Skip to main content

About 700,000 online forms were completed on the first day the 2016 census letters were mailed out. Statistics Canada expects to see 1.5 million to two million completed by end of day Tuesday.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The census is back and, judging by the initial response, Canadians are quite keen.

Statistics Canada said it had received about 700,000 online completed forms on the first day of mailing out the 2016 census letters, and that by the end of Tuesday, it expected to see between 1.5 million and two million completed questionnaires.

The agency said it is still "following up" to determine why its census site crashed for 45 minutes on Monday evening, though it noted it is thankful to Canadians for their "enthusiasm" in completing the census online.

Google Canada, meanwhile, said searches about this year's census rose by more than 3,000 per cent on Monday night compared with 24 hours earlier. The top questions people asked were: "What is a census?" and "What happens if you don't fill out the census in Canada?"

More than 15 million households across Canada received their census notices in the mail this week, and for the first time in a decade, the mandatory long-form component is back. A quarter of households are getting the longer version.

Conducting a national census is a massive undertaking, big enough to bump Canada's employment numbers due to the temporary hiring of more than 35,000 people.

This year carries special significance for those who had mourned the loss of the compulsory long-form census, axed by the former Conservative government in 2010, and are now rejoicing in its return.

In Winnipeg, Wilf Falk said he was "definitely, definitely" happy to get his census invitation, though the occasion was tinged with disappointment. "I got the short form, not the long form. I wanted the long form."

Mr. Falk, who is Manitoba's long-serving chief statistician, said the census will give a clearer picture on everything from future labour market needs and housing conditions to how Syrian refugees are faring in his province.

"The census data is used for so many purposes – in a sense it is a library of information about Canada," he said. "Not only does it give us this snapshot at one point in time – who are we, what do we do, what are our characteristics – but it also gives us how we have changed over time."

Mr. Falk said he hopes this year's census will provide "a high-resolution picture of our communities, right across the country."

He referred to the previous census as yielding a "low-resolution" portrait. The 2011 voluntary household survey garnered a response rate of 69 per cent compared with 94 per cent for the 2006 census, and information on 1,100 census subdivisions was suppressed due to data-quality concerns.

The 2016 census brings some changes. Canadians are not being asked about religion, a topic that is included only every decade and was last covered in 2011, nor will they be asked detailed income questions, which will now be obtained from administrative data.

This time around, more Canadians – 80 per cent of households – didn't actually receive the census in the mail; they were given an access code and directions to complete the mandatory survey online (those who prefer print, or lack computer access, can call to request the print form).

It's part of Statscan's drive to get more responses online, a move that could save money in printing costs. The agency hopes 65 per cent of people will respond online – up from 54 per cent last time. Its total budget for this census is $715.2-million over a seven-year census cycle.

One question is how researchers will compare 2016 results to prior years, given the change in methodology in 2011. Some researchers said they will rely more on the 10-year change, between 2006 and 2016, than on shifts in the past five years.

"There will be some challenges. But we're in much better shape, I believe, with the 2016 mandatory census, in terms of giving us a long-term ability to both analyze past trends and look forward," said Michael Veall, an economics professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. He added that the census yields crucial insights into issues such as overcrowding in homes (an indicator of poverty, and one that isn't captured elsewhere) and the effectiveness of government spending on programs.

Efforts to count people are such that early enumerators used snowmobiles, four-wheel drive trucks and, in one case, a helicopter to reach some Manitoba First Nations communities. On the coasts, especially in British Columbia, "we will charter boats to get teams in and out of numerous island communities," Geoff Bowlby, Statscan's director general of collection and regional services, said in an e-mail. "We also use cars and motorcycles and do a lot of walking once in the community," he said, adding that bicycles are also used in the metropolitan areas.

This marks the 350th year since the first census was conducted in Canada. That census, in 1666, counted the 3,215 inhabitants in the colony – among them eight barrel makers, five bakers and three locksmiths.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe