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Cartoon in Canadian Illustrated News, May 6, 1871, depicting an enumerator collecting census data.


Daniel Panneton is a public historian and project lead on the heritage program Not Just Numbers: Representation in the Canadian Census. He serves on the board of the Toronto Ward Museum.

Enumerator: “What origin, Ma’am?”

Lady: “Canadian, of course!”

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Enumerator: “But you KNOW we don’t take down Canadian origin.”

Lady: “Well, then! Follow Darwin’s theory, and enter us as descended from apes!”

A century and a half ago, the May 6, 1871 edition of The Canadian Illustrated News ran a comic depicting an enumerator collecting data. The cartoon, with a nod to Charles Darwin’s recently released The Descent of Man, highlights the controversial decision to not allow Canadians to identify as ethnically Canadian.

It’s a controversy worth revisiting as Canadians consider how to describe their own complicated ancestries on the 2021 census. When the cartoon ran, Canadian was disallowed as an ethnic category to prevent the statistical fragmentation of French Canadians. The decision caused controversy, in part because it prevented the term from becoming a measure of inclusion and national unity.

Perhaps the critics were right. Today a Canadian ethnicity is allowed by the census, and it’s the largest single ethnic group in the country. However, 150 years after Confederation, should we consider a third of the country identifying as ethnically Canadian a good thing? Or does a concept of a Canadian ethnicity actually divide us?

The 1867 British North America Act mandated a decennial census, starting in 1871. Although censuses had been conducted previously in colonies that would become part of Canada, they were rudimentary initiatives that produced unreliable statistical portraits. The 1871 census, by contrast, was the first to be conducted using standardized methods and centralized bodies: It was “scientific.”

Despite being characterized as more professional than previous endeavours, the census was “in fact a fundamentalist Catholic ethnic-national project.” As historian and sociologist Bruce Curtis details in The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875, leadership was handed to civil servant and writer Joseph-Charles Taché, a French-Canadian Catholic nationalist who understood that the census was a valuable political tool. With it, he intended to build a “monument” to the existence of the large, unified French-Canadian nation.

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The 1871 census was the first to distinguish ethnic origin from birthplace, and enumerators received strict instructions about allowable responses. Mr. Taché understood that, particularly in a heterogeneous society such as Canada, ethnic identities were malleable and fluid. By denying Canadian as an option, he avoided splitting French Canadians into two camps, while denying the term’s use by multiple communities as a unifier. British residents were divided into constituent categories such as English, Welsh or Scottish. Indigenous nations were forced into the singular Indian category, while the only mixed ethnicity that the census recognized was people of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry, who were categorized as “half-breeds.”

Ultimately, Mr. Taché‘s categorizations produced the illusory unity that he wanted: The final reports found that French was the country’s largest ethnic group, and that curiously enough the new country of Canada held no ethnic Canadians. The actual returns reveal numerous examples of respondents attempting to give their ethnicity as Canadian, only to have their answer scratched out and “corrected” by a reviewing enumerator.

Canadians can now select multiple ethnicities to better reflect their heritage, including Canadian. Although the 1986 and 1991 censuses found only 0.5 per cent and 4 per cent respectively were ethnically Canadian, that number shot up to 31 per cent with the 1996 census after Canadian was listed in suggested ethnicities, becoming the fastest growing demographic. This figure has held steady, with 32 per cent of respondents selecting the option in 2016.

Ethnic identities can be difficult to coherently define, and those mulling how to describe their own complex heritages in the most recent census may well find that the term Canadian best encapsulates their sense of self. Research has shown that respondents identifying as Canadian are usually French or British in background. The sudden boom in the mid-1990s of Canadians identifying as ethnically Canadian could be interpreted as a heartening sign of growing connection and national identity, particularly in the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec independence referendum. However, as sociologist Jack Jedwab points out, the trend can also be understood as a manifestation of an ugly “old stock” xenophobic nationalism that’s been long simmering below the surface, and the use or denial of a seemingly unifying term can reinforce tacit lines of belonging and ownership, ultimately undermining intercultural solidarity in Canada.

Canadian multiculturalist discourse and the demise of the two-founding nation thesis alienated some who viewed their national identity as inherently British or French, to the point of, according to sociologist Himani Bannerji, stimulating “white supremacist attitudes.” The fact that respondents identifying as Canadian remain overwhelmingly French and British in heritage points not only to a lingering sense of entitlement and ownership, but also to a sense of exclusion felt by the communities that are not recording themselves as such.

Critics of the 1871 census pointed out that limiting respondents to a single category, while disallowing the answer of Canadian, prevented respondents with ancestors from multiple communities from adequately or accurately communicating their identity or family history. Taché used denial of Canadian ethnicity to force a perceived unity upon Canadians of French descent at the expense of multiethnic realities, ultimately highlighting existing fractures.

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The very idea of a Canadian ethnicity, through its use and denial, functions as a tool of othering. Canadians today can give multiple responses to questions about their ethnic identity, helping better capture the kaleidoscopic nature of our national past and present. However, because there are options beyond picking a single category, the availability of the Canadian ethnicity in the census undermines national multicultural ideals, implicitly dividing the country between inheritors and interlopers.

150 years ago, Taché disallowed Canadian for ethno-nationalist reasons. For the sake of multicultural solidarity in the 21st century, we should do the same thing, albeit under different motives. It has lost any unifying function it would have held in 1871 and should be delisted as an option.

If diversity is indeed Canada’s strength, we should do away with ideas of a Canadian ethnicity.

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