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Canadian Records

Louise J. St Denis offers general and province-specific tips for research.

Those involved in Canadian genealogical research for many years would acknowledge that individuals starting today are much luckier than we were. Genealogical societies are now found in most areas of Canada; transcription and indexing projects from birth records and newspaper obituaries to ship arrival records are quite advanced. Most archives realize the need for ‘user friendly’ environments and the Internet is starting to make substantial advancements especially in the area of searchable databases.

Canada in 1895. There have been major boundary changes since this map was made.

Canada has not had to face major world events where substantial collections of documents have been destroyed. Yes, we have had our share of records ruined by fires and floods, but we must be thankful that, in general, most recorded documentation has survived.

French-Canadians in particular are extremely fortunate. Because of the meticulous manner in which the Catholic church recorded events and because of the enormous transcription projects undertaken by individuals and societies, research tools are unique. For example, there’s a dictionary listing most marriages from the beginning of Quebec to 1935 in alphabetical order of both the male and female last names.

The transcription projects you will find are secondary source documents and these should be used as simply one more clue in your research project. It is strongly advised that you check with primary source documents to establish a true pedigree of your ancestors.

When researching, it is important to understand when various areas of Canada were developed and where immigrants settled. There are good books on the history of Canada.

It is equally important to understand why certain laws were not the same for each province at a particular time in history. An example is that Newfoundland’s 1921 census is online, yet much debate is going on regarding access to the Canadian 1911 census. Newfoundland did not join Confederation until 1949! For this purpose it is important to know when each province joined Confederation. Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia joined in 1867. Manitoba joined in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873, Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 and Newfoundland in 1949.

Church Registers and Vital Statistics
Civil registration usually came about long after settlements started and often there was resistance to the process. Church records are sometimes the only source of dates for births, marriages or deaths.

Just a few words of caution: First, remember that your ancestors may not have remained with the same denomination throughout all generations. Second, baptismal dates can sometimes be mistaken for birth dates, so be careful.

Church records can be found in the church of origin, their head office or their archives, in libraries, museums, or at the national or provincial archives. Some church records have been microfilmed by the LDS Church.

For details, see Researching Canadian Vital Statistic Records by Sharon Murphy, 1999.

Census Records
Censuses were taken for many reasons and at many different times. The first census in Canada was in 1666 in New France, now Quebec. Since 1851 a federal census has been taken every 10 years. Naturally some census years will be more useful because of the type of information gathered. Access to census records in most provinces is limited to those censuses taken prior to 1911.

Most censuses, having been microfilmed, are available through interlibrary loan.

For details, see Researching Canadian Census Records by Doris Bourrie, CGRS, 1998, and Thomas Hillman’s Catalogue Census Returns 1666-1891 — 1901 Supplement, published by the National Archives.

Wills and Estate
It is important to understand that there are two legal systems in Canada: English Common Law and Droit Civil in Quebec. Over the years, there have been various laws passed regarding wills and estates in both systems.

Before starting your research for a will, check with family members to see if someone has been left in the family bible or with other important family papers.

If one cannot be located, then first establish the date of death and the place of residency. Then try to find out if the deceased owned land in more than one jurisdiction. Once this information is found, you must determine where to start looking. Check with the local genealogical society or the provincial archive. The regulations of keeping wills differed from area to area and from province to province.

For details, see Researching Canadian Wills & Estates by Ronnie MacCarl, 1998.

Land Records
Land records provide information regarding the location of your ancestors. What can be more interesting is the historical anecdotes that land records can provide such as the value of the holdings or the usage made of the land.

First determine the location of where your ancestors may have owned land. Don’t forget to check through Census records and City directories for more clues. Since land records can be found mainly in Provincial Archives, I would suggest you start your search there.

For details, see Researching Canadian Land Records by Sharon Murphy, 1999.

Newspapers and Directories
Too many genealogists ignore the valuable information found in early newspapers. Naturally we immediately think of the obituaries for dates of death, but your ancestors seem to come back to life when you find stories about community and social events or even advertising a business. You will sometimes find passenger and immigration lists published.

The Halifax Gazette (1752) and the Québec Gazette (1764) were Canada’s earliest newspapers and can be found in archives.

Check further in the province section of this article for the earliest newspaper available for each province.

For a complete list of Canadian newspapers, consult the Checklist of Indexes to Canadian Newspapers published by the National Library of Canada.

City directories are available to help you locate your ancestors, so familiarize yourself with them. Look also for Bell Canada phone directories, many of which have been microfilmed and donated to provincial archives.

