StatsCan expects in-person visits for 2021 census only in ‘rare circumstances’

The pandemic has made more people comfortable using the internet than ever before, says the director general for Statistics Canada’s 2021 census.

The data agency is hoping this will lead to as many people as possible filling out the 2021 census online when it begins May 3.

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For the first time, the data agency will be offering the online option to every community this year, saying it is the safest and easiest method.

Statistics Canada had earlier considered delaying the census until 2022, due to public health concerns related to the pandemic, but ultimately decided to go ahead.

There will be a wide range of different COVID-19 safety protocols in place for its army of 32,000 census enumerators should they need to show up to a dwelling in person.

The agency believes that person-to-person visits will only take place in “rare circumstances,” said Geoff Bowlby, director general for the 2021 census program, in an interview.

One reason is because internet connectivity has strengthened across the country since the last census in 2016, he said.

“Because of the pandemic, over the last year, we believe that lots of people are more comfortable using the internet than ever before,” said Bowlby. “You know, my parents order things online that they never would have a year ago.”

Residents can expect to receive a letter in the mail, or dropped off by a Statistics Canada employee, in about a month that will include an online access code and instructions on how to fill out the census online.

There will also be an option to call a 1-800 number to order paper-based census forms, for those who are not comfortable with the online option.

“We are hoping that more Canadians than ever take us up on this offer, doing the census online, because it is the safest, it is the easiest way to do things,” said Bowlby.

“It’s the best from our perspective — we can process the data a little easier than when it comes in on a paper form, for example. There are less steps for us, so in a way, it’s good for the taxpayer.”

The agency expects nine out of 10 dwellings to have responded, either online or in paper form, to the census by the end of May.

There could be up to two more followup letters sent out to remind people to fill out the census during this period.

In June, Statistics Canada plans to begin following up with people, first with an attempt to phone them if they have a phone number, and then by showing up at the door.

All 32,000 enumerators will be provided with masks that they will be instructed to wear, as well as hand sanitizer, and training on how to carry out a door visit safely, said Bowlby.

That includes conducting interviews, if they take place, outdoors and socially distanced — enumerators will not be permitted to enter dwellings, as they may have done in the past.

The census is used to make evidence-based decisions about the needs of communities across Canada, such as where housing, schools, hospitals, mass transit or emergency services are needed most.

It also leads to a political process called redistribution, where seats in the House of Commons are recalculated and boundaries for federal electoral districts, or ridings, are adjusted in accordance with the census results.

This year, the census is seen as especially important for policymakers to get a good read of the state of the country when planning for a post-pandemic recovery.

Statistics Canada is aware that Canadians might be more confused this year about how to answer certain questions on the census, as a result of the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

For example, an answer to “place of work” might be harder to figure out for people who have opted to work from home, but whose workplaces technically stayed open.

“Statistics Canada is aware that COVID-19 may have an impact on the way Canadians answer some of the census questions, including those on employment, education, commuting and expenditures,” the agency says on its website.

Bowlby said the agency will have guidelines to help people answer the questions that will be available when filling out the census.

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