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The Challenge of Tracking Canadian Demographic Change

An Early Look at the Voluntary National Household Survey DOUGLAS NORRIS*

Abstract: This article reviews the Canadian Census program prior to the recent changes, noting some of the major trends identified by those surveys. It then focuses on changes to the Census—particularly the introduction of a voluntary National Housing Survey to replace the Census “long form”—and their impact on the data available to retailers and other users going forward.

Introduction From a demographic standpoint, Canada is currently

undergoing some dramatic changes that present unique challenges for retailers looking to understand how their client bases are shifting within designated trade areas. Historically, these trends have been identified using the data collected by Statistics Canada during the national Census. For decades, these data have been the gold standard, providing consistent and comprehensive data at the neighborhood level which are vital to retailers conducting retail trade-area analyses. In the most recent Census, however, a major change

occurred in the way the data were collected. This change has had a considerable impact on the amount and quality of statistics that will be available to retail users. Ultimately, this loss of quality data may lead to an inefficient allocation of resources by the private sector and lost economic development opportunities.

The Canadian Census Pre-20111 The comprehensive census that Canada has conducted

every five years is similar in content to the U.S. decennial census prior to 2010. The Canadian Census was carried out in two parts. The first part, otherwise known as the “short-form” Census questionnaire, covered basic demographic information on the age, sex, marital status and household and family structure of the population. These questions were asked of all Canadians. Response to the short-form Census was mandatory and elicited a response rate of about 97% in 2006.

Although the overall response rate was very high, there

were in fact differential response rates by geographic area and for various demographic groups. For example, Statistics Canada estimated that close to 10% of males aged 20 to 34 years were undercounted in the 2006 census.2 The second part of the Census, referred to as the

“long-form” Census questionnaire, covered various other topics and included many questions on immigration and other indicators of cultural diversity, education, labor market, income and housing characteristics. Completion of this form, which was administered to a random sample of 20% of households, was also mandatory. It is estimated that response rate to the 2006 Census long form was approximately 94%. Again, on the long form, there were some differential

non-response rates with lower levels of response for groups such as the Aboriginal population, recent immigrants and renters. Overall, the 2006 Census, as with earlier censuses,

provided consistent and comprehensive data for all areas of the country. In Canada, the smallest geographic areas for which census data are produced are so-called dissemination areas (DAs) that are roughly the equivalent of block groups in the U.S. Census. In Canada, there are approximately 55,000 DAs or neighborhoods with an average size of approximately 600 people. The data for these DAs are used as the basis for profiling the population of trade areas.3 Data at this level are also the basis for developing segmentation systems such as the

*Senior Vice President and Chief Demographer, Environics Analytics 1 From 1981 to 2011, the Canadian Census was conducted every five years. Between 1951 and 1981, the comprehensive Census was conducted

every 10 years with a more limited Census every five years. Prior to 1951, the Census was conducted every 10 years. 2 Statistics Canada, 2006 Census Technical Report: Coverage. 3 Trade areas are not necessarily aggregates of dissemination areas, but various techniques are used to allocate those populations to trade areas.


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