Adjusting the nation’s largest survey to a pandemic

A message from Statistics Canada

Every five years, the Census of Population counts every household and person in Canada—35,151,728 people and counting!

When Geoff Bowlby, Director General of the Census Management Office, took up his census role at the beginning of 2020, he hoped for a year with extraordinary work and challenges. He also hoped for more time with his wife and children. Both came true!

The Census Communications team at Statistics Canada faces a complex and exciting challenge: to help convince over 15 million households to complete a census questionnaire. A national program of enormous scope, the census requires a detailed and comprehensive strategy with varied tactics to reach all Canadians. To reach historically harder-to-count population groups, the team coordinates extensive outreach to various organizations across the country and uses an interactive geomatics tool to monitor how census recruitment and collection is progressing.

Headshot of Janice Keenan

Janice Keenan, Director General of Communications at Statistics Canada, shares “By using the geo mapping tool, we can identify where harder-to-count populations are located, and determine what additional outreach activities to local stakeholders our team needs to employ. By working with local organizations, we leverage their existing relationships with their audience to encourage participation in the census”.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, all aspects of the census were rethought and reworked. Statistics Canada is continuously adapting to ensure that the 2021 Census is conducted throughout the country in the best possible way, using a safe and secure approach.

It is essential to get the message out that completing the census online is accessible, safe and easy. To reach an increasingly digital audience during the pandemic, our communications tactics evolved.

Headshot of Christine Leger

Our advertising campaign shifted from traditional channels and out-of-home promotion to a digital-first approach. By ensuring a presence on the most popular social platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, we strive to generate awareness and encourage Canadians to complete their census. Responding online is the easiest and fastest way to participate” says Christine Leger, Director, Census Communications.

Creativity has flourished within the Census Communications team, and the team explored new avenues to get the census message out and inform the public on how and when they can complete their questionnaire. Janice explains, “Now more than ever, finding new ways to reach all Canadians is vital to making the census a success. Through our segmentation exercise, we developed 12 audience profiles that represent Canadians across the country. These profiles include demographic and behavioural information, such as how they consume media. This information provided us with a base to innovate across high reach channels to ensure Canadians relate to what they see and hear about the census, and are motivated by a strong call to action.

New tactics include engaging with social media influencers, developing music playlists that Canadians can listen to while completing their questionnaire, creating a trivia-style census game, and launching a contest for high school and postsecondary students.

Headshot of Geoff Bowlby

We must accept the circumstances and take this as a unique opportunity to shape the public service. Change occurs incrementally, most of the time. Then, sometimes, it takes great leaps forward. This is one of them, and perhaps the greatest period of creativity I have experienced in my 25+ years in the public service,” Geoff shares.

As we work through a pandemic, the stakes for the census are high. He says, “The census is literally saving lives at the moment.

The COVID-19 vaccine distribution, for example, is being conducted on a per capita basis. Regional population data ensure a fair allocation to the provinces and territories and drive who gets the vaccine first, such as seniors.

As with any initiative, the public must know about it to benefit from it. Accurate census data benefit all Canadians because they help when planning programs and services in every community across the country. Professional and adaptable communications support is key—during a pandemic and not—in getting important and accurate information to Canadians in a timely manner.

As of May 3, 2021, Canadians will be able to complete their online questionnaire on the 2021 Census website. The website also includes a toolkit of products that census community supporters can use to share their support and encourage others to participate. For more information on the 2021 Census, visit the census website and follow Statistics Canada’s official social media accounts.

I am grateful for the silver linings in these very stressful times, and I give thanks every day for what I have,” Geoff says. “If we grieve what we have lost in the pandemic, we will never adapt to our new world.

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