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Historical Census Boundary Files

Overview

The Census of Canada program provides a statistical portrait of the country every five years. The last census was conducted in May 2016 and consisted of the Census of Agriculture and the Census of Population. There have been mandated national Censuses dating back to 1871, with some earlier censuses recorded regionally. 

Today, census boundaries are produced by Statistics Canada to enable the enumeration and dissemination of data, for the Census of Canada. Over the years, boundaries have changed significantly, often redrawn based on population and other methodological changes to the census over time. The use of census boundaries by researchers today varies and the research applications can be diverse, however most geographic research and mapping of census data requires accurate, reliable, and stable census boundaries (polygons) for analysis purposes. Researchers often require geospatial (GIS) boundaries in order map census data geographically. 

Before the advent of modern GIS, boundaries were drawn and produced in paper format. With GIS, boundaries are produced, updated, and maintained digitally, and paper maps are only distributed today for research and reference purposes. Many libraries have census boundary map collections for use by library patrons, mostly for the purposes of personal and academic research. There are two types of digital spatial boundary files that are produced for newer censuses (1971-today): cartographic and digital. Cartographic boundary files portray the geographic areas using only the major land mass of Canada and its coastal islands. Digital boundary files portray the full extent of the geographic areas, including the coastal water area.  There are French and English boundary files from 1996 to 2011.  These represent the same geographies, but have language specific fields in the attribute tables.

Access to these boundary files in digital GIS-ready format (including shape file format) is incomplete across Canada, with little to no access online for older censuses. The coverage of the census boundaries available or produced varies significantly from Census to Census. In some cases, efforts to improve access to accurate digital geospatial boundaries for early censuses has produced rich data and results for reuse by others. The Canadian Century Research Infrastructure project (CCRI), which handled the digitization of census boundaries for 1911 - 1951, is a great example of a historical GIS initiative to improve access to data in Canada.

Other census boundary digitization projects have occurred in university libraries as a result of the demands for them by researchers. Often libraries have contributed to the digitization of historical census boundaries including the University of Toronto, Map and Data Library, the University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Waterloo, Queen's University, and Western University. 

The purpose of this project is to begin a collaboration around gathering and digitizing these historical census collections within Canada, to identify gaps and areas where further data migration and boundary digitization is required. In addition, there is a need to improve access to these collections online, to provide quality digital data and boundaries for use in GIS research openly across Canada and beyond. 

Inventory (PDF) (compiled and has been reconfigured under the Census of Canada Discovery Partnership)