Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


History of the Canadian Census


[This article was published in 1948. For the precise citation, see the end of the text.]

Census. The census in modern times is a "nominal" or name-by-name enumeration of the people and of their important characteristics-as of sex, age, marital condition, race, citizenship, occupations, earnings, etc. In Canada, the census also includes a definitive survey of agriculture, the basic Canadian industry. Until 1921 it covered various other phases of production, as of the mine, the forest, the fisheries, manufactures, as well as municipal activities, and the births and deaths occurring in the census year. With the organization of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics in 1918, the latter subjects have been given more frequent and effective statistical treatment otherwise (see Industrial Census and Vital Statistics). The reason for this contraction in the scope of the decennial census arises out of the nature of the organization which it requires, which consists primarily of the very large field force necessary to reach each family and person throughout the country. Such a force is competent to secure data appertaining to the individual, but is obviously unsuited for carrying out the more elaborate investigation required in the case of industrial and other technical subjects. The Canadian census, however, continues to include agriculture in view of the large extent to which the Canadian population is engaged in rural occupations.


The census of the Dominion is taken every ten years on a date in the month of June (prior to 1911 the date was April 1). Its sanction is to be found in the British North American Act which defines "Census and Statistics" as amongst the activities falling under Dominion as opposed to provincial jurisdiction. Provincial governments, are, of course, not debarred by this provision from collecting statistics on the subjects assigned to their jurisdiction; the duty of the Dominion is that of organizing and co-ordinating the statistical system comprehensively and as a whole from a national standpoint.


The immediate legal object of the Canadian census is to enable a Redistribution Act to be passed by parliament at decennial intervals. From the beginning, therefore, it has been taken on the de jure rather than on the de facto basis. The purpose of the census, however, is much wider than that of fixing electoral representation; rather is it the periodical stock-taking of that static human background against which, in the long run, all activities within the state must be projected, and in terms of which most social and economic policies must be assessed.


Historically, the census in Canada is unique in that it probably antedates any other national census in the modern sense of the term. In the year 1666, under the immediate direction of Talon, the great Intendant, who himself acted as one of the enumerators, a census was taken of the inhabitants of New France with the view to obtaining a purview of their numbers by families, sex, age, marital condition, and occupations. It was nearly a century later that any attempt in a similar spirit of enquiry was made in Europe, and not until 1791 that the United States took the lead among countries of primary magnitude in constituting a decennial census. The census of New France was repeated at frequent intervals throughout the French régime. After the conquest, its place was taken for the most part by occasional and less elaborate reports by colonial governors. Enumerations of the people, however, became frequent again in the British North America colonies during the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. In 1842 the first Census Act was passed by the united provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, whilst from 1851 decennial censuses became regularly established in the colonies which subsequently united to form the Dominion of Canada. Under the British North America Act, already cited, a Census Act was passed in 1870, under which the first census of the Dominion was taken a year later. This census has since been repeated decennially; the last enumeration, that of 1951, was accordingly the ninth for the whole Dominion, and the eleventh to be taken at regular decennial intervals in the territory which constituted the original Dominion.


In view of the more rapid process of settlement in Manitoba, a quinquennial census, midway between the decennial census, was taken in 1886 (in point of fact an enumeration of the population of Manitoba for electoral purposes in 1870 antedated the regular decennial census) and has been continued since. When the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created in 1905, it was likewise provided that a census (of population and agriculture) should be taken midway between the decennial censuses of the Dominion. Thus for the three Prairie provinces the census is quinquennial.


The first four censuses of the Dominion were taken by specially constituted organizations, but in 1905 the Census Office was made permanent and continuous. In 1918 it became a branch of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics as constituted by statute in. that year. Under the provisions of the Act, the country, for census purposes, is divided, in the first instance, into "districts" which correspond in so far as possible with the electoral divisions, each district being in the charge of a "commissioner". The districts are in turn sub-divided into "sub-districts", the latter corresponding in so far as possible with polling sub-divisions. For each subdistrict a census enumerator is appointed for the purpose of conducting the house-to-house and farm-to-farm canvass.


