Guest curator J. Andrew Ross

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

A page for Joliette, Quebec, from the first Census of Canada, 1871

Can you find the entry for Adolphe Perrault? Times change: Perrault made his living as a voyageur! As time passed, census data would feed social policy. Many programs by which Canadians define themselves are the result.

Tell us about yourself

Before I came to LAC, I was a post-doctoral fellow on the People in Motion research project at the University of Guelph. Our goal was to develop an algorithm linking the 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 Canadian censuses together, to create a database of thousands of records that researchers could use to explore important questions about post-Confederation Canadian society, including health transitions, occupational changes and migration mobility. In the course of my own research, I became interested in changes that show how Canadians have viewed themselves over time.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

Ever since Intendant Jean Talon ordered the first census of the European population of New France in 1665–1666, the precursors to modern-day Canada were keen on learning about the demographic, social and economic aspects of their populations. LAC is the repository for many of the surviving documents of these censuses, including a near-complete collection on microfilm of the handwritten forms filled out by the individual enumerators (census takers) who went door to door in 1871 collecting information for the first census after Confederation.

Enumerators were required to complete up to nine schedules (forms), which covered population characteristics, deaths, economic activities and the like. What made the Canadian census unique was a question on Schedule No. 1 (Nominal Return on the Living) that asked for information on a person’s “origins,” an important issue in a country with four different provinces, a wide variety of cultures, and political tension between two major linguistic groups.

What was meant by “origin”? The manual containing the instructions to enumerators did not provide much detail, except by example: “Origin is to be scrupulously entered, as given by the person questioned . . . by the words English, Irish, Scotch, African, Indian, German, French, and so forth.” With a few exceptions (“Indian,” “Half-Breed,” “Hindoo” and “Jewish”), the answers corresponded with countries of origin rather than culture per se.

Ironically, for the first national census the answer “Canadian” was not an option because the designers wanted clear lines drawn between English and French, and other groups. Allowing “Canadian” might reduce the size of one group or another, with worrisome consequences for both political representation and cultural pride.

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition

This clever cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News issue of May 6, 1871, which LAC holds in its collection, shows how the question about origins might produce a rather humorous conversation:

Enumerator. – “What origin, Ma’am?”

Lady. – “Canadian, of course!”

Enumerator. – “But you know we don’t take down Canadian origin.”

Lady. – “Well, then! follow Darwin’s theory, and enter us as descended from apes!”

A black-and-white cartoon of a census enumerator speaking to a woman sitting at a desk.

Cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News (AMICUS 133120) depicting a potential conversation about the first census (image from page 288, Canadian Illustrated News of May 6, 1871, e011180501)

Not only a fine joke, but also an astute observation. What was a person’s origin anyway? How far back should one go? If birthplace was not considered (it was recorded separately), then was it the father’s cultural heritage, or the mother’s? And why couldn’t people whose families might have been resident for centuries be considered “census Canadians”?

According to the guidelines, while the enumerator in the cartoon could have been justified in entering “primate,” in practice the enumerator entries were all checked before counting and changed if they were determined to be inappropriate. In this way, thousands of self-described “Canadians” (and also “Americans”) were reassigned to another origin, usually based on their surname, and when the origin totals were published in the fall of 1871, “Canadian” was not a category.

Over the 20th century, a sense developed that origin should be less about the national ancestry of a person and more about the person’s cultural background: what eventually came to be called “ethnicity.” With this understanding, the origin questions in 20th-century censuses came to rely on the ethnicity of the person’s first paternal ancestor who came to Canada.

This did not suit some people, such as the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, John George Diefenbaker, who was proud of his “mixed” ethnic heritage and even more proud of not admitting it to an enumerator. In his memoirs, he wrote (please feel free to wiggle your jowls as you read this):

“I have never registered as requested in any census. I am a Canadian, and I register as a Canadian. When I was Prime Minister, I made certain that the 1961 Canadian census contained the question ‘Are you a Canadian?’ Although the change was disapproved by the Liberal and bureaucratic establishments, and in consequence discontinued after I left office, hundreds of thousands of Canadians answered this question, ‘Yes,’ and with ringing pride.”

Diefenbaker’s “Are you a Canadian?” did not replace the origins question, which continued to be asked, but it may have led to the 1971 official change in policy—100 years after the first census—that finally allowed people to answer “Canadian” (and allowed the enumerator to record that answer and not have it changed). Only 71,000 chose to do so in that year, but the attitude trend accelerated over the next 40 years; by 2011, over 10 million were answering “Canadian,” sometimes in combination with other origins, but for almost 6 million, exclusively. In 2016, the question was, “What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person’s ancestors?” We will soon see how many people now want to be counted as “census Canadians.”


A colour photograph of a man standing in front of a white board with his arms crossed and smiling at the photographer.

J. Andrew Ross is an archivist in the Government Records Branch of LAC.

2 thoughts on “Guest curator J. Andrew Ross

  1. Loved this article, and as a genealogist, it is a valuable help when looking at our census records. Thank you.

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