About Census Information

Use the census data with caution!

Census information can be useful to the researcher for historical, genealogical or biographical study. Despite the clear value of the census material in historical research, qualifications should be registered.

Census records are documents created by enumerators who sometimes made errors either knowingly or unwittingly. Other errors may result from faulty transcription or inability to read enumerator's handwriting.

Some persons may not have been aware of their exact age and some enumerators estimated to the nearest five years, especially when dealing with Native people.

Estimates of population are similarly open to question. The nineteenth century census materials likely underestimate the total population. Results may be unreliable where people are highly mobile or unwilling to be enumerated, or where enumerators were required to travel long distances. This would apply, in particular, to records of Native peoples; if the census was taken during a period when individuals were not at their regular residence (perhaps as a result of seasonal migration), individuals or even whole communities may not have been included in the census. Groups of people such as the poor, transient workers, fluid populations and ethnic minorities are often under-enumerated compared to people in the middle class or the social and economic elite.

In the religion field results should also be treated with caution. For instance, if a Native person was married to a non-Native, he or she was usually assigned the religion of the spouse. The researcher must also consider the context or purpose of the census being taken and the identity of the enumerator--a census enumerated by a missionary might overestimate the extent of religiosity among census subjects.

Problems are also apparent with the concept of occupational status. In the 1881 and the 1891 Canada Censuses, for example, enumerators often left the occupation column blank, particularly in the case of women, even though they may well have been working as operators of farms, fishers, or other occupations. In addition, it is probable that the enumerators did not have an understanding of Native economies and could not relate Indian labour to occupation categories clearly descended from the European experience.

Enumerators also had difficulty rendering Native people's names in English and for this reason individuals may be referred to using different spelling in different censuses. Names present other problems for the researcher. A Native person may be identified by a Native name in the 1881 Canada census, by a Christian name in the 1891 Canada Census, and by taking their father's Christian name as a surname in the 1901 Canada census.


The census project is the responsibility of numerous individuals: John Belshaw of the University College of the Cariboo directed students Sherri Thom and Jeremy Willis to enter the data for the 1881 and much of the 1891 Canada Censuses, Duane Thomson of Okanagan University College provided the general direction for student Erin Smith who entered the remaining data for the 1891 Canada Census and the IRC and OMI censuses, for Jeff Van Dyk who designed the name Search and Browse tools and some html pages, and for Sarah Purdy who researched the background of the censuses. Dr. Alan Paeth, of Okanagan University College Faculty of Computer Science, with Dr. Duane Thomson, designed the Apply Filters search engine and related tool.


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