Dr. Doug Norris

Dr. Doug Norris

One of Canada’s leading experts on the Census, Doug Norris, Ph.D., is a senior vice president and chief demographer at Environics Analytics. He joined EA in 2006 after nearly 30 years with Statistics Canada, where he served as director general of social and demographic statistics.

Q: As a true statistics and demographics “geek,” what is your response to the return of the long-form census?

A: I am certainly very happy about the return of the mandatory long-form census. The quality of data from the voluntary National Household Survey was problematic at the neighbourhood or small area level, and those are the data that are essential for businesses and many social programs. In addition to the reinstatement of the long-form, two other changes for the 2016 Census are noteworthy. First, the sample for the long-form will be 25% of households, larger than the 20% sample used in 2006 and earlier censuses. Second, in order to reduce the burden on Canadians and to improve the quality of the income data, the 2016 Census will not ask questions about income but rather use information reported to the Canada Revenue Agency on tax returns. Moreover, the income information will be obtained for all respondents and not just those responding to the long-form, as previously was the case. This will be a major improvement in the quality of the income data.

Q: Why does the return matter to direct marketers?

In order to do efficient and effective marketing, direct marketers require small area data in order to target populations of interest. As I indicated, the quality of the 2011 NHS small area data was reduced due to the voluntary nature of the survey that yielded a response rate of only 68% and resulted in response bias. The reinstatement of a mandatory long-form census—together with a larger sample and much better income data—will allow direct marketers to do a better job at targeting. This year will be the first time income data will be based on the total population rather than just the long-form sample, and this should allow for better targeting at the small area or neighbourhood level.

Q: You have not been resting on your laurels in the 10 years since the last long-form census. I wonder, are there demographic trends that you have identified through alternative sources of information that may have largely gone unnoticed by the general population but which you suspect will come to light when the results of the census are made available?

The 2016 Census will update major trends in population growth, the aging population and increased cultural diversity. One of the trends we have been following over the past few years is the development of the downtown areas of our large cities, mainly due the construction of condos. It will be interesting to see how the population of downtown areas is changing. Some local reports point to overcrowding in some schools and this news suggests young families may be an emerging target group in downtown areas. A second trend we have been following is the spreading out of immigrants to non-traditional immigrant areas such as Manitoba, Saskatchewan and even the Atlantic region. It will be interesting to see if immigrants who originally settled in these areas have remained there and how the newcomers are changing the cultural diversity of urban areas other than Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Q: What key pieces of information cannot be gleaned from sources other than a long-form census and that you are therefore most eager for the 2016 Census to reveal? 

A: The main purpose of the census is to provide accurate and comparable data for all parts of the country, both large and small communities. In addition, it provides data on detailed population subgroups such as the Aboriginal population, immigrants by country of birth, specific industries and occupations or specific fields of study. Although Canada is the fastest growing country in the G-8, population growth varies widely across Canada and many parts of rural and small-town Canada are in fact experiencing population declines. The 2016 Census will help us understand how these areas are faring. The census also will provide a valuable source on providing a detailed look at how various generations are doing. Today, marketers are particularly interested in the young Millennial generation that will be 18 to 35 years old at Census time. Have they left the family nest? To what extent are the older Millennials purchasing homes versus renting? How are they faring in the labour market? The Boomers will no doubt also be of interest as the oldest Boomers turn 70 in 2016. Have they decided to downsize to a greater extent that their predecessors? What is the income situation of the close to 40% of women in their 70s and 80s who are living on their own? There are many such questions the census will help us answer—and no doubt there will be a few surprises.

Q: When will we be getting the results of the 2016 Census?

A: According to Statistics Canada’s release schedule for the 2016 Census, the first release of the population and dwelling counts will occur on February 8, 2017. This will be followed by age and sex data in May and data on families, households and language in August. The data from the long-form census will be released in three waves in September, October and November of 2017. This schedule for the long-form data is 10 months earlier than for the 2011 NHS, when the last release did not occur until September 2013. Of course, not all data on a topic will be available on the day of release. However, the compressed schedule is a welcome improvement in timeliness over the last census.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Direct Marketing.

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