Statistics Canada Census and National Household Survey (2011 only) data is provided in many different geographies and it can be tricky to figure out which one you need to look at. This census help guide should help you out. If you're still confused or have any questions, please email us.

This guide answers the following questions:

What are census geographies?

Statistics Canada collects data from Canadians via the Census and the most recent complete data is for 2016 although 2021 Census data is being released throughout 2022. To analyze and present the data, Statistics Canada divides the country into over a dozen different geographies from entire provinces to a city block. The table below lists the geographies (linking to their definition from Statistics Canada) and each geography's abbreviation, population minimum if applicable, if that geography completely covers Canada, and how many are in Canada.

Name Abbreviation Population Minimum Covers all of Canada? How many in Canada (2021)
Aggregate dissemination area (new 2016) ADA 5,000 Yes 5,433
Census agglomeration CA 10,000 No 111
Census division CD n/a Yes 293
Census metropolitan area CMA 100,000 with 50,000 in core No 41
Census subdivision CSD n/a Yes 5,161
Census tract CT 2,500 (usually) No 6,247
Census consolidated subdivision CCS n/a No 1,757
Designated place DPL 1,000 No 1,685
Dissemination area DA 400 Yes 57,936
Dissemination block DB n/a Yes 498,786
Economic region ER n/a Yes 76
Federal electoral district FED n/a Yes 338
Province or territory PR n/a Yes 13

The links in the table are from this Illustrated Glossary from Statistics Canada or Dictionary, Census of Population 2021.

How do the geographies relate to one another other?

It depends! Often, smaller census geographies fit together to make one larger geography, such as how census tracts (CTs) fit together to make one census metropolitan area (CMA), like in Ottawa-Gatineau.

271 census tracts fit together to make the Ottawa-Gatineau census metropolitan area.

Not every census geography fits perfectly inside other geographies, however. CMAs don't fill every corner of each province or territory, for example, as they are only urban areas. This hierarchy of standard geographic areas (2021) from Statistics Canada indicates which geographies fit within which others. As an example, DAs (dissemination areas) fit within both CSDs and CTs, which is shown by DAs being located below both CSDs and CTs and connected with a solid line.

Attribution: Statistics Canada

Which census geography do I need?

That depends entirely on what you want to look at! Consulting the table in Step 1 on this page may help, as might looking at the Statistics Canada geographies hierarchy above in Step 2. Some commonly used census geographies are shown below, from large to small.

Provinces and Territories

Just what it sounds like: all 13 Canadian provinces and territories.

Federal Electoral Districts

338 Federal Electoral Districts (FEDs) cover all of Canada and can be useful when looking at the whole country in smaller pieces than provinces and territories, but still are a reasonable number to deal with. Each FED is an area represented by one Member of Parliament.

Cities and Towns

Census metropolitan areas (CMAs) are commonly used to compare cities across Canada, as they are cities with a population of 100,000 or more with at least 50,000 people living in the core. Census agglomerations (CAs) are towns with a population of at least 10,000 and there are 111 CAs (2021) in Canada. The map below shows all CAs and CMAs in 2016:

All 33 CMAs and 114 CAs in Canada.


Comparing neighbourhoods in a city or town usually involves looking at census tracts (CTs) as each CT has a population of 2,500 - 8,000. For example, the Glebe neighbourhood in Ottawa is covered by 3 CTs out of the 271 CTs in Ottawa-Gatineau. It's worth noting that CTs are roughly neighbourhood-sized but do not reflect what people who live in a city would describe as a city neighbourhood. In other words, there is no single CT that has the same boundaries as The Glebe, or Hintonburg, or Sandy Hill in Ottawa.

Dissemination areas (DAs) fit within CTs and are the smallest geography for which we have data. Using the Glebe example from above, the CT 0016.00 in the Glebe contains 7 DAs.

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How do I get the census geography GIS files and map the data?

Get the shapefiles

Census geography shapefiles for all of Canada are accessible from both Scholars GeoPortal and Statistics Canada directly for 2001, 2006, 2011, 2016 and 2021.

If you would like census geography shapefiles for Ottawa-Gatineau only, we have those available for direct download (you'll need to be a Carleton student, faculty or staff to access them).

Download and map the Census/NHS data

To download the data and map it in ArcMap, we have step-by-step help guides that take you through the process:

If you have any further questions, do not hesitate to contact us via email at

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