The Census: count me in!

For a few years when I was young, I was having a difficult time reconciling my trans identity with my working life. I cycled through a number of government jobs before the Public Service Commission finally decided maybe they shouldn’t continue hiring someone who keeps quitting on them. This realization on their part coincided with a period of high unemployment in Ottawa and served to deliver an important lesson to me: being trans was hard, but being trans and poor was even worse.

After a few years of barely scraping by, I learned that Statistics Canada needed clerks to process the mountain of paper census forms they had received following the 1981 Census. I first had to write a test to determine whether I had the intellectual ability to perform a boring job, but having successfully done so, I was awarded with much needed short-term employment. They called me a “casual employee”, which suggested they didn’t much care if I showed up or not, although of course they did. During the first day’s orientation session they advised us that “sleeping or attempting to sleep” was not acceptable. Okay, I think I can manage that. (I recorded this admonition with some astonishment in my journal that evening.)

My job with the Census was the beginning of my long road to recovery from trans induced poverty.

We worked in the low, flat annex behind the R. H. Coats tower at Tunney’s Pasture. It was a vast, open space with desks lined up row by row like in the opening scene of the Billy Wilder film The Apartment. At these desks sat the hundreds of clerks processing your census forms. I had evidently done well in the mathematical portion of the test because I was placed in a small unit of 12 people set aside from the rest of the hoi-polloi. We received bundles of forms from the other units and our job was to add the numbers. After we had counted, we passed our bundle to another person in the unit who verified the count. It wasn’t a taxing job, but it demanded accuracy.

Our unit was composed of a housewife or two, a retiree, a few nerds, a pot head, several mid-career unemployed, and me, and for some magical reason we all got along famously. It was one of those rare occasions in life when the stars align and people with whom I thought I’d have nothing in common turned out to be some of the most interesting people I’d met in a while. We enjoyed each other’s company so much that at the end of our term our supervisor held a party at her house. Everyone came, and those with partners dragged them along too.

I still have the appraisal my supervisor handed me at the completion of the job. The quality of my work was deemed “fully satisfactory”, although the quantity of work fell to “satisfactory”. As a Virgo, I value accuracy over speed and so was not disturbed by my evaluation, particularly as in her written note she deemed me “an asset to the operation.”

CensusManAs a reward for my fully satisfactory service to the nation, I was presented with a pin. It’s a clever design that incorporates the maple leaf into the figure of a man holding up his right arm as if wanting to be counted. I don’t believe there was a similar pin of a woman so despite the motto for the Census that year being “Count me in!”, women could be excused if they wondered if that meant them too.

How times have changed! May 11th was Census Day in Canada, and if you’ve filled out your form you will have noticed that trans people are being counted this year. The exact question is “What was this person’s sex at birth?” This is followed by the helpful explanation that sex “refers to sex assigned at birth”, before the questionnaire moves on to the second question: “What is this person’s gender?” As this was likely to elicit a big “What?” from a significant portion of the Canadian population, Stats Canada felt obliged to provide another explanation: “Refers to current gender which may be different from sex assigned at birth and may be different from what is indicated on legal documents.” Not only are your choices male and female, but if neither of those are suitable you also have an option to “please specify” another.

What I loved best about this, however, was that if your gender didn’t align with your sex assigned at birth, you got an extra “verification” page. I laughed when I saw this. It was an “okay, maybe you didn’t understand the last question. Just to be sure we’ve got this right, you are female now but were assigned male at birth. Is that right?” I could imagine the folks at the Census arguing about this. “You know, we should really put a verification in because a lot of folks might not have a clue what we’re talking about.” As I learned when I worked for the Census, accuracy is paramount.

I’m sure some portion of the trans population will be somehow offended by these questions. I don’t have much faith that any government program to help trans folks will come from it, which is the most cited justification for having a census, but I’m all for being counted. I want to know how many there are of us, and am glad Statistics Canada wants to know too. We should have a little faith that our information will be protected and will be used in a positive manner.

Very few other countries count trans folks in their census and, perhaps surprisingly, several that do are less progressive than Canada. A quick internet search reveals the only other countries that included trans or third sex people were Pakistan (2017), Nepal and India (2012). England and Wales included a voluntary question in their 2021 census that asked “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” I believe, however, any statistician will tell you that voluntary questions are largely useless.

So, count me in for 2021!

Here’s another relic from my time at the Census. One of the women I worked with knitted this outrageous hat for me from leftover wool which she presented to me when we were finished. I was speechless. Note the “Count me in!” fellow she knitted into the ear flaps! No, I haven’t ever worn it, but I’ll keep it forever. It brings back fond memories of a smart, funny and kind lady, interesting fellow employees and a work experience that rescued me from poverty.