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May 18, 2016
Sacha Sewhdat

When Context staff filled out the 2016 long-form census, they noticed that it does not contain any questions about religion.  We reached out to Statistics Canada to find out why. Spokesperson Hélène Maheux cleared up our confusion.

Sacha@CONTEXT: What is the reasoning behind gathering religious diversity statistics every 10 years?

Hélène Maheux: A question on religion is not included in the 2016 Census.  It has only been asked every 10 years since 1871. It plays a role in understanding the nature and evolution of Canada’s religious diversity.

Sacha@CONTEXT: What purpose does gathering religious data serve?

Hélène Maheux: Data on religious affiliation contributes to the measurement of diversity in Canada and is used in combination with other characteristics to trace changes in Canadian society. It is used by organizations such as religious congregations, government departments, school boards, researchers and non-profit organizations to assist in activities such as planning infrastructures like religious buildings, schools or programs to ethno-religious clients. Federal and provincial human rights legislation also depends on this information to protect Canadians from discrimination based on religious beliefs.

Sacha@CONTEXT: Is gathering this data every 10 years enough with so many different groups arriving annually?  

Hélène Maheux: Before each census, Statistics Canada consults with major users groups - user consultation is a key element of the content determination process. During consultation, users have expressed a strong desire to maintain stability and continuity in the content, such that major trends can be measured over time.

In addition to consultations with major users of census data, factors used to help decide whether to include, or not include, a specific question on the census include: support to legislation, program and policy needs, respondent burden, data quality, costs, historical comparability, privacy, operational considerations and existence of alternative data sources.

When making final recommendations to cabinet for the content for a specific census, Statistics Canada weighs the benefits of collecting information from a particular question versus the costs.  In the case of the question on religion, after a careful consideration of these benefits and costs, the decision has been made to continue to ask the question every 10 years - it will next be considered for inclusion in the 2021 Census.

Sacha@CONTEXT: Wouldn’t a greater understanding of the religious breakdowns help to also determine allocation of certain community resources?

Hélène Maheux: Since 1991, Statistics Canada use an open-ended format to ask the religion question in the census.  The religion question asks respondents to indicate a specific denomination or religion even if the person is not currently a practising member of that group. Respondents can write the name of a denomination or religious affiliation that best applied to them or they can choose to mark the circle for 'No religion'. 

Data from the religion question are used to derive summary and detailed variables which provide a religious portrait of the population living in Canada.  The 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) includes data for more than 90 religions reported by people living in Canada.

For more information, you can consult these NHS Data products on our website:

2011 NHS Profile: presents religious affiliation and other characteristics from the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) for various levels of geography. 

2011 NHS Focus on Geography Series: Focusing on a selected geographic area, this product presents data highlights for each of the major releases of the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS). The religion data are included under the “Immigration and ethnocultural diversity” and are presented through text and tables.

2011 NHS Tabulations: Religion (108), Immigrant Status and Period of Immigration (11), Age Groups (10) and Sex (3) for the Population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2011 National Household Survey  (99-010-X2011032) Religion (19), Age Groups (10), Sex (3), Selected Demographic, Cultural, Labour Force and Educational Characteristics (268) for the Population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2011 National Household Survey  (99-010-X2011037)

The detailed religion classification in the 2011 NHS is also available in the National Household Survey Dictionary, Catalogue no. 99-000-X.

What have we learned from religious diversity statistics?  Find out tomorrow on Q and A Thursday with Dr. Paul Reed, researcher and professor (ret.) and former Executive Director of Social Research at Statistics Canada.


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