British Columbia and Ontario’s “Cemetery Finding Aid” websites are excellent resources for genealogists researching those provinces.

Archives and Societies
Most provinces have province-wide genealogical societies with many branches. Keep in mind that there are many independent genealogical or historical societies that exist. To find out which society is best for you, contact the public library in the town you believe your ancestors lived and ask how to contact the local society.

Most provinces have one central provincial archive. In some provinces, two major cities share in the housing of the records. In Quebec nine regional centers operate. It is important to verify what information is available and where it is housed before a trip to an archive is planned.

For a detailed list of Canadian genealogical and historical societies and provincial archives, consult A Canadian Directory for Genealogists by Louise St Denis, 1999.

Family History Centers
The collection of the LDS Church are extremely important. You can find passenger lists for Halifax and Quebec City, the index to civil registrations for Ontario, census and church records just to name a few. Request the Research Outline for the province of interest.

For details, see Researching at the Family History Center by Dr. Penelope Christensen, 1998.

Military Records
WWI and WWII service files are held at the National Archives. Check the finding aid guides for what is available. Some attestation forms can be viewed online.

For regimental histories, consult The Military Experience, 1867-1983 by O.A. Cooke.

Passenger Lists
A few early records do exist but they are difficult to search. You need to know the name of the ship, the port of arrival and the date.

Lists are complete for the ports of Quebec from 1865 and Halifax from 1881. Later on, other ports also became official: St John, New Brunswick in 1900, Victoria & Vancouver, British Columbia in 1905, North Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1906 and Montreal, Quebec in 1919. Indexing projects are ongoing.

The Internet
In the last few years the Internet has become a tool genealogists should not avoid. Although Sherri Petit writes in Genealogy on the Internet that there are more than two million genealogy sites, she acknowledges that the largest type of sites are family pages.

A word of warning: be very careful as to the weight you give to information found on the Internet. You have no idea how accurate it is! Use your findings as simply one more clue, then verify primary source documents.

But having said this, there is a large amount of very valuable information which can be found. Databases containing indexes of census records, land records, military records, cemetery records and much more can now be found. Archives, local organizations and individuals are all busy creating searchable databases. Some are ‘pay per use’ while free sites are sometimes available for the same information. Before signing up for a large amount of time on the ‘pay per use’ sites, I would suggest that you select the smallest amount of time possible to make sure this site will be of interest to you.

Visit my own site ( for many such links. Also try Cyndi’s List for Canadian sites ( and the Toronto Reference Library ( Web manager's note: You can log in as a guest to the Toronto Library site and access information by selecting the link to the "All In One Search" facility.

Starting in 1755, many Acadians lost their homes and farms, had their families separated, were starved and deported through mass expulsions from Nova Scotia.

The Provinces
Many good books have been written to help you with records available in each province and these books are listed in each provincial section below. For references to all provinces, read In Search of your Canadian Roots, by Angus Baxter, 1994. For the Maritimes, read Genealogist’s Handbook for Atlantic Canada Research, by Terrence Punch, 1978.

• Homestead records from 1883 to 1930 are on microfilm.
• Newspapers date back to 1880.
• City directories are available from 1881.
• Few census returns are available; first nominal census 1881.
• Wills are retained in the Courthouse of the Judicial District in which probate was granted.
• Land records can be searched in the appropriate offices.
• For details, see Finding your Ancestors in Alberta by Arlene Borgstede, 1998 and Tracing your Ancestors in Alberta by Victoria Lemieux and David Leonard, 1992

British Columbia
• Earliest census records available are for 1881.
• City and local directories exist from the 1860s.
• The BC Cemetery Finding Aid, an index of names of a large number of BC cemetery recordings is available online.
• Some wills date back to 1861.
• Original Crown grants & land records can be found.
• For details, see Finding your Ancestors in British Columbia by David Marvin Jackson, 1999.

• Census returns from 1832 are available; first nominal census 1870.
• Wills date back to 1879.
• Land records as early as the 1800s can be found.
• Indexed newspapers are available from 1859.
• The Hudson’s Bay Company has microfilmed many of its records from 1670 to 1951.
• For details, see Access to Ancestry by Elizabeth Briggs, 1993.

New Brunswick
• Land petitions, grants and other records are microfilmed and indexed.
• Newspapers dating from 1784 are available on microfilm.
• The 1851 is the first useful census.
• Early wills are available in the Provincial Archives.
• For details, see Starting a Family History Project in New Brunswick by Robert Fellows, 1995.

