Saturday, July 13, 2013

Delay in 1921 Census of Canada Release: An Overreaction or Valid Concern

For genealogist, each time that government records are released, there is excitement! Whether it is a yearly release of birth, marriage or death records, because those records now pass beyond the protection of privacy restrictions, genealogist greet each release with much anticipation. Reseachers approach each year’s release with a tidy list of pending look-ups and are anxious to fill in some gaps in their database. But when it comes to the Federal Government’s release of the National Census, well, that’s like a Christmas to genealogist… a Christmas that only comes around once every ten years or so.  The last time we received a “Christmas Gift” was back in 2005, albeit a “late release” of the 1911 Census of Canada. Back then, the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC) and Statistics Canada (StatsCan) were at odds with each other on the 1911 Census release. In the end, Parliament had to chime in and amend the Statistic Act of Canada with the provision that StatsCan must release data to the LAC after 92 years has elapsed. I remember rushing to my calendar and marking the date for the next big release… the date was June 1, 2013.

When folks across the country were ringing in the new year with “Auld Lang Syne”, I was probably among a small handful of the faithful genealogist thinking of the upcoming census release while sipping on my midnight beverage. The 1921 Census of Canada promises so much but most importantly this was the first census to be taken after the First World War. And that brings the question: How would those veterans be indicated, if they were indicate at all? Like previous census, the 1921 Census will offer us with data such as ages of each person in a household.

A lot has changed since 2005. Heck a lot has change over the last year. Back in 2005, StatsCan appeared as the “enemy” to non-government researchers and the LAC has out knight in shining armor; they were our “collective voice”. Over the last few years, repeated cutbacks from Prime Minister Harper’s Federal Government has put stress on the LAC. Jobs were lost and projects were pushed to the back burner. The cuts resulted in supporters of the LAC to start a campaign to bring public attention to the matter. The “Save the Library and Archives of Canada” was spearheaded by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). I was among the many supporter who wrote letters to Members of Parliament and took to social media channels like Facebook and Twitter with messages highlighting the cuts and potential risk to the protection our heritage. Each message usually ended with the hashtag “#SaveLAC”. When I look back to only a year ago, I was perhaps the biggest supporters of the LAC; they could do no wrong… we were in on this “together”.

It’s funny how much changes in a year. Think about how much changed in the period between 1911 and 1921. The face of Canada changed dramatically! When the 1911 Census was taken, Canada was simply still a colony of Britain. With the end of the war, Canada was forging ahead as a nation with a new self-identity. 66,655 Canadians gave their lives and another 172,950 were wounded during the war. When the 1911 Census was taken, Sir Wilfred Laurier was Prime Minister. When the 1921 Census was taken, Arthur Meighen (who!?) was leader of the young nation (William Lyon Mackenzie King was elected Prime Minister in December 1921). Speaking of Prime Ministers, this census is the first glimpse of future Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. And all along, each individual family across the country has resounding changes to its dynamic as members were born and as other members passed away. Entire families relocated in search of work. Census offer us so much insight into life in Canada and are huge component in painting the picture of our heritage.

According to Dave Obee’s book “Counting Canada: A Genealogical Guide to the Canadian Census”, the 1921 Census was the first census to be index. Obee mentions that thirty years after the census was taken, the Federal government put together an alphabetical index. This index was utilized by the government to assist in speeding up Old Age Security applications. So if an index already exist, this shouldn’t be an excuse by the LAC on the delay. The 1921 Census will ask a range of thirty-four (34) questions. Beside the valuable data such as age and date of immigration/naturalization, questions on profession/occupations will be broadened and the addition of question around the dwelling, such as whether the home is owned or rented, and if rented, how much is paid per month.

Before June 1, 2013 even rolled around, the chatter on the genealogy/history wires in Canada were tones of fear and despair. Rumblings from those close to the LAC was that the 1921 Census was not going to be released along the sides of those previous census. Those previous census are viewable on LAC’s website or by microfilm reels which were normal copied and distributed to other libraries and archives. The rumours began to swirl that the census release was going to be administered by another organization as part of a contract with the LAC. Most fingers pointed to the popular website, which is privately held by a US firm based out of Utah and the developers of Family Tree Maker, the number one family tree software program. Then the name began to pop up. is a Canadian-based non-governmental, non-profit organization based in Ottawa. What do both of these organization have that the LAC doesn’t? It is user fees. charges a minimum of $119 per year for it access to its Canadian records while it charges $300 per year for access to its “world” database. Over at, the annual rate is a flat $100 per year.

Some people may say: “So what? It’s only a $100 per year!”. To them I say that the primary method of gather genealogical data is through government records and should we have to pay to review “our” own records? This is our history, our heritage! I may use websites such as 1-2 months per year at the most and mainly to search out non-government data. I, like so many researcher, conduct my research at the point of origin and spend hours scouring through documents and microfilm reels in search of a small piece of the puzzle as opposed to copying someone else’s data from a helpful website. We know our sources and know how to put a reel on a reader. We don’t need some non-government organization to sell us data that we are willing to find ourselves for free.

So all this bring us to today… July 15, 2013. Those of us in the genealogy/history communities have yet to review a single page of the 1921 Census. Back on June 4, the LAC made a press release entitled: “Census of Canada, 1921 - Available to Researchers in the Next Few Weeks”. I am not sure what a “few weeks” looks like for the people at the LAC but those of us in the community that has been big supporters of the LACs roll for Canadian heritage certainly know what a year looks like. Don’t get me wrong, the folks on the floor at the LAC, those Archivist, Generalist and Researchers are not to blame. My finger points first to the top, this current government that has a hate on for census (remember the long-form census debate?) and for researchers, both scientific and academia. For those of you that though that “heritage” was a Conservative value, think again.

Maybe our “Christmas” has simply been postponed for a few more weeks. In the meantime, I will sit staring at the fireplace, anxious for sound of sleigh bells on the roof and a pair of black boots to appear.  I am hopefully that those boots are that of a jolly gift-giver and not that of a burglar… someone coming to steal away more than a few replaceable item but the heritage of a nation.

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