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Peter Black

Local Journalism Initiative reporter


Head-counting in Canada has come a long, long way from the first census conducted in the fragile colony of Nouvelle-France in 1666.

That first roll call, organized by Jean Talon, the energetic first intendant of New France (1665-1668), took place in the dead of winter, with his small band of census takers going from parish to parish gathering the most basic of information: name, age and profession.

Talon’s tally, submitted to King Louis XIV, came up with a total population of 3,418, a bit of a disappointment in the breeding department, explained largely by the shortage of women, after nearly 60 years of French presence. Further to the south, future Americans already numbered well beyond 70,000.

Talon admitted to the king that his census was incomplete and flawed. More than 300 years later, legendary Quebec historian Marcel Trudel set out to correct and complete the intendant’s census. In the latest edition of Canada’s History magazine, Christopher Moore, a historian and author who studied under Trudel, tells the fascinating story of how Trudel went about this “terrifyingly ambitious” task.

Trudel spent years “mining ancient, handwritten registers of baptisms, marriages and burials” as well as land grant registries. With these sources, Moore said Trudel began to fill in the gaps in Talon’s census. As a result, Trudel’s version of the census of 1666, released in 1995, counted 25 per cent more heads than the intendant, for a grand total of 4,219.

Moore noted that Trudel’s toil uncovered a certain rebellious character trait in Quebec’s pioneers. “The census takers, instead of going door to door, had expected people to come to them. The thousand people they missed, Trudel suspected, must have been the ones who decided not to turn up. Perhaps, he thought, they calculated that if the king was taking names it was probably to tax or control them somehow.”

While the residents of 17th-century Nouvelle-France may have been able to dodge or accidentally-on-purpose miss the census-taking at the time, their descendants and newcomers to Canada do not have such options today. The census coming up in early May is compulsory for all Canadians, and if folks fail to fill out the form, the census-taker will come knocking, in pandemic accoutrements, asking questions from two metres away.

The 2021 census has a few notable changes from the last one in 2016. For the first time, Canadians will be able to identify their gender as something other than female or male. A subsequent question asks for the “sex at birth” of the person concerned, with the choice of male and female.

The next question asks, “What is this person’s gender? Refers to current gender which may be different from sex assigned at birth and may be different from what is indicated on legal documents.” People can then choose male, female, “or please specify this person’s gender.”

This small addition to the census now allows non-binary or transgender Canadians to be offically counted.

Another census change, of major importance to official-language minorities, is the series of questions pertaining to the constitutional right of parents to send their children to French or English school. Statistics Canada notes that “a gap has persisted for some time in providing accurate information on the number of children” who would be eligible.

Statistics Canada says it will produce three sets of numbers from the data collected, including “the maximum number of children eligible at the municipal level, the minimum number of children of rights-holders, including those currently registered in a minority school, and the estimated number and proportion of children whose parents intend to exercise their right to have them attend a minority language school.”

The data collected through these questions surely would be pure gold to minority-language school boards in Quebec or New Brunswick, for example, in planning how to accommodate growing or shrinking student populations.

The 2021 census also has new questions about military service, modes of transportation and employment experience, among others. Life was certainly harder back in the time of the first Canadian census – but a lot simpler.

Census day is May 11.

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Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

This statue of Jean Talon, the first intendant of New France is among many others on the facade of the National Assembly.

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