What Counts as Work? Labour and the Canadian Census

By Katie Laqua

The following paper is a short, critical reflection on Macdonald’s article “Who Counts: Nuns, Work, and the Census of Canada”, alongside Fearon and Wald’s investigative piece “The Earnings Gap Between Black and White Workers in Canada: Evidence from the 2006 Census”. Both of these works critique the ways that labour data has been recorded in the Canadian Census, ultimately arguing that the employment information that we have on marginalized populations—specifically women and Black workers—has been notoriously misrepresented and accordingly misunderstood.

Macdonald explores how nuns, or “women religious”, have been historically underrepresented in their contributions to the Canadian workforce despite the copious amounts of nursing, teaching, social work, administrative duties, and domestic tasks that their congregations had routinely performed. Because these everyday labours of “women religious” were commonly offered as acts of charity, and thus were unpaid, their efforts were often disregarded as real work (Macdonald 370, 375). Accordingly, census enumerators were inconsistent in recording their professional contributions, often documenting their employment status as “nun”, “sister of charity”, or even “New Superioress” (Macdonald 377). In doing so, the categories of religion and employment in the Canadian Census from 1871-1991 have been confused in a way that dismisses the hard work that nuns had participated in on a daily basis.

In a similar vein, Fearon and Wald have examined the earnings gap between Black and White workers in Canada. Their investigation suggests that the statistics produced by the Canadian Census do not account for the reasons behind why Black workers are generally recorded in lower positions of employment with lower average wages. For example, Fearon and Wald speculate that lacking a social network, or “social capital”, may be a reason why Black workers—especially those who are immigrants—are more susceptible to the occupational segregation and wage discrimination that they are regularly documented against (340).

Both articles demonstrate why the employment and earnings data in the Canadian Census must be critically evaluated before making any objective assumptions. Approaching this data otherwise leaves us with the impression that both women and Black workers did not, and do not, contribute to the Canadian workforce in a meaningful way. In both cases, the numbers depict that white men hold the majority of jobs in which they are the highest salary earners. Reading these statistics without being critical of the structures they stand upon only proves that white men have made greater contributions to the Canadian labour market and thus are responsible for the success of the country. The way that the wage gap has been similarly evaluated upholds the conviction that women and Black workers do not work as hard as white men do, and therefore they are assumed to be either lazy or incompetent.

Based on these findings, it must be concluded that “census information is made, not taken, fabricated through processes that select, and do not simply reflect dimensions of social organization” (Curtis 418). The “factual” data produced by the Canadian Census both informs, and is informed by, the reigning ideology that Canada was built on the backs of white men. Thus, any acknowledgement that women or Black workers were, and continue to be, a part of that process would be a threat to its national identity. As a result, we have been left with an ignorant collection of data that reflects a preferred account of history.


Curtis, Bruce. “On the Local Construction of Statistical Knowledge: Making up the 1861

Census of the Canadian.” Journal of Histoical Sociology 7.4 (1994): 416-434. Web.

Fearon, Gervan and Wald, Steven. “The Earnings Gap Between Black and White Workers in Canada: Evidence From the 2006 Census.” Relations Industrielles

66.3 (2011): 324-348. Web.

Macdonald, Heidi. “Who Counts: Nuns, Work, and the Census of Canada.” Histoire

Sociale/Social History 43.86 (2010): 369-391. Web.

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Katie is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. Her areas of focus are Equity Studies, Women & Gender Studies, and Sexual Diversity Studies, with a special interest in critical disability theory. She plans to continue her academic career in the field of social work, approaching her learning and practice from a critical standpoint.

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