BORN: Clinton, Ontario • 25 July 1874
DIED: Ottawa, Ontario • 7 February 1960
Nations, like corporations, must collect data. How many were born and died, and where? How many came to the country or emigrated? How much was produced, how many were out of work, how much did prices rise? Numbers are an essential tool of nationhood, of planning, and of government.
Robert H. Coats was Canada’s man of numbers, the creator of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics.A graduate of the University of Toronto in 1896 who had worked as a journalist in Toronto, he was brought to Ottawa in 1902 by his classmate, Mackenzie King, then deputy minister of labour, to be assistant editor of the Labour Gazette.
He stayed with the Department of Labour for the next fourteen years as chief statistician, spending much of his time collecting data on prices, studying the cost of living, and becoming truly alarmed by the haphazard state of the information available to the government.
Statistics had to be collected regularly and in a uniform manner, Coats believed, and he made this argument forcibly to Sir George Foster, the minister of trade and commerce in the Borden government. Impressed, Foster had Coats made dominion statistician and commissioner of the census in 1915 and assigned him to direct the 1916 census of the Prairie provinces.
Most important for his and the nation’s future, Coats prepared the draft of the Statistics Act of 1918. In May 1918 the government established the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, which Coats led until his retirement in 1942. Setting statistical norms was no easy task.
Various depart¬ ments in Ottawa collected—and protected—their data; provincial governments did the same, all in different ways; and municipalities across the land number-crunched too. Coats’ first task was to get Canada’s vital statistics made uniform.
He accomplished this by calling a conference, mastering provincial statutes, and cajoling jealous bureau¬ crats into cooperation. By 1926 every province operated with uniform definitions and asked standard questions on birth and death certificates. Simple, but essential.
That success led Coats to expand his gaze into other areas, and the result was similar Ottawa-directed uniformity in data relating to agri¬ culture, foreign and domestic trade, industrial and mining production, and education. At last, government could confidently measure the gross national product and assess sectoral performance.
By the 1930s his now well-established Dominion Bureau of Statistics was undertaking regular surveys of business statistics and the wholesale and retail trades, using the most advanced techniques of the day. Such data helped government become more professional, and business more profitable.
As the data poured in, Coats’ command of the numbers increased his usefulness to the government. With Prime Minister Mackenzie King and his key foreign policy adviser, O.D. Skelton, he worked at imperial conferences to bolster the dominion’s arguments.
He also coordinated interna¬ tional gatherings and played a major role at meetings of statisticians at the League of Nations in Geneva. Just as important, in the patronage-ridden public service of drones that ordinarily ran the dominion until the mid-1930s, Coats’ easy, casual style and his sharp wit impressed all who met him.
So too did his willingness to find and encourage the bright young men and women who came to work in the capital. Coats helped to create the basis for the public service mandarinate that, using the DBS data, let Canada fight the Second World War with vastly greater domestic efficiency than had been possible in 1914.
Robert Coats was the architect of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, the essential foundation-stone of effective, efficient government in Canada. Little known at the time outside Ottawa, remembered by only a few today, Coats’ professionalism and the reliability of the systems he put in place made a difference.