My ancestors arrived in Canada in 1662 some four years before the first census of the population was conducted on instructions from King Louis XIV, the Sun King. When I was a kid we learned in school how accurate and detailed population statistics was important and helped make fact based decisions and develop policies for the administration of the country. Some 9 years ago the previous government decided that a general census was a useless exercise, suddenly we found ourselves reduced to the rank of the Congo thanks to the clown we had as Prime Minister. All those years when Canada was a shining example to the world came to nothing.
Jean Talon, a French Noble was sent to Canada by the Sun King some 350th years ago, this year 2015 marks the anniversary of his arrival in Canada. Among the measures he undertook as Intendant was a census of the colony’s population. Louis XIV’s energetic minister Colbert had instructed him, in March of 1665, thus:
“Le Roy, considérant tous ses sujets du Canada depuis le premier jusqu’au dernier comme s’ils estoient presque ses propres enfans, et désirant satisfaire, à l’obligation où il est de leur faire ressentir la douceur et la félicité de son règne ainsy qu’à ceux qui sont au milieu de la France, le sieur Talon s’étudiera uniquement à les soulager en toutes choses et à les exciter au travail et au commerce, qui seuls peuvent attirer l’abondance dans le pays et rendre les familles accommodées. Et d’autant que rien ne peut mieux y contribuer qu’en entrant dans le détail de leurs petites affaires et de leur domestique, il ne sera pas mal à propos qu’après s’estre estably, il visite toutes les habitations les unes après les autres pour en reconnoistre le véritable estât, et ensuite pourvoir autant bien qu’il pourra aux nécessités qu’il y aura remarquées, afin qu’en faisant le devoir d’un bon père de famille, il puisse leur faciliter les moyens de faire quelques profits et d’entreprendre de labourer les terres incultes qui sont les plus prochaines de celles qu’ils ont desjà mises en culture.”
In other words, Talon was to visit the settlers through the St. Lawrence Valley and ascertain their conditions in order to best meet their needs. From January through July of 1666, he and his enumerators carried out the first census in Canadian history. Talon, in fact, did much of the enumeration himself. They counted 3215 (actually 3173) men, women and children. Colbert asked for another census to be taken the following year, seeking greater accuracy and even more information on which to base colonial policy. Intendant Talon and his people counted not only colonists this time, but also their cattle and acreage under cultivation. These early censuses are not supremely accurate records. According to historian Marcel Trudel, the first census missed about a quarter of the colony’s population and the second a sixth. Still, it was a valiant effort and a ground-breaking moment in the history of data-driven policy on this corner of the planet.
Those who follow Canadian politics know that the mandatory long-form census, having been abandoned in a fit of narrow-mindedness by the late Harper government, was reinstated as one of the first measures of the Trudeau Government. “We need good, reliable data,” announced the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains. Colbert and Talon would approve.
Let’s hope that Statistics Canada and the new Canadian government do not allow the 350th anniversary of the first census next year to go unnoticed. It is a moment worth commemorating.