again further obscure that experience.
    (of when “chosen identity” and “the way someone experiences racism” don’t match up )

    I have been a REPEATED victim both of orientalism and anti-indegenois racism (and I’m not part of either ethnicity !) and I’m TIRED of this experience being thrown under the bus by Census Canada!
    (And also by the race narrative at large!)

    And what’s worse, I didn’t even get the long form of the questionnaire!
    There were not one race question or disability question on my questionnaire and I’m both a person with a disability and a person who has both disability and racism affecting almost every aspect of her life, from education to employment, to significant relationships, even friendships and family relationships ! Grrrr..

  2. Kristi

    Sorry for the typos. My iphone keyboard is broken and won’t type certain letters.

    The point is that using “identifies with” as a proxy for race covers up the racialized experiences of people who’s experience of racism doesn’t line up with their identity.
    (Ei: Asian-white mixes being mistaken for “Indigenous” — which I’ve heard of happening–, black-white mixes being assumed to be “Puerto-Rican”. How does asking a mixed race person how they identify expose how they experience racism when so many mixed race people are seen/mistaken as a “third race” from either of their parents,
    Or even a different race from their own full-siblings!

    (Ei:mistaken as a visible minority that has no relation to either of their parents and experiencing racism differently from either of their parents. Or mixed race siblings from the exact same parent-pairing experiencing racism differently because the siblings look different from each other and are read as different races from each other every time they go out in public?)

    Sorry to complicate things, but I have been read and racialized as someone I have no relation to for over 12 years and I feel I’ve been silent for far too long and now is the time to speak up.
    I even wrote on the census comment section that my family comes from Hungary, but that I experience discrimination every single day because people don’t mderatamd my light brown skin and Eastern European features and mistake me for “middle eastern” even though I am not and that I suffer horrible gendered orentalism and am treated like a terrorist.
    (There were no questions about ethnicity on the short census, but tons of questions about language and country of origin , so that’s the way the questions prodded me to focus on cltre to the exclusion of race)

    There should be 2 (and only two) sets of race questions with no restrictions on how many you can check off.
    There should be a set of questions about:
    1) how you identify [check as many as you see fit]
    2) how do you feel that you are read and how you feel you experience racism [check as many as you see fit/ check ALL the ways you have been categorized by others]

    Because for many mixed race people who are REGULARLY misidentified on the DAILY, “who we are” and “who we are racialized as” are two entirely separate issues.

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