The scrapping of the long-form census was the first volley in what will become known as the Great Canadian Stats War. But future scholars may point to the death of the beloved Canada Year Book as the catalyst for armed insurrection.
Despite the high esteem in which Canadians seem to hold robust statistics, Statistics Canada recently announced the end of its longest-running publication. This year’s issue of the Canada Year Book, which has been published almost every year since Confederation, will be the last.
For 145 years, the book has been an authority on the trends shaping the nation and an essential reference for researchers, librarians and students. On its pages, reams of numbers tell the story of Canada’s evolution from a collection of British colonies into an advanced sovereign state.
The inaugural issue was published in 1867 to commemorate Confederation and to offer a guidebook to provinces “extending their commercial relations with each other and with foreign parts.” The population of British North America was given as 3,295,706.
Six years later, Canada had generated an increase in wealth “in every department,” which was “simply extraordinary.” Rising prosperity and wages had a favourable effect on the incidence of crime in Canada, the 1873 issue noted, with the Kingston Penitentiary housing 628 inmates, 10% fewer than the prior year.
The 1874 issue marked improvements in aboriginal affairs, observing “among the Indian population a spirit of confidence in, and contentment with, the government.” A decade later, the Year Book catalogued the figures behind the North West Rebellion. After the “final suppression of the rebellion” and the capture of Big Bear in July 1885, the book estimated the death toll at 38 military and 140 rebel. The expenses of the fighting produced a 20% budget deficit of $5.8 million that year.
“The climate is dry, healthy and invigorating,” the authors wrote in 1886. “In Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba the summers are warm and the winters cold, but the cold is pleasant and bracing, and the snow that generally covers the ground during the winter is of the greatest benefit alike to the farmer, the lumberman and the merchant.” In British Columbia, there was “scarcely a stream of any importance in which the colour of gold cannot be found,” the book said, foreshadowing the coming gold rush. The five-year period ending in 1900 saw the value of Canadian gold production rise tenfold to $27.9 million.
The 1918 edition illustrates the damage of four years of war on Canada’s finances. “The closing years of the period under review found the Dominion bearing no unworthy share in the greatest war of history and for the greatest of all causes.” Net public Canadian debt rose by 250% to $1.2 billion over that period. The War Tax, which would become Canada’s permanent income tax, helped defray the cost of the campaign, having raised $25.4 million in 1918. The book revisited the challenge of recovering from war in 1945. Contemplating the “demobilization of the war industry,” statisticians estimated the need for the employment of 900,000 additional Canadians over 1939 levels.
Having survived and chronicled a century-and-a-half of Canadian progress, the Canada Year Book could not withstand the pressures of the digital age. While Statistics Canada wrestled with budget cuts, demand for the book fell as customer preference shifted away from the printed form and toward readily accessible, frequently updated online statistics. Statistics Canada now says it “will continue through other means to keep Canadians informed about their social and economic life.”
In the 2001 edition, Ivan Fellegi, then Canada’s chief statistician, called the book a “faithful companion to the memory of Canada.” With that companion now assassinated, expect a period of national mourning. After that, statistics anarchy.