StatsCan undertakes hiring spree ahead of 'contact-free' census

·4 min read

Canada's national statistical agency is hiring tens of thousands of employees as it prepares for the challenge of conducting a physically-distanced census during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a press release published this week, Statistics Canada said it's overhauling its canvassing practices and looking to bring on 32,000 field staff to survey the Canadian population this spring.

StatsCan said it is striving for a "contact-free" census, with agency staff collecting the necessary information without coming into face-to-face contact with the public.

The census collects demographic information on every person living in Canada. The data is then used by governments, businesses, associations, community organizations and others to make evidence-based decisions at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.

This year will mark the first time the agency has ever conducted a census in the middle of a public health emergency.

"More than ever, these data are necessary," said Geoff Bowlby, director general of the 2021 census. "If you look at the current pandemic, the census data have been instrumental in determining how we should respond to the pandemic."

As examples, Bowlby cited public health authorities using census data to learn which neighbourhoods are most vulnerable to COVID-19, and the federal government using population data to calculate the equitable distribution of vaccine doses.

Online if possible, in-person only if necessary

Bowlby said StatsCan said will do everything it can to keep respondents and census employees safe while conducting this year's census.

Residents will be encouraged to complete the short-form and long-form surveys on paper, online or by phone. In-person interviews and door-to-door canvassing will be conducted only in rare circumstances where those methods are unsuccessful or unavailable.

Over 68 per cent of respondents completed their census survey online during the last census in 2016. The agency said at the time it was the most successful in its history, with a total of 98.4 per cent of Canadian households responding.

This year, the agency has set a target of 80 per cent online responses.

In the event that an in-person visit is deemed necessary, no interview will be done inside a private home. Interviewers will be required to wear masks, carry hand sanitizer and maintain physical distancing from those they are surveying.

Bowlby said the agency is looking to hire a record number of local enumerators to survey people in remote, northern and First Nations communities. In previous years, those communities were surveyed using a traditional canvassing method which saw census employees administer questionnaires inside people's homes.

Over 600 staff who already have been hired received learning materials by mail or did their training via video conference, the agency said.

Balancing risk with need for quality data

Wayne Smith, Canada's chief statistician from 2010 to 2016, said a certain level of in-person contact will be necessary to engage hard-to-reach people, including those who live in areas without reliable, high-speed internet. Otherwise, the quality of the data could be compromised by a low response rate.

"To say that it's going to be a revolution in comparison to what's been done before — I would be very surprised," said Smith. "Boots on the ground in the North and on reserves and in remote areas is still part of the package."

Smith said the agency will have to convince Canadians of the importance of conducting the census during a pandemic before they send out the surveys — or run the risk of creating a public relations problem that could discourage people from completing it.

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Michel Frojmovic, community data program lead at the Canadian Community Economic Development Network, said information gathered from the census is absolutely necessary for municipal and community organizations. He said the risk of conducting the census during the pandemic is justified.

"To find data in Canada that's consistent and credible and comparable and available over time is rare and divine," said Frojmovic. "One of the only sources of that data would be the census."

Frojmovic said he is convinced StatsCan can pull it off.

"If they do COVID safety as good as they do data security, then we're in good shape," he said.