In the latest census to be taken, that of 1951, the enumerators filled out for each person a printed card calling for information under twenty-nine headings, including name, age, sex, conjugal condition, birthplace, citizenship, ethnic origin, language, religion, education, occupation. There was a supplementary card for the blind and deaf. Details of houses or homes were recorded on another schedule. A fourth form was used, with 194 questions on each farm, and a shorter form for data on livestock and greenhouses not on farms, which together provided complete coverage of agricultural operations. In addition the enumerators obtained the names and addresses of all wholesale and retail trade establishments, and of all commercial fisheries, in order to make possible the mailing of schedules to concerns in these categories. Questions on all schedules were only those that survived in competition with many others, and each was designed to provide useful information on social or economic conditions. Every enumerator, and every employee in the Bureau of Statistics handling the information, was under oath and penalty against revealing any individual item.


In 1951 there were 14,009,429 persons counted, including Newfoundland, which had joined Confederation since the previous census, with a population of 361,416. Higher birth rates, and a considerable flow of immigration in the years following World War II, had resulted in an increase of more than 18 per cent during the decade in the nine provinces. All provinces shared in the increase, except Saskatchewan. It was much higher in British Columbia than elsewhere, over 42 per cent. The largest absolute gains were in Ontario and Quebec, 809,887 and 723,799 respectively. The actual populations recorded

were as follow:


Population of Canada

by provinces, 1951

Prince Edward Island
Nova Scotia
New Brunswick
British Columbia
Northwest Territories

Population Characteristics.

Of the total, 5,381,176 were classified as rural in point of residence, 8,628,253 as urban. Thus, although more than 60 per cent were recorded as urban, the proportions varied greatly as among provinces, and there were actually rural majorities in five, - Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Indeed, Prince Edward Island showed almost three-fourths rural and Saskatchewan more than two-thirds. At the opposite extreme were Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec with two-thirds or more urban, while Nova Scotia and Manitoba were more evenly balanced.


Children in the main were relatively more numerous among the rural population, as reflected in the fact that nearly 30 per cent of the Prince Edward Island population were under ten years of age, less than 20 per cent in British Columbia. Altogether there were 3,119,934 children under the age of ten years, as compared with 2,188,755 in the next older ten-year group (ages 10-19), the result of much higher birth rates in the 1940's than in the 1930's. Half of the total population were under the age of 28. In the early Canadian censuses the dividing line between the younger and older halves was under the age of 20. Marriages are later now than then, families are smaller, and a higher proportion of people are living to older ages.


Males represent a majority over females, 7,088,873 as compared with 6,920,556. This is partly because more male children are born than female, and partly because there have been more men than women among immigrants. At the upper limits of age, however, (above 70 years) women are in the majority because of greater longevity. In towns and cities, too, women and girls are normally in the majority, the result of their migration from rural communities in greater numbers than men.


This one-sided migration from country to city leaves many single men in the country, and many single women in the cities. The total number of married persons was over 3,100,000 of each sex. Widowed men numbered 186,595, widowed women 456,753; divorced men recorded were 13,115, divorced women 18,883.


In 1941 the proportion of the Canadian population of British Isles origin had fallen for the first time below 50 per cent. In 1951 it was slightly below 48 per cent. The proportion of French origin has been increasing slowly but steadily, from about 28 per cent in 1921 to 31 per cent in 1951. About 77 per cent of the French were in Quebec, 11 per cent in Ontario , 6 per cent in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Among the 21 per cent who were of neither British nor French origin the largest groups were of German, Ukrainian, Scandinavian, Netherlands, Polish, Jewish, Native Indian, and Italian origin respectively, ranging from 619,995 of German origin to 152,245 of Italian.


