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Using Census Data

publication date: Jun 28, 2018
author/source: Paul Laffin

The Canadian Census takes place every 5 years. Census is filled with rich data for a very low geography which means you can get a lot of information easily for a very small place. The target population for the Canadian census are Canadian citizens and landed immigrants. 


There are many different versions of the census. The separate versions make sure that all Canadians get counted. One version takes into account people who live abroad like Justin Bieber. There is also a version for collective dwellings like retirement homes. To help accuracy, census forms are in multiple languages including non-official languages. 

It is worth noting that 1/3 of households get the long form census and over 60% of Canadians complete the census. It is also important to know that Statistics Canada is prohibited by law from releasing any information it collects which could identify any person or business. In fact, Statistics Canada employees take a secrecy oath for life. This means even when an employee leaves Stats Canada, they are still bound by the secrecy oath.

Because the census gathers so much information, there are times when you will look at a particular area and will see a "0." Sometimes there is data for that area, but the group is so small that the cell will be suppressed if the number of records is less than 4. So, when there are less than four records, the cell will appear at "0." Also, if the number of people in a geographic area who fit a certain set of criteria falls below 40, that is also suppressed.

Interestingly, to ensure even more privacy for high earning individuals, the bar is even higher to income data. For high income people, the data threshold is 250 before data is visible.  

Census geography 

When Statistics Canada creates statistical data they will consult with the cities in developing the boundaries. For example, all data is either administrative or geographical.  There are census subdivisions by geography. There are borders even for crown land. Usually these are municipalities. 

A preferred size of a census tract is 5000 people. In Toronto that size gets filled up quickly. Stats Canada tries to keep census tracks stable so that it is easy to compare data over the years.

Another subsection for census data is a dissemination area. A dissemination area is 400 to 700 people. This is the smallest standard geography for a standard geographic area. This is very rich data. Importantly, Postal data is administrative and is proprietary to Canada Post.


There are a number of ways to describe data geographically. These include reference maps, boundary files. A universe refers to the unit being counted. So, a population universe refers to persons and individuals. An example of a population universe is the average age and sex for population of Canada. You can't always mix a population universe and dwelling universe. 

A household refers to people who live in a dwelling. This can be a family group or two families in one unit or a group of unrelated persons in a household. There are two types of families for census purposes. The two types are census families and economic families.


There is a lot of rich data available in the census. You have to use your brain to understand the data. You could use data for profiles for geographic district. You could find specific groups of people within a set area. For example, you can look into target group profile. You could use census data to identify which languages to offer in a community. Bear in mind that gathering data by postal code is proprietary for Canada Post. Toronto has a postal code translation file. 

Editor's note - Any errors in this article are the fault of the editor. All wisdom is thanks to the speaker.

Paul Laffin is a consulting analyst for Statistics Canada. He has over 20 years of Project Management, Marketing & Customer Service experience He has redesigned and delivered Research @ workshops in Toronto and Ottawa for 10- 15 external clients per session.

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