Many Canadians fell over themselves with excitement when census forms landed on their doorsteps last week, posting pictures of census selfies and lamenting if they didn't get the long form.
Not everyone, however, has rushed to fill out their forms. Several days past Census Day, the day by which Statistics Canada had encouraged people to complete the questionnaires, the agency says it has received 7.6 million forms, a response so far that is "slightly better than anticipated." It has mailed out questionnaires or notices to about 15.5 million households, and enumerators will determine in the coming months how many of those are unoccupied or not private dwellings.
The reasons for the tardiness may vary – from time pressures to slow mail services. Some confusion may still exist over whether the census is voluntary (it's not), some may find it intrusive, others may be out of the country. But it's not unusual for lags in responses, said Doug Norris, senior vice-president at Environics Analytics and census expert.
"It takes time," said Mr. Norris, who previously spent nearly 30 years at Statscan, many of them in census-related work. "It's one of those things, it's not at the top of anybody's to-do list, people are busy with juggling families and careers and other activities, and they just don't get to it."
Some demographic groups typically take longer to respond, he said, among them seniors, who may require assistance or be more apt to use mailed than online forms, and newcomers.
"Newcomers to Canada have always been a group that's a bit harder to enumerate," whether it's because of language or familiarity issues, or a lack of trust if they had past experiences of government-collected information used against them. "So that group I would expect might be a bit slower than others."
Census questions are available in 11 ethnic languages and 11 aboriginal languages, in addition to English and French. In British Columbia, settlement workers at the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. are busy helping newcomers fill out forms and answering questions (such as what the benefits are of a census, and why they are being asked so many questions). They said their clients are "agreeable," once they understand the purpose of the census.
Lower-income households may also take more time to respond, said Sara Mayo of the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton. "When you have to deal with social-assistance requirements and finding a job and finding food and making sure you're not getting evicted, it makes it hard to find time to fill out a government form."
Those who haven't completed their forms will get reminders. In the third week of May, paper questionnaires will be sent to non-responding households. Starting in June, census enumerators begin door-to-door follow-ups with non-responders, calling or visiting households until the forms are submitted.
Ultimately, under Canada's Statistics Act, someone who refuses can be fined up to $500 or go to jail, or both. Jail is rare; until 2010, no one had ever gone to jail, although following the 2011 census, Statscan said one person was sentenced to jail after refusing other alternatives from a judge.
So far, of the 7.6 million forms completed, the agency said 6.8 million were filed online.
When asked how responses so far this year compare with census efforts in 2006 and 2011, Statscan said it didn't have precise information available, and that it couldn't "expend resources at this time to do the necessary research."
It's too soon to determine how robust response rates are, Mr. Norris said. "We have to give it a few more weeks before we really see whether the ultimate response rate [has been affected] or whether it's the usual delays."
Canada's long-form census was scrapped in 2010 by the Stephen Harper government and replaced by a voluntary household survey. The mandatory census was reinstated last November shortly after the Liberals took office. The census has myriad uses, among them helping governments plan services such as day-care centres, schools, health care and seniors' residences.