In addition to birthplace and religion, one of the most genealogically useful bits of information that the Canadian census might povide is that of the ethnic origin (“Origin” in 1871 and 1881; “Racial or tribal origin” in 1901 and 1911) of an ancestor.* As with all census categories, however, the data recorded on the census form is only as accurate as the information that was given to, and understood by, the enumerator.
I’ve noticed a tendency in some circles to emphasize that “the records can lie,” and that people “sometimes [or often] lied.” And in some cases, well, sure. But for most instances of inaccurate information, I really think that “lie” is rather too strong a term to use. Most errors were due to faulty assumptions and genuine misunderstandings rather than to outright falsehoods, I’m pretty sure.
Let’s say that an enumerator was visiting an orphanage that was associated with an Irish Catholic parish (St. Patrick’s Church, now Basilica, on Kent St. in Ottawa), that was founded in 1865 as “a House of Refuge for the Irish poor,” that was staffed by nuns (of the Grey Sisters of the Cross) of mostly Irish origin, and that was overwhelmingly Irish Catholic in terms of the ethno-religious background of its “inmates”… and if that enumerator listed an elderly Englishwoman as Irish in origin and assigned to her the birthplace of Ireland rather than England, well, I guess I’m more than willing to believe that this was an honest mistake on his part.