Robert Hamilton Coats, FRSC, statistician, journalist (born 25 July 1874 in Clinton, Ontario; died 7 February 1960 in Ottawa, Ontario). Robert H. Coats was the first Dominion statistician of Canada (see Statistics Canada). He spent 24 years as the country’s chief statistician. During his career, he modernized and expanded Canada’s census and data collection programs.
Robert H. Coats was the first Dominion statistician of Canada. (Source: Wikimedia)
Early Life and Education
Robert Coats’ father, Robert Sr., was an immigrant from Scotland, where his family owned textile mills near Glasgow (see also Scottish Canadians). After settling in Clinton, Ontario, Robert Sr. worked as a merchant and banker.
Working as a journalist in Ottawa, Robert Coats became interested in labour statistics. This eventually led to a job as a statistician in the federal Department of Labour in 1905. Coats worked actively to improve labour statistics. He also served on a government commission that studied cost-of-living statistics. According to colleagues Nathan Keyfitz and Harold Greenway, Coats stood out with his initiative and sound judgement during this period.
Coats was named the Dominion statistician in the Department of Labour in 1915. The next year, he took charge of the Canadian Census and Statistics Office and launched special censuses of the Prairie provinces.
By 1916, the government had strong evidence that it needed a central office for federal statistics. Parliament passed several pieces of legislation to this end. The Statistics Act of 1918 created a new national statistical office, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics (now Statistics Canada). Coats was named its first Dominion statistician and controller of the census.
Career as Dominion Statistician
Robert Coats had a great impact on Canadian statistics. He was especially aware of the value of census information. He modernized censuses by introducing machine-readable punch cards to process census forms more quickly. Under Coats, the work of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics broadened. It came to include the collection of data on employment and unemployment, finance and crime. Seeing the need for timely data on industry, Coats separated industry data from the census taken every 10 years. He replaced that component with an annual form to collect data on Canada’s industries.
Coats was known for his integrity and candour. He had a clear sense of how to establish an efficient and effective statistics office. He saw statistics as not merely numbers to describe what has happened, but as a practical tool for planning where to go.
He retired as Dominion statistician in 1942, at age 67, after 24 years directing Canada’s Dominion Bureau of Statistics.
Robert Coats was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1923. He was a Fellow of the American Statistical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society of England, the Statistical Society of Mexico and the Statistical Society of Hungary.
The R. H. Coats Building is part of Statistics Canada's headquarters in Tunney's Pasture, Ottawa. Photo taken in 2005. (Courtesy SimonP/Wikimedia CC)