Notes on 21st Text for Reading Field: Curtis

Canadian History, Week Three


Bruce Curtis. The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. [Online preview:]

Bruce Curtis examines census-making as a historical process closely related to nation state formation, a consequent desire for both territorial control and population standardization, and the making of bureaucracy. He traces the history of Canadian censuses through analysis of enumerations made in 1841/2, 1847/8, 1850/1/2, 1860/1, and 1865/71. He demonstrates that as the delineation and division of governable space between legislative bodies within Canada became an increasingly important issue over time, populations became increasingly imagined properties; open to manipulation through the use of statistics. Curtis reveals the application of statistics to have been a mathematical exercise with an imaginary aspect of its own: ie, the translation – a subjectively determined act — of actual but qualitatively ambiguous subjects into highly defined objects amenable to quantification. Nevertheless the application was regarded as a means of establishing truth scientifically.

Curtis draws on postmodernist (particularly Foucauldian), theories of knowledge and surveillance, and as well points out that census-making involved expressing historical social norms: social relations were represented as categories into which populations were organized – categories which were self-evident at the time, but which subsequently have been recognized as time and space specific. Even if early census making organized under such officials as Walter Cavendish Crofton and William Hutton was unsystematic relative to later efforts, enumerators, clerks and census designers were neither accidentally chosen nor disinterestedly involved. Throughout, they are shown to have had a significant, and therefore distorting, influence on the whatever ‘accuracy’ may have been hoped for.

Although his description of early census making is most entertaining (along the lines of a comedy of errors), Curtis’ analysis of the 1870/71 census and Joseph-Charles Taché’s concerted (and expensive) effort to apply science in a manner that properly (to his way of thinking), addressed language and cultural issues is particularly illuminating. For example, evaluation of who was ‘French’ and why (origin was determined according to the paternal line outside of Quebec, but according to either maternal or paternal lines inside of Quebec), had implications for how data on the francophone population could be used to bolster positions in ‘rep by pop’ debates and on assertions of ‘racial’ purity, cultural homogeneity, and nationalist sentiment. Similarly, the apparent numerical strength of the Catholic portion of the population against other religious denominations was attenuated by grouping all variants of the former as a unified category, while Protestant religious sects were presented in separate categories. It is also evident that enumeration on a de jure (where, in terms of household, a person was assumed to belong), as opposed to a de facto principle (where they were actually found), emphasized – or created an illusion of – and validated, patriarchal patterns of property owning (of persons as well as of real estate and material items).

Curtis succeeds in supporting his argument that social construction is highly evident in census making. His discussion of theoretical underpinnings helps to underscore the point that human beings were abstracted and positioned in virtual time and space in order that their social relations could be disciplined, and the discipline justified, on the basis of empirical evidence. Clearly there was nothing neutral or impartial about the census endeavor in the Canadian context. A well made point is that census information is not a transparent ‘window on the past,’ and that historians must ‘read’ the documents with as much circumspection as they do any other literary source.

Additional Resources:

Statistics Canada, “History of the Census of Canada,” Statistics Canada website (2005-05-16) .

David Levine, review of The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875 by Bruce Curtis, Canadian Journal of Sociology Online (March – April 2002), .


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 3 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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