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Then And Now: A Fascinating Look At Census Taking In History

It's time to complete the 2016 census but why do we even do it in the first place? A look at census-taking in history
Person Taking Picture of Canada Flag with Digital Tablet Computer, Vintage Tone Retro Effect
stevanovicigor via Getty Images
Person Taking Picture of Canada Flag with Digital Tablet Computer, Vintage Tone Retro Effect

The Canadian census is back this year and that means we have to answer a bunch of questions that will describe the state of the country’s economy and its citizens. We know that it’s the law to complete the form and that we do it every five years, but when did we start doing and for what reasons?

History tells that the process has existed for millennia and that it was eventually brought to Canada by the French as a way to take stock of their new colony in 1666. In partnership with Statistics Canada, we take a look at the history of, well, counting people. But don’t be fooled, the process of enumeration is more exciting than it sounds -- it’s a time-honoured tradition that was and is essential to the success of a society.

An Age-Old Process Beginning In Babylon

The census has been around for millennia, with the first mention of it rooted in Babylon around 4000 BC. Babylonians used the census to determine how much food was needed for their population.

Han China

The Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) was one of the longest reigning dynasties in China. It’s also the era of the oldest surviving large-scale census in history. That census was taken in the fall of 2 AD and counted a total of 57,671,400 people.

The Domesday Book

The Domesday Book is England's oldest surviving public record and the most intensive survey ever conducted in the country until the 19th century. William the Conqueror became king in 1066 and needed to conduct a survey of his land and document what financial and military services were available to him after receiving threats of invasion from Denmark. The name of the document is a play on the biblical day of judgement, a time when God would judge the living and the dead. The name demonstrated the power William had and the important information he now owned.

The Incan Empire

The Inca civilization of ancient Peru didn’t have a written language but they noted census data in their own way. Using a quipu, a rope made from llama or alpaca hair census takers would make a certain number of knots on the rope indicating a numeric value. Some remote villages in Peru still use the quipu today.

New France

The French are responsible for bringing the modern census to Canada. The French government was interested in getting the new colony established and King Louis XIV sent Jean Talon to New France to organize the society and make sure it was self-sufficient. To do this, he needed reliable stats. Talon conducted the first census in 1666, recording settlers' names and collecting information on age, sex, marital status and occupation. 3,215 persons were enumerated by Jean Talon in Quebec City at that time.

Thirty-six censuses were conducted between that survey and one taken in 1739. After that, the British took over the census process in Canada. They set a cadence of census-taking and used population numbers to determine the number of representatives each province needed in the House of Commons.

The Modern Canadian Census

Every census in Canada was conducted in interview format until 1966. Enumerators would go door to door and record respondents’ answers on paper. In 1971, people began answering the questions themselves and in 2006 Canadians were allowed to complete their census over the internet for the first time.

It’s time to complete your 2016 Census. It’s simple, confidential and you are providing information that helps shape where you live. Complete your census online at

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