Now that it's the eve of the 2006 census, consider the power of the statisticians taking a snapshot of the country.
Their forms have blitzed the mailboxes of the nation. Governments will pay close attention to the resulting data, which will identify trends, shape priorities and direct billions in transfer payments for years to come.
So, given what's at stake, perhaps it's not surprising that lots of politics are attached to what is supposed to be an apolitical exercise.
Depending on which interest group you ask, this year's census will be remembered for serving the U.S. military-industrial complex, for ignoring the rights of gay married couples, and perhaps for being inconsiderate to citizens who aren't yet born.
"Every census has its unique set of concerns," 2006 census manager Anil Arora said with a sigh. "Some legitimate, some otherwise."
Mr. Arora explained that years of preparation and more than a half-billion dollars go into each census. But while Statistics Canada can take the pulse of the nation, no bureaucrat has yet figured out how to please 32 million (and counting) Canadians all at once.
There are a few issues in particular that the government is taking pains to address -- starting with the agency's relationship with Lockheed Martin Canada, a unit of the prominent U.S.-based military contractor, which has won a contract to help process the data.
The NDP has raised concerns about the Lockheed Martin contract in the House of Commons. And one far-left group has gone further, urging Canadians to consider boycotting the census entirely. (An act, it should be noted, that is illegal.)
This is all a frustration for the census manager. "We followed every law, every regulation as it pertains to procurement," Mr. Arora said.
Lockheed Martin, he said, simply had the best bid and the best expertise in designing software.
He added that Canadians need not fear that their information will be compromised. From the outset, Ottawa has taken steps to ensure that "no contractor was ever going to be in possession of data, no data was going to leave the country, or Statistics Canada's control," he said.
There's also a lively debate as to whether gay couples should tick off the standard "married" box in the census or use a different space instead.
Stats Can said it is keeping up with the times, but has decided to leave a space blank in the relationship category so that married gay couples can write in they are married gay couples.
But Egale Canada, a gay-rights group, said that smacks of discrimination and effectively ghettoizes gay marriages. Same-sex partners, according to Egale, should be free to describe their partners by ticking off a "husband or wife" box like everyone else.
"Everyone who completes the 2006 Census will see that our relationships are segregated," Gilles Marchildon, the group's executive director said in a statement released this month.
"We're already getting phone calls from dismayed members and we're concerned about the subtle, yet widespread, impact of millions of Canadians seeing that our marriages are denigrated in this way."
Data privacy and gay marriage are relatively new issues, but Canada's time-honoured language divide is also rearing its head. Stats Can is taking pains to rebut an anonymous e-mail making the rounds in Quebec.
The e-mail, Stats Can says on its website, "spreads false information and encourages bilingual francophones to not mention their knowledge of both official languages . . . supposedly to prevent the federal government from reducing its services to francophones."
Looking forward, there's some things happening 92 years from now, that people may want to be aware of.
For the first time, the census makers have added a privacy option that allows Canadians to make their forms public in 2098, should they so want.
Genealogists, who regard census forms as treasure troves of information, explain that they've fought tooth and nail to gain access to historic census forms, which the government has tended to want to keep private.
Ninety-two years is the standard wait for the forms to free up.
But now that the government has given people the option of having their records destroyed, genealogists fear future research may be hurt immeasurably. They are urging Canadians to allow the disclosure of their forms 92 years hence.
"It's extremely important that people tick the box," said Ryan Taylor, a prominent Canadian genealogist. "It they tick the no box, the information will be gone, gone forever. . . . In essence what you'll be saying is 'I don't want my descendants to know about me.' "
He added that nearly all of us who fill out this year's census will be dead in 2092. So keep that in mind when you fill out the form.
"It does not have anything to do with privacy. It has to do with historical accuracy," Mr. Taylor said. "In essence, you're denying yourself a kind of immortality if you deny the information."