Vital statistician: Modernizing Canada’s census for a COVID-19 world

When Anil Arora embarked on modernizing Statistics Canada four years ago, he never imagined a pandemic would thrust the agency’s work into the spotlight more than ever.

Julie Naylor - 08 July 2021

Anil Arora (’85 BSc[Spec]) serves as Canada's chief statistician from his home in Ottawa. Photo credit: John Ulan


In an average year, Statistics Canada runs about 400 different programs. And in 2021, two additional—and sizable—projects were added to the list: the Census of Population, which is shared with every household across the country and the Census of Agriculture. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Arora (’85 BSc[Spec]) knew that Statistics Canada had to shift to prioritize key things Canadians needed now.

As Canada’s chief statistician, Arora sought to make the agency more relevant and user-centric, to use new tools, and to find new innovative ways to equip staff with secure but mobile infrastructure. 

“The investments we were putting in place were so well timed,” says Arora from his home office in Ottawa. “In a sense one could say we were just lucky, but our journey to be able to be more helpful during this crisis in fact started a few years back. The pandemic accelerated our plans to shift our infrastructure. We had to identify the things that were most crucial and then figure out how to do them in new ways.”

The pandemic effect

Arora also knew Canada had to get far more data on how the pandemic was disproportionately affecting certain groups, including certain ethnocultural communities. “Women and youth were disproportionately impacted,” he notes, “and we knew other groups were going to be far more affected than others.” In response, new data were collected through the Labour Force Survey to capture these nuances and by June 2020, Statistics Canada put out far more detailed data on COVID-19’s impact in the labour market.

Under Arora’s leadership, the Statistics Canada team conducted more than 1.5 million telephone calls to support provinces and regional health authorities doing COVID-19 contact tracing. They quickly developed and helped manage the standards and underlying data infrastructure for the distribution of PPE inventory. They developed and executed a survey on the prevalence of antibodies in the population, vaccinations, and vaccine hesitancy, sharing results on an ongoing basis.

The result? Statistics Canada produced an incredible amount of additional information beyond what would be collected in a normal year, working to provide the kind of underlying data people need to continue to make good, data-driven decisions during the pandemic. 

What exactly is the census?

Every five years all Canadian households are asked to participate in the Census of Population. Sound familiar? The year 2021 is a census year. Census collection continues until all questionnaires are completed.

The vital information that Canadians provide formulates the census database, which helps decision-makers across the country make a huge number of decisions—from transfers of tens of billions of dollars between levels of government annually, to redrawing federal jurisdictions and electoral districts, to informing federal immigration policy and beyond.

Learn more about Canada’s 2021 census at

“It wasn’t just about saying, ‘Here are the data,’ ” he explains, “but rather working with partners to provide them with the information needed to make decisions. We put out more than 100 analytic products—from businesses opening and closing to mental health, to how students are doing during this crisis, to how municipalities are faring. This is unprecedented.” 

Setting the stage

Arriving in Canada from India when he was 11, Arora’s family settled in Edmonton. Living in Alberta, Arora naturally thought a career in the oil and gas sector was the best choice, so he enrolled in petroleum geology at the U of A. He followed his undergraduate degree with studies in computing science, governance, and business administration, which steered him to the field of statistics. His career took him through the energy sector, natural resources, health and policy, and in 2016 to Statistics Canada as chief statistician. 

“I look at a career as a compilation of micro-decisions that one makes over time that have elements of luck, of preparedness, of networking, and the decision that you ultimately make at that particular point then leads you to the next crossroad, which then opens up additional doors,” reflects Arora.

Now responsible for the functioning of a department that grows to nearly 40,000 staff in the year of the census, Arora works across jurisdictions, provinces and territories, municipalities, government departments, and the private sector, to ensure decision-makers have the information needed to make informed, quality decisions that better the lives of Canadians. 

Arora’s approach has not been just to do more; it is to do it smarter, do it better, and then expand into partnerships with others. He believes Statistics Canada has been successful because it has a well-developed innovation ecosystem within the agency in which talented people are not afraid to come forward and try new ideas.

Canada’s 2021 census

Arora is hard pressed to find an area not touched in some way by the census. 

“The census is crucial to how our society functions. It is the output, playing a very active role in the well-functioning government system that we have within this country.” 

Last year Arora and the census team redesigned several pieces of the census to adjust for the current context. In a normal year, an interview team would head to northern communities in January or February. Instead, they had to shift the timing of the census to avoid sending teams across the country and putting communities at risk. Instead, they worked to enable the communities themselves, hired locally, and provided the ability for everybody to complete the census online. Where it could not be done online, paper and telephone options were provided. 

Nearly all Canadians—98.4 per cent—completed the 2016 census. “We are a country with citizens who understand the value, the use and utility of the data,” says Arora. “Citizens trust Statistics Canada because of how we do things and the confidentiality that’s assured, so that’s why we get these very, very high levels of participation.”

On the horizon

“I think it’s an understatement to say that we’re seeing an explosion of data,” says Arora. “Ninety per cent of the data that has been created was created in the last two years and that trend just continues to increase.”

The amount of data is growing and so is the underlying infrastructure. With a plethora of devices collecting data in one form or another—from Fitbits to satellites—many organizations consider themselves more data organizations than service providers or commodities.

“This is where you see the emergence of data science integrated with new tools. Machine learning, natural language processing, and so on, which give us the ability to use massive amounts of data,” he says. “Big data is playing a huge role in society and in many cases it’s enabling new business models to emerge. It’s allowing for people to spot hidden trends that they never suspected.” 

But Arora notes that this shift also raises concerns around privacy, control, ownership, and access. Data stewardship is important—a way for information to provide greater utility and value for Canadians. For organizations like Statistics Canada, good practices, transparency, expertise, and privacy protection can turn quantity of data into quality insights. Moving in this direction depends on data security, Arora explains. 

“Data stewardship is going to play a fundamental role in our future because that’s how we can serve Canadians: policy-makers, academic institutions, researchers, businesses and average, everyday Canadians that need data for the decisions they make about their households and their loved ones every day. I think that’s the future of this agency.”