Finding answers for today in yesterday

Guelph researchers use SHARCNET to analyze Canada’s historical censuses

By Joey Sabljic

Since Canada’s beginnings, the federal government has conducted a national census every 10 years, collecting information about each household to organize parliamentary ridings by population. Now, University of Guelph researchers are using pre-1900 Canadian censuses to assemble a population database that would enable modern researchers to study societal trends of the past. Their hope is to find answers to some of today’s problems. 

Economics and history professor Kris Inwood is working with a shared network of high-performance supercomputers that connect institutions across Ontario. Called SHARCNET, it has previously been used to model climate change, design new pharmaceuticals and energy-efficient vehicles, and track the spread of infections and diseases. Inwood leads a team that has built a digitized sample of 1871 and 1891 census data. The team is analyzing the new data with SHARCNET to gain better insight into shifting social, economic and health trends.

For example, tracing poverty’s roots in Canada back to specific patterns of population mobility or examining how religious affiliation affected employment opportunities would give researchers an opportunity to study and compare past societies with current ones by tracking these trends through each decade.

Researchers could also study census data together with First World War medical exams to see what demographic groups were most affected by disease, where certain illnesses became less common over time or how childhood nutrition influenced adult height and health.

“We’re able to compare today’s population with one from more than 100 years ago because the census data give us a snapshot of that point in time,” says Inwood. “Then we can follow these large populations through time and analyze what happens.”

More than 80 per cent of Canadians from these census records are what he calls “invisible people.” They didn’t appear in local newspapers, didn’t keep a diary and weren’t studied in history textbooks. Yet he’s confident that the key to understanding changing societal, economic and medical trends also lies in accounting for some of these overlooked people.

Besides basic data such as age, sex and location, the census records contain much more personal information. Each person’s name is included, as well as details about occupation, place of birth, marital status, religion and literacy.

Even physical and mental handicaps such as blindness, deafness and developmental disorders were documented. Inwood sees great potential for many new research projects based on this detailed information.

Currently, he and his research team are also putting together a digitized library based on the 1871 Scottish census. Their plan is to eventually acquire more census data from Statistics Canada and the registrar general of Scotland for each decade up to the present and to create a full historical population database.

“We’re going to be able to give you information about people you knew nothing about,” he says. “To fully understand a society, you need to understand everybody.”

Inwood and his research colleagues have formed partnerships with the universities of Alberta, Montreal and Victoria. At Guelph, he’s working with Prof. Graeme Morton of the Department of History; Prof. John Cranfield of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics; and post-doctoral researchers Andrew Ross (economics and history) and Luiza Antonie (computing science and economics).

The 1891 Canadian Census Project is supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.

The project also receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, U of G’s College of Arts and College of Management and Economics, and private-sector companies such as MES Hybrid Document Systems. 

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