Planners, policy makers look forward to 2016 census kickoff Wednesday

Census 2016: experts, data geeks lick chops

OTTAWA — Michael Haan and his colleagues at Western University’s sociology department have a great teachable moment coming up this week.

On Wednesday, Statistics Canada will release the first batch of data from the 2016 census, an avalanche of detailed information that sociologists, demographers, urban planners and businesses watch every five years with a high degree of interest — and, admittedly, more than a little data-geek glee.

Haan, however, detects a degree of indifference in a surprising place: his own London, Ont., classroom.  

“I’m one of 15 faculty members here, and we all have our own students, and I would say that very few of them actually see the value of the census,” says Haan, whose department is steeped in demography training — a place one would expect an intimate, intricate portrait of Canada and its people to have a captive audience.

Maybe the census needs more social-media exposure, he muses. Or maybe students these days are seized by more pressing concerns — being able to find a job, or buy a home, for instance.

“They don’t understand or they don’t appreciate how important it is to have accurate population counts and information on population movements.”

Wednesday’s release, which will focus on population and dwellings, is only the first of seven data dumps to take place over the course of 2017. Others include age and sex in May; families, households and marital status in August; immigration and Aboriginal Peoples in October; and education, jobs and work patterns in November.

Wednesday’s release will detail the overall population as it stood on May 10, 2016; those regions where population levels or climbing and falling; and where new homes are being built. The data, from the mandatory short-form census, will be readily comparable to that from the 2011 short-form questionnaire, and will help form the foundation for decision-making across all levels of government.

“People may not realize how many decisions are being made that affect them directly where they live that is based on the census information we collect every five years,” said Marc Hamel, director of the census program at Statistics Canada.

“Things don’t appear by magic. Decision makers want information to make decisions, and we’re the ones providing it.”

Statistics Canada plans will meet with local officials and through liaison officers on reserves to explain how useful the data can be.

The population counts determine how much money Ottawa transfers to provinces and territories for services like health care — a frequent source of consternation. Provinces, in turn, use municipal counts to determine how much money to provide for programs like social services.

Demographers use the information to see how the country is changing. Multinationals like Starbucks and Tim Hortons use the data to decide where to place their next store.

Census information lets urban planners know where people are living so they can better plan for transit, roads, hospitals, schools and new residential units. Local land-use decisions like zoning bylaws are also based on census data.

“That data informs these plans and these policies,” said Eleanor Mohammed, president of the Canadian Institute of Planners.

“It tells us about how the growth in our communities is trending and then it help us determine, ‘OK, well, if we know the population is going to grow by this much, how many new facilities are we going to need? How do we have to change our programming in order to accomodate this?’

“It’s really important data for us to work with and it helps us build these plans from a rational perspective.”

Wednesday’s data likely won’t hold many surprises. Demographics change slowly and predictably over time.

The population is likely near the 36 million mark Statistics Canada predicted in its most recent annual forecast. Ontario, hard-hit in past years by a downturn in manufacturing, is expected to surpass 14 million people. Alberta, its red-hot energy sector a big draw in 2011, will likely still be the fastest-growing province, despite lower oil prices — a phenomenon whose full-blown effects won’t yet have been captured.

Look also for population spikes in some of Canada’s medium-sized cities — the Hamiltons, the Kelownas, the Guelphs — as the urbanization trend continues.

Another prominent storyline in the 2016 census will be the return of the mandatory long-form questionnaire, eliminated by the previous Conservative government for the 2011 edition and restored last year by the Liberals.

The voluntary nature of 2011’s National Household Survey led to concerns about data quality, given the smaller sample size — swaths of downtown Saint John, N.B., lacked poverty information, Haan recalls â€” and the fact recent immigrants and lower-income families were less likely to participate.

The newly mandatory long-form, which boasted one of the highest-ever response rates, will provide details later this year about immigration, the languages Canadians speak at home and at work, poverty levels and even those ever-longer commute times.

“The mandatory long-form census questionnaire provided regions and cities and communities with really valuable and reliable long-term information about the changing nature of the city and its neighbourhood that’s not available from any other source,” said David Gordon, an urban planning professor from Queen’s University.

Experts who use the long-form data are likely to just skip over the 2011 data point, seeing it as a blip in time, and draw a straight line between the long form census of 2006 and the questionnaire of 2016, he added.

And it all starts rolling out Wednesday — for those who are paying attention.

— Follow @jpress on Twitter

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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