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  • Getting Started: Canadian Census Records

    Michael J. Leclerc

    Brief Timeline of Canadian History
    To understand the Canadian census records, it is necessary to keep in mind the history of Canadian settlement and government. Samuel de Champlain established the first permanent settlements in Acadia in 1605 and in Québec in 1606. Jean Talon became the intendant in Québec in 1665, at the height of problems between the settlers and the Iroquois. Fighting between France and England spilled over into their colonies in North America. Possession of much of the territory in the Maritimes went back and forth from one country to the other until 1759, when France formally ceded her northern possessions to England. Québec's lands were separated into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791. They were reunited in 1841 to become Canada West and Canada East, eventually becoming the provinces Ontario and Québec, respectively.

    In 1867 Ontario, Québec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick united to become the Dominion of Canada. Manitoba joined the confederation in 1870, and British Columbia in 1873. Prince Edward Island followed shortly afterward, in 1875. Alberta and Saskatchewan became part of Canada in 1905. The province of Newfoundland and Labrador was added in 1949. Knowing these dates makes it easier to understand why certain censuses were taken when they were.

    Census Taking in Canada
    The first census in Canada was taken in Québec in 1666 by Intendant Jean Talon. There were 3,215 inhabitants of New France at the time1. Censuses were taken at very irregular intervals from then until 1851. The first Dominion census was taken in 1871, and the census has been taken every ten years ever since. The census most recently released to the public is that for 1901. Many of the original pre-1871 census records are housed in repositories in the respective provinces. The National Archives of Canada gathered together and microfilmed as many of these census records as possible. These microfilms are available at NEHGS, the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City (and available for rental from local Family History Centers). Many other local repositories in the United States and Canada have copies of certain films as well. Microfilms can be ordered from the National Archives of Canada through interlibrary loan at your local public library. All available censuses are listed at the end of this column.

    The provinces were divided into census districts and sub-districts. The districts represented electoral districts, which were almost always equivalent to city or county boundaries. Sub-districts were equivalent to towns or townships and wards within cities. In 1871, 1881 and 1891 finding aids were produced that give the exact district and sub-district for localities in each province. Films were made in order by district, and within each district by sub-district. Using these finding aids will also aid you in finding a particular sub-district on a reel of film.

    Information in the Censuses
    The information recorded in the records varied from census year to census year. For example, in 1901 the exact date of birth was asked for, not just a person's age or year of birth, as on previous censuses. Pre-1871 census information varies from province to province. For example, the 1861 census for Québec enumerates everyone by name, while a census taken the same year in the province of Nova Scotia names only the heads of household--other members of the household were listed only by age categories.

    When using Canadian censuses, it is important to keep in mind the French tradition that women kept their maiden names throughout their lives. This tradition persisted until the early twentieth century. When doing census research on French-Canadians, you will notice that women are usually listed under their maiden name. A typical listing will show the husband under his name, the wife under her maiden name, then the children, who use the surname of the father. The 1881 census starts to show some women under the name of their husband, but it is not until the 1901 census that this becomes the uniform way to record names.

    One very valuable piece of information included on the Canadian censuses that does not appear in United States Federal censuses is religion. Taking note of an individual's religion will direct you to church records. It is fairly common, however, to see a husband and wife of different faiths, so be especially attentive to the religion of all members of the household, as records in more than one church may need to be consulted for a particular family. Also, make note of a person's religion in each census, as it was not uncommon for individuals to convert to another faith.

    The year for which the most extensive information exists is 1871. The following schedules were microfilmed for this census year:

    1. Nominal return of the living
    2.  Nominal return of deaths within the last twelve months
    3. Return of public institutions, real estate, vehicles, and implements
    4. Return of cultivated land, field products, and plants and fruits
    5. Return of livestock, animal products, homemade fabrics and furs
    6. Return of industrial establishment
    7. Return of products of the forest
    8. Return of shipping and fisheries
    9. Return of mineral products

    Unlike the United States, where non-population schedules have been microfilmed separately from the population schedules, these schedules were all filmed together by sub-district. Schedules 3-9 can be cross-referenced to schedule one by looking at the page and line references in the first two columns. It is most unfortunate that the 1871 census for Prince Edward Island did not survive.

    Census Indexes
    Unfortunately, Canadian censuses are not as well indexed as those in the United States. There are many projects underway at local levels to index and/or transcribe census records. For example, the National Archives of Canada and the Ontario Genealogical Society collaborated on a project to index the 1871 census for Ontario.

    Remember that indexes to the censuses in Canada are being done by many different groups and usually by volunteers. Criteria for creating indexes, transcriptions, and so on, change from place to place and from census year to census year. If you cannot find an individual in an index that you know should be in a particular location, it is a good idea to look through the actual census for that area. Occasionally specialized indexes are published, such as Glen Eker's Index to Jewish residents in the 1851 and 1861 censuses of Upper Canada and the 1861 census of Lower Canada, which indexes only those in the census who indicated that they were Jewish.

    NEHGS has a large collection of Canadian census indexes. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has copies of these books as well. Unfortunately, they are not available on microfilm at this time. Another place to look for up-to-date indexes is the Internet. Many individuals and organizations are working on various projects to put census indexes online. The Alberta Family History Society has started the (NEHGS Technology Award-winning) Canadian Genealogical Project Registry. This keeps track of many different genealogical projects, including the compilation of indexes, currently underway on Canadian records. The Registry can be accessed through the website of the Alberta Family History Society.

    Post-1901 Census Controversy
    No discussion of Canadian census records would be complete without mention of the current work being done in Canada to preserve access to post-1901 census records. There is much debate over whether these records should be transferred from Statistics Canada to the National Archives of Canada. The debate arises from compromises made by Sir Wilfred Laurier's government at the beginning of the century over the release of information. Many individuals feared how the information they provided on the census would be used. The Laurier government promised that census workers would not provide information to tax collectors, the military, and the like. The question now is whether Statistics Canada should turn over the censuses or destroy them.

    After much discussion and compromise involving Statistics Canada, the National Archives of Canada, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, genealogists, historians, and other interested members of the public, Senator Lorna Milne