June 20, 1996 * Vol . 6, No. 4

Profile: Ellen Gee

Making sense of the census

May 14 - the day Canadians were counted in the world's most accurate census - has come and gone. But Ellen Gee can't wait to crunch the numbers.

Despite controversy, short-comings and a $3.5 million price tag, the exercise is essential, according to the chair of sociology and anthropology at SFU and president of the Canadian Population Society, the scholarly association of anglophone demographers.

"We take a major census in years ending in '1,' and a kind of mini-census in years ending in '6,' with fewer questions," she notes. "Virtually every other year we argue about it.

"Quite simply, a census tells us how we're doing," she explains. "It provides the details necessary to create and evaluate social policy, legislation and programs which profoundly affect us all. But for researchers like me, the data are also the stuff from which discoveries are made and myths, broken."

She thinks the controversy over the decision to include race in the recent census could have been avoided by asking - as on federal equity legislation - "Do you consider yourself a member of a visible minority?"

Census backlash is a universal consideration. In Western Europe anti-census groups instruct others on how to best sabotage results.

A question on gay/lesbian living arrangements was ruled out prior to the '91 census despite pressure from lobby groups. Pilot tests showed that such enumeration would risk alienating large numbers of the population. So Canada is not as well-informed about its homosexual population.

Pressure groups concerned with the decline of the traditional family fight steps to collect data on the myriad arrangements which constitute the modern family. So there is only one real category - the census family. More could be learned about step-families, or the impact of divorce, for example.

"It will take tremendous political will to improve our census," she says. "However the U.S. still won't even ask about common law marriage."

Gee's own research illustrates what can be sifted from raw census data - valuable nuggets of information picked from the blur of contemporary life - on topics such as marriage, fertility and increasingly important patterns of aging.

For example, the '91 census showed a trend that more people in their 20s were living in their parent's home.

"The literature categorized the phenomena as filled with conflict," recalls Gee, who researched cluttered nests and boomerang kids with SFU sociologist Barbara Mitchell, in 1995.

"In our study, only about one-quarter of those surveyed said they were 'less than very satisfied,'" she notes. "Economic recession and other factors were fueling the increase but, contrary to popular opinion, for a majority of families surveyed, the living arrangement was working well."

The world's first census was conducted in Quebec (New France) in 1666 and Canada is acknowledged as the international leader in accuracy of data and frequency of census-taking, she reports.

Although essentially a mail-in since 1976, the recent census recruited 50,000 workers for face-to face enumeration, to include those who speak neither English nor French and the homeless.

The intention is to be as accurate as possible and avoid situations such as in the U.S., which failed to correctly count those who live in the inner core of cities, with devastating results.

"Because of our system of transfer payments, governments want every head counted," says Gee. "So the census is here to stay.

"As a bona fide researcher, I can assure people that Statistics Canada takes confidentiality very seriously," she says. It's always in everyone's best interest to fill out the form."

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