A Primer on Mapping the Census of Population: Who, What, Where?

(Disponible en français : Le point sur la cartographie du Recensement de la population : Qui, quoi, où?)

About the Census of Population

As a requirement of the Statistics Act, Statistics Canada conducts a census of population every five years in the years that end in ‘1’ and ‘6’, and a census of agriculture every ten years. Data are collected using both short forms and long forms.

Long forms are sent to a sample of 25% of Canadian households asking questions related to daily activities, place of birth, labour and socio-cultural information, while short forms are sent to other households to collect basic demographic information related to age, sex, household members and language.  According to the Income Reference Guide, 2016 marked the first time income information was gathered solely through administrative data like tax and benefits records..

It is important to note that information collected is anonymized. Information contained in the returns is not to be disclosed until 92 years after the census is taken for the census of population between 1910 and 2005 or in or after 2021.

Census data are disseminated by two types of geographic areas: administrative and statistical. Most administrative areas like provinces, territories, and federal electoral districts, are defined by federal, provincial and territorial statutes. Administrative areas also include census divisions (c.f. aggregated neighbouring municipalities) and census subdivisions (municipalities such as individual cities, communities, parishes, villages, etc.).

Statistical areas are defined by Statistics Canada and include economic regions, agricultural regions, census tracts and dissemination areas (areas that contain between 400-700 people counted at the previous census and composed of even smaller dissemination blocks).These can facilitate comparing data between populated places, urban and rural areas or between geographic areas.

Whereas all censuses of population data are published for larger geographic regions, only population and dwelling counts are published for dissemination blocks.

Interactive Map: Census geography – there lies the data
(Click in the map and on the arrows for more information)

Click here for map description

Map prepared by Library of Parliament, 2020, using data from Natural Resources Canada, Canada Base Map – Transportation Service, CBMT3978; Statistics Canada. 2016 Census of Canada. Census Profile Tables. Using CHASS (accessed 26 October 2017) and Statistics Canada. 2016 Census – Boundary files. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2016. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1. Contains information licensed under Statistics Canada Open Licence Agreement.

Most census regions are organized according to a hierarchy so that smaller regions can be nested within the boundaries of larger ones, allowing for consistency across scale. Dissemination Areas, for example, are grouped together to form larger census subdivisions.

Why map census data?

Exploring census data at national, provincial or municipal levels can answer a number of questions regarding a population’s age, gender as well as ethnic, racial and socio-economic diversity. For instance, how many people speak a certain language, have migrated for employment, spent a large portion of income on housing, or live in households with few or many children?

It can be challenging, however, to communicate patterns for multiple geographic regions using a table. By mapping that data, one can contextualize it by location and explore where and how values change at different levels of geography (or scale). Maps can even reveal patterns.

The percentage of the total population who are 65 years of age and older, for instance, will appear different when aggregated to the provincial level than at other, more detailed levels of geography.

Interactive Map: Percent of total population 65 and over at multiple levels of geography
(Click in the map and on the arrows for more information)

Click here for map description

Map prepared by Library of Parliament, 2020, using data from Natural Resources Canada, Canada Base Map – Transportation Service, CBMT3978; Statistics Canada. 2016 Census of Canada. Census Profile Tables. Using CHASS (accessed 26 October 2017) and Statistics Canada. 2016 Census – Boundary files. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2016. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1. Contains information licensed under Statistics Canada Open Licence Agreement.

Who uses the census?

Federal, provincial and municipal governments, businesses, universities, non-profit groups, media, think tanks and many other organizations use census data. The Government of Canada uses census data to produce population estimates that inform the allocation of funds to provincial and territorial governments related to health, social and equalization support.

Census data provides the building blocks to calculate demographic trends (age, education, employment, gender ratio, immigration, language, income and others), and estimate future demands on child tax benefits, pensions and other support programs.

While data patterns also allow observers to identify areas that need more detailed research, researchers exercise caution when making inferences about individuals from data grouped to an area.

Census data released to the public

Statistics Canada releases several types of data to the public:

Publicly available resources using population and dwelling counts include:

  • data tables and census profiles;
  • analytical products such as the ‘The Daily’ news and latest data releases, infographics, and videos;
  • reference dictionary and reference guides; and
  • geographic products such as spatial layers (boundary files) at various levels of geography; roads and rivers; thematic maps and guides.

Resources available by subscription or purchase include:

  • microdata files including data derived from surveys on health, the environment, travel etc.;
  • custom tabulations that link data between variables at the micro data level that do not appear in publicly available tables; and
  • custom maps.

Further reading:

Statistics Canada 2016 Census of Population:

Lord, F. Legislative Summary of Bill C-36: An Act to amend the Statistics Act

Peters, A. and Macdonald, H. Unlocking the Census with GIS, ESRI Press; Redlands, California, 2004.

Author: Mélanie Zahab, Library of Parliament

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