President's Report 2006 | Research

Pre-Confederation census data set to become a research goldmine

A new project will make data collected in Newfoundland censuses from 1911-1951 more readily available to those doing historical, genealogical and genetic research. (Photo courtesy of Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL))

Memorial University and the Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency will showcase their leading role in a massive project to digitize census data when national players for the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI) gather in St. John’s later this month.

CCRI is a five-year, pan-Canadian initiative to develop databases from information collected between 1911 and 1951. It will make rich details of a rapidly changing society available at the click of a mouse.

According to Atlantic team leader Dr. Sean Cadigan, Department of History, until now researchers have had to spend considerable time gathering and analyzing the paper records, and substantial budgets were required to cover time, photocopying and, in some cases, travel to where the records were stored.

A significant component of the project is the inclusion of data from censuses done in pre-Confederation Newfoundland, which can offer insight not possible in other Canadian jurisdictions.

Canadian privacy legislation limits the depth of detail that can be drawn from censuses, Dr. Cadigan explained. Examination can only be done at the census division and subdivision level ¬ and these are larger than specific cities and towns. Moreover, individual and family identification is forbidden, at least until the data is a century old.

“You can’t do what we call microhistorical research under those restrictions,” said Dr. Cadigan.

However, censuses done in pre-Confederation Newfoundland do not fall under that legislation,¬ making it a goldmine for research.

“The importance of this for research is immense. For pre-Confederation Newfoundland, you can look at smaller centres and even families, and track the movement of people,” he said. Far beyond identifying trends, he asserted, this allows researchers to understand the human stories behind the stats.

The potential benefits extend to fields other than social history. Dr. Cadigan noted that genealogists, family historians and genetic researchers will have a wealth of new information at their fingertips.

Funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation is making the collaborative project viable.

Dr. Cadigan’s team has met with members of the five other CCRI centres: York University, University of Toronto, University of Victoria, Centre interuniversitaire d’études québécoises at Université Laval and UQTR, and the University of Ottawa, which is at the project’s helm.

Public access to the pre-Confederation Newfoundland data won’t happen until at least late 2007. For the time being, this goldmine is kept under tight security at Confederation Building.