The United States and Canada each conduct a national census every 10 years for the purpose of gaining reliable statistics on their evolving populations. These statistics are used to produce a variety of official population studies and are made available to government agencies, scholars, businesses, health care officials, and others interested in better understanding population composition in order to provide governmental, social, or commercial services. The statistics are particularly relevant to the formulation of government immigration policies and to the development of social services for immigrants, who are likely to be in greater need of those services than the general population is. The most recent census taken in the United States was in March 2000, and in Canada, in May 2001. In both countries, it is illegal for anyone associated with census taking to reveal information about individuals.
United States Census
The first U.S. national census was taken in 1790, as mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, for the purpose of apportioning representation to the various states. As the country grew and became more complex, new categories were added to the census. In 1850, questions were first included on a wide array of social issues, including “place of birth.” In 1850, the foreign-born population was 9.7 percent. During peak years of immigration (1860–1920), it fluctuated between 13 and 15 percent of the population. In 1970, due to restrictive policies, the foreign-born population reached an all-time low at 4.7 percent. The unexpected and rapid increase in the new immigration from Asia and Latin America since 1970 steadily drove the percentage higher. In 2000, the 28.4 million foreign-born Americans represented 10.4 percent of the total population. Data on Americans born outside the United States are generally comparable between 1850 and 2000, though there are certain inherent weaknesses and refinements that must be taken into account. For instance, in 1890, children born in foreign countries who had an American citizen as a parent began to be counted as “native” rather than “foreign born.” Also, evolving political boundaries, particularly in Europe, have made it difficult to know the exact ethnicity of many immigrants, or the modern country to which one might assign one’s ancestry.
The first Canadian national census, provided for under Section 8 of the Constitution Act (British North America Act) of 1867, was taken in 1871, primarily to apportion parliamentary representation. From the first census, ancestral origins were recorded. In 1881, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island were added to the four original provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario. New questions relating to religion, birthplace, citizenship, and period of immigration were added in 1901. The census was initially the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and then the Ministry of Trade and Commerce (1912) before the Dominion Bureau of Statistics was created in 1918. In order to mark economic development, the Bureau of Statistics introduced a simplified quinquennial (every five years) census in 1956. In 1971, respondents were asked to complete their own census questionnaire for the first time, and the Dominion Bureau of Statistics was renamed Statistics Canada. See also racial and ethnic categories.