• Church of England parish registers from 1752 are the oldest. Other denominations started after 1784.
• Early census records date back to 1671; first nominal census 1891. The 1921 census is online.
• An online index of records of probated wills can be found for as early as the 1700s.
• Older Crown Land Grants are filed in the Crown Lands Office.
• Early newspapers are indexed.
• For details, see Finding your Ancestors in Newfoundland and Labrador by Bill Crant, 1998.

Nova Scotia
• Land records date back to 1702.
• Good collections of early newspapers exist.
• The earliest census was in 1752; first nominal census 1871.
• Marriage Bonds exist from 1763 to 1854 and from 1858 to 1871.
• Wills filed in the Courts of Probate date back to 1749.
• An index of land grant applications is available.
• For details, see Genealogical Research in Nova Scotia by Terrence Punch, 1998.

• The 1851/52 census is the first to name all household members. The 1871 census index is online.
• Wills from 1785 are filed at the provincial archives.
• Early newspapers can be found at the provincial archives as well as many local archives and libraries. For more information read Inventory of Ontario Newspapers 1793-1986, by J. Brian Gilchrist.
• The Ontario Cemeteries Finding Aid is an online index to thousands of cemetery transcripts compiled by branches of the Ontario Genealogical Society.
• Many land records exist from the late 1700s and are microfilmed.
• City and telephone directories exist for the early 1800s.
• For details, see Genealogy in Ontario: Searching the Records by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CGRS, CGL, 1996.

Prince Edward Island
• Some marriage records date back to 1787. Marriage registers were transcribed for 1833 to 1905. Earlier ones are indexed. All known existing baptisms church records from 1885 to 1905 have been transcribed.
• The first census was taken in 1728; first nominal census 1881.
• Newspapers exist since 1787 and many have been microfilmed and indexed.
• Land registry records from 1769 to 1900 exist. All pre-1900 land records are in the Public Archives.
• Wills are filed at the Law Courts in Charlottetown from the late 1700s and from 1807 to 1900.
• Telephone directories from 1930 to 1952, and provincial and city directories from 1864 are available.

• From the beginning of Quebec, registration of baptisms, marriages and deaths were recorded by local Catholic priests. Most have been transcribed and indexed. Protestant records were not recorded as thoroughly.
• The first genealogical dictionary published was in the late 1800s. A large dictionary now used is the Répertoire alphabétique des mariages des Canadiens-français which lists marriages in Québec to 1935.
Greffe de Notaire provides records of 166 notary publics from the French Regime and includes various record types.
• First census was taken in 1666.
• City directories exist from 1842; telephone directories from 1879.
• Newspapers from 1750 have been microfilmed.
• Indexed applications for land grants are available for the period from 1637 to 1841; crown grants from 1700 to 1890.
• For details, see Finding your French-Canadian Ancestors by Louise St Denis, 1998.

Acadian Research
Some people of French descent living in certain parts of the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, the New England States and Louisiana are known as Acadians or Cajuns. Starting in 1755, many lost their homes and farms, had their families separated, were starved and deported through mass expulsions from Nova Scotia. Many returned to France.

For details, consult Bona Arsenault’s Histoire et généalogie des Acadiens or the Centre d’Études Acadiennes at the University of Moncton.

• Records of marriages began in 1878; births and deaths in 1888. Records between 1905 and 1920 have many records missing.
• The first census is that of 1881.
• Land Records before 1905 are in the Land Titles Office in Regina.
• Early newspapers are from 1878; early city directories of Saskatoon and Regina exist.
• Wills are kept on file at the Judicial centre where the probate was granted. An index is available at the Courthouse in Regina.
• For details, see Exploring Family History in Saskatchewan by D’Arcy Hander, 1983.

The Territories
• First nominal census was taken in 1891.
• Some vital records date back to 1883. Some are in the custody of the Registrar General, others are in church archives.

There is so much information available to research your Canadian ancestors. To make the most out of your research time, you should first prepare a written research plan. Include in your plan the surnames required, the location of settlements or residences and finally the years to look for. As you work through your research, keep a log of what documents you have consulted and your findings. This will enable you to systematically verify all the proper records available for your research.

When in doubt, participate in education forums. Courses are given by genealogical societies around the country. Most recently the University of Toronto, through the Faculty of Information Services has announced a ‘Certificate in Genealogical Studies’ program. Individual courses are offered on a variety of topics all accessed entirely over the Internet. More details are available online (

Keep the knobs rolling on the microfilm readers, your fingers moving on the keyboards and your knees dirty in those cemetery. Good luck with your research!

This article originally appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Family Chronicle.


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