Gender Issues in the Canadian Census: Beyond Question 2

by | May 10, 2016
filed under Can-Con


Among the praise that’s been given to the 2016 Canadian census, there have also been some critiques. The most widespread is the criticism of question 2: the sex question. As many have rightly pointed out, asking a question about (assigned) sex, with only two options (male/female) is incredibly exclusive, leaving out many of those who identify as intersex, non-binary, and trans.

The argument that the census needs to represent a broader spectrum of physical/biological sex has been aptly made elsewhere, but this is not the only space where sex, gender, and sexuality are defined by the Canadian state through the census.

As the basis for most of Statistics Canada’s demographic data, the census serves as a foundation for understanding the Canadian population – assisting policy-makers, researchers, activists, corporations, and the general public. A look at some additional places in the census where binary gender roles are evident can reveal the power of the state in defining and regulating sex, gender, and sexuality through official practices.

Spouses or Husbands/ Wives?

The short-form census, which all residents must complete, includes information on both family structure and household structure- that is, how all members of a household are connected. Given the extent to which public policy continues to rely on assumptions about gendered roles within the family, it is not surprising that this series of census questions defines family roles in very gendered terms.

Straight (or what the census defines as “opposite-sex”) married couples are defined as having a “husband” and “wife,” while queer (or what the census calls “same-sex”) married couples are defined as having “spouses.” The fact that the gender-neutral term “spouse” is used only when describing “same-sex” relationships is troubling, and implicitly suggests that in straight relationships there are differences in the roles between spouses that require this data to be counted and classified as two distinct populations groups.

Children, Parents, and Other Family Members

It is not just married couples that are defined by their gendered roles in census data. Families are also counted as having “daughters” and “sons” rather than children; “mothers” and “fathers” instead of parents; and, “brothers” and “sisters” instead of siblings. While these terms are still common in everyday conversation in Canada, many people are increasing using gender-neutral language to limit the potential of misgendering anyone, as well as to contribute to a broader cultural shift towards gender equality.

In fact, it would be hard to find anyone in Canada today who could explain the difference between mothers and fathers without using arguments that deny parenthood to non-biological parents or trans parents. By choosing to use the traditional, gendered terms on the census (as well as in the categorization and distribution of the data it collects) Statistics Canada is reinforcing the imagined differences between mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and, consequently, women and men more broadly.

Family History

Another area for improvement relates to parenthood. The long-form census (completed by approximately 25% of the population) collects data on immigration and generation status in question #24, which asks respondents to identify where their mother and father were born.

A number of issues are raised with the structuring and language of this question, including those mentioned above regarding the preference for gendered language. Additionally, the question and possible responses erase various types of queer families where parents may not identify with either of the given genders, or, even if they do, they may not match with the two possible response categories (mother and father).

It is also important to note that multiple provinces allow for Canadian children to legally have three parents, whether from birth or through a legal addition. Given the increase in both queer and straight families involving a sperm donor in a legal parental relationship, the fact that these families are made completely invisible in the census (and consequently, the vast majority of official state data on Canadian families) is concerning.

It will continue to be nearly impossible to identify the number or significance of Canadian families with more than two parents as long as the census refuses to allow respondents to identify as such on the census. Consequently, the myth of the ideal, nuclear family will continue to dominate public opinion and shape family policy.

I understand that for many it may seem like no big deal to check male/female, or refer to your parents as mother and father when filling out the census form, but it is clear that these subtle practices reveal broader patterns that continue to put cis-women, along with queer, trans, intersex, non-binary people, and non-nuclear families, in a space where their identities are invisible or deemed non-normative.

However far Canada has come in recognizing diversity in gender identities, sexualities, and family structures, it is clear there is still a long way to go. There is no doubt that revising the census would be a great place to start.

Please consider adding a message of support for diversity in the comments section of your census response.

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