As for ability in the official languages of the country, 9,387,395 persons were reported as able to speak English only, 2,741,812 French only, 1,727,447 both, 152,775 neither. Among those able to speak English were 2,834,031 who had learned it as a second language, whereas only 400,409 were able to speak French who had not spoken it as their mother tongue. From this is must be inferred that the teaching of French in English-language schools seldom results in ability to speak the language, for 206,000 or more students study it in the high schools each year. Altogether there were 1,659,770 persons whose mother tongue was neither English nor French.


Much the largest single religious group is the Roman Catholic, the proportion of which has increased from less than 40 per cent in 1921 to 44.7 per cent in 1951. In Quebec it has always represented a majority of the population, and did also in New Brunswick in 1951. Adherents of the United Church of Canada constitute the second largest group, 2,867,271, and the Church of England in Canada accounts for 2,060,729. Other churches count much smaller numbers, the next three being, in order, Presbyterian 781,747, Baptist 519,585, Lutheran 444,923.


Housing and Household Equipment.


The 1951 census of Canada found 3,423,010 occupied dwellings, and 51,428 under construction, in the ten provinces. A dwelling may be defined as the living quarters occupied by one household. Approximately three-fourths of all dwellings were single houses, nine out of ten of which were "detached". All but a few of the other fourth were flats or apartments.


The typical dwelling had from four to six rooms. Only 16 per cent were smaller, 24 per cent larger. The principal structural material used on the exterior was wood in slightly fewer than half of all dwellings, but there were great differences in this respect in different parts of the country. Actually there was a great majority of wooden houses in all provinces except in Ontario and Quebec. Brick has been the second most popular building material, accounting for nearly 30 per cent of all units. Stucco and imitation siding was found in 18 per cent of cases, stone in less than 2 per cent. About 13 per cent of all units were considered to be in need of major repairs.


A hot and cold water supply was piped inside 57 per cent of dwellings, cold only in 18 per cent. About 60 per cent enjoyed the use of bathtub or shower facilities, and nearly 70 per cent flush toilets. The proportion with electric lighting was just under 90 per cent. There were 47 per cent with electrical or gas refrigeration, and 18 per cent with ice boxes. Wood or coal was used for cooking in 43 per cent, electricity in 26 per cent, gas in 21 per cent, oil in 5 per cent.


Stoves were relied upon for heating almost exactly half of all homes, hot air furnaces in 30 per cent, steam or. hot water furnaces in 16 per cent. The principal heating fuel was coal in 42 per cent of homes, wood in 28 per cent, oil in 23 per cent, gas in 5 per cent.


About 93 per cent of all households had a radio, 60 per cent a telephone, 73 per cent a washing machine, 41 per cent a vacuum cleaner, 42 per cent a motor car. Fewer than 5 per cent were without any of these five conveniences.


There were 626,540 farm dwellings, of which 91 per cent were owned by the families occupying them. Of the 2,781,065 non-farm householders only 40 per cent owned their dwellings, and nearly one-third of these owed money on mortgages. Of those renting, 35 per cent paid a monthly rental of $40 or more, 22 per cent less than $25 monthly. In more than two-thirds of cases this rental did not include heating costs.


In the decade preceding the census the typical household had moved from one dwelling to another at least once. Only 17 per cent had remained in the same quarters for twenty years, and another 14 per cent between ten and twenty years.



In the total population, 5,286,153 persons, or nearly 38 per cent, were reported as having an occupation, or being in the "labour force", 4,121,832 men and 1,164,321 women. They were classified as follows:


Occupations of Canadians

Census of 1951

Proprietary and Managerial
Fishing, Hunting, Trapping
Mining and Quarrying
Manufacturing and Mechanical
Light and Power Production
Service, Personal and Protective
Labourers, not in primary industries, and not stated
All Occupations


The numbers in hundreds of occupational categories, under these sixteen main headings, separately for provinces and cities, are to be found in bulletins of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics.



The complete results of the census of 1951 are being published in ten large volumes; which may be purchased from the Queen's Printer, Ottawa. Persons requiring information on special topics only may in most cases obtain it in smaller bulletins from the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Ottawa.

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 21-25.




© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College