On Monday, the first mandatory long-form census in a decade will be sent out to Canadians, marking a tradition of data collection dating back more than three centuries.

This year, three out of every four households will receive a short, compulsory questionnaire, while one in four will have to fill out a longer form of about 50 questions.

One thing Canadians won’t have to do in 2016, though, is answer any questions about their income.

Marc Hamel, director general of the census program, said for the first time this year, the government will get that data directly from the Canada Revenue Agency.

Hamel said this method will save people from restating information recently given on their taxes while also providing a more accurate assessment of personal revenues.

“We anticipate that it’s going to be the highest quality income data that we’ve ever had on the census,” Hamel said.

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The modern census

Recent censuses have comprised a short-form and a long-form component, the latter of which is sent out to fewer households.

The last census, conducted in 2011, did away with the mandatory long form, instead replacing it with a voluntary National Household Survey.

Though the voluntary form was sent out to more people, and actually received a greater overall number of responses, the response rate of 69 per cent – compared to 94 per cent in 2006 – presented some challenges in terms of data quality on smaller scales.

For example, due to “unacceptably low response rates,” Statistics Canada didn’t publish community-level data for approximately 1,100 communities in 2011, compared to fewer than 160 communities in 2006.

This year, the census will return to the 2006 format, and will increase the number of households receiving the long-form survey from 20 per cent to 25 per cent.

“To have as realistic a portrait as possible, we need the large response rate,” Hamel said. “We need everybody to be represented.”

Cheaper than 2011

This year’s census will also be less expensive than it was in 2011 by about $3 per household.

Despite inflation and an increasing population – Hamel estimates about a million more households will be surveyed this year – the advent of internet responses among other things has helped drive down costs.

“StatCan is working very hard at introducing efficiencies,” Hamel said. “We’re hoping for a higher rate of response by internet, so 65 per cent or more.”

In 2006, when Canadians were first allowed to respond online, fewer than 20 per cent of people used the internet to fill out their census. That number jumped to 54 per cent in 2011.

2016 Census graphic

What is it good for?

Hamel said census data affects all Canadians on an almost daily basis. Data about how people get to work, for example, is used to plan new roads and bridges. The census can also identify things like a mismatch between education and the types of jobs people are working in order to introduce new programs.

“I call it the family picture,” he said. “You can see how the family is evolving every five years.”

And the country could look a bit different this year, Hamel said. For example, Alberta’s once-booming economy meant many were heading out West for work a few years ago.

“Now it’s going to be interesting to see if we see some changes based on the current situation,” he said. “Are workers returning to the provinces they came from?”

Overall, the mandatory long-form survey will provide a comprehensive look at each community across the country, Hamel said, allowing for good quality information.

“And if you have the right information, presumably decision-makers will make the right decisions.”