Accessing digital historical census boundaries just got a whole lot easier!

Finding and mapping historical census data can be a little difficult. Statistics Canada makes census data available for the 2011, 2006, 2001, and 1996 Censuses, with some profile tables available back to 1991. For boundary files, fewer censuses are made available online, with only 2011, 2006, and 2001 files. They do not provide access to earlier censuses any longer.

There are some sources for earlier census data and boundary files available through the Data Liberation Initiative (DLI) program, a national consortium made up of universities that formed together in the mid-1990’s to pay for and access Statistics Canada data, namely Public-Use Microdata Files (PUMFs). Part of the DLI includes access to older census tables and boundary files, including census tracts, dissemination/enumeration areas, census metropolitan areas, census divisions and census subdivisions, with some boundary coverages back to 1971. These boundary files represent some of the oldest digital boundary files produced in Canada, and are still used by researchers today. Both English and French data files were produced, and files are stored in varying GIS and non-GIS formats.

Today, access to the collection is typically mediated by the library at subscribing DLI institutions, some providing links to the data files online, but most only have access via a local connection FTP server. Given that the data are not available online publically, this prevents people from searching Google and finding the census boundary files. In addition, for some of the censuses, the spatial data are stored in ASCII text, or ESRI proprietary interchange format E00. This presents challenges for use in current GIS, and loading in open geoportals.

In Ontario, Scholars Portal and the Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL), have begun a year-long project to gather and convert all existing Canadian digital census boundary files, including the DLI collection, and other census boundaries digitized over the years by university libraries across Canada. The project will make data and documentation available openly in an interactive geoportal – Scholars GeoPortal ( Access to this important historical GIS collection will be improved greatly, and it is hoped that by making the collection available publically, these data will be shared and reused more effectively, reducing duplication for researchers everywhere.

Here is an overview of the censuses we are almost finished converting and loading, including creating ISO 19115 – North American Profile metadata for. (Some of these were reused from other national projects including the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI) GIS boundary files):

2011 – Statistics Canada (in portal)
2006 – Statistics Canada (in portal)
2001 – Statistics Canada, DLI (in portal)
1996 – Statistics Canada, DLI (in portal)
1991 – Statistics Canada, DLI (in processing)
1986 – Statistics Canada, DLI (in processing)
1981 – Statistics Canada, DLI & Map and Data Library, University of Toronto Libraries  (Census Tracts in portal; the rest in processing)
1976 – Statistics Canada, DLI *(only point files available)
1971 – Statistics Canada, DLI & Map and Data Library, University of Toronto Libraries (Census Tracts in portal; the rest in processing)
1961 – Historical Atlas of Canada (Provided by the GIS & Cartography Office, Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto) (in processing)
1951 – University of British Columbia Libraries, and CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (CCRI in portal)
1941 – CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (in portal)
1931 – CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (in portal)
1921 – CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (in portal)
1911 – CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (in portal)

To check out the progress, you can easily view the boundaries by going directly to the portal.

In the near future, we plan to make the census boundaries inventory available so that gaps can be collaboratively addressed by the community and those who are interested in doing national, comprehensive digitizing and georeferencing work for this important historical census collection.

For questions and more information, please contact me at


I would like to acknowledge the ongoing efforts of university libraries for their ability to manage and archive census data, boundary maps, and GIS. These collections are truly valuable to researchers and historians, and access to these collections would not be possible today if it weren’t for these efforts. I would like to thank the kind contributions from the following universities, organizations, and individuals throughout the project:

Vince Gray, Western University Libraries
Eva Dodsworth, University of Waterloo Libraries
Marcel Fortin, University of Toronto Libraries
Leanne Trimble, University of Toronto Libraries
University of Alberta Libraries
University of British Columbia Libraries
Data Liberation Initiative, Statistics Canada

And, to Jeff Allen, our student assistant at University of Toronto Libraries & Scholars Portal, who has worked tirelessly on this project for almost a year now…

Many thanks,

Amber Leahey
Data and Geospatial Librarian
Scholars Portal, Ontario Council of University Libraries

This post is also available in: French