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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Bill Waiser

We have a second chance to make history with the census Add to ...

It's not every day that a person gets a second chance to be part of Canada's history. But Tuesday, on this year's official census day, many people will have an opportunity to do just that.

This time, though, more Canadians must realize what is at stake. Here's why.

In 2006, for the first time in Canadian census history, all participants were asked to indicate - by checking a box - whether their responses could be made public after 92 years.

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If respondents said "no" to the opt-in question, the form was not destroyed, but access to it in its name-specific format was forever prohibited. And in cases where respondents did not answer the question, the default position was "no."

The results, when they first became known in March, 2007, were disappointing, if not shocking. Only 56 per cent of the respondents, a little more than half, had said "yes."

A whopping 32 per cent, on the other hand, had said "no," apparently deciding that their privacy was more important than access.

(Another 12 per cent did not answer the question. These respondents included close to a third of a million Canadians living in seniors homes and other similar institutions whose information was gathered from institutional records and who were never asked the informed-consent clause.)

Why such a miserable result? Did one-third of census respondents really have no interest in family and historical research?

Maybe Canadians responded to a leading and poorly phrased consent question in a predictable way.

The actual wording on the 2006 census form began with the rather ominous warning: "The Statistics Act guarantees the confidentiality of your census information," and then simply asked respondents whether they wanted "to make [their]census information available in 92 years for important historical and genealogical research."

It was never explained that name-specific census information was a way of putting everyday people into Canada's story.

Maybe Canadians were also wary because of all the recent stories about identity theft. But many of these same Canadians think nothing of putting all kinds of personal information on their Facebook pages.

These people might counter that Facebook at least has privacy settings. But so too does the census. Name-specific information is kept closed for at least 92 years.

Finally, maybe Canadians feared losing control over their personal information, not understanding the nuances of timed-released information only after long periods of complete restriction.

The Americans certainly do not share this fear. In the United States, there is no "opt-in" question about future release. In fact, name-specific census information is made available just 70 years after the information is gathered. At present, Americans have full public access to data from 1940.

Some might ask, why isn't a "yes" result of 56 per cent good enough for a response rate?

It's not good enough because two out of every five respondents chose to keep their census information permanently inaccessible. As a consequence, the integrity of the 2006 national census as a comprehensive and complete source of genealogical and historical information has been forever compromised.

Besides, it is impossible today to know what might be historically important tomorrow, and descendants of census participants might come to regret that their ancestors long before them had said no to the opt-in question.

And that's the problem with the consent clause. The head of a household, when filling in the census form in 2006, and refusing consent (or conversely granting it), spoke on behalf of all members of the household, including relatives, boarders or students, on census-taking day.

The granddaughter of a young boy living in the household (and who had no chance to consent) will thus be precluded from accessing the census record of her grandfather (that same young boy) for genealogical or any other purpose.

Multiply this one example by the number of respondents who said "no" or did not answer at all in 2006, and it becomes apparent that many hundreds of thousands of Canadians, both now and in the future, were rendered voiceless or history-less.

It does not have to be this way in 2011. Canadians will get their second chance to make history - to ensure that their personal stories are part of the public record in the future - when they complete their census forms. All they have to do is to say "yes."

Historian Bill Waiser is A.S. Morton Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.

Census Day 2011 was Tuesday, May 10. Incorrect information appeared the print version and an earlier online version of this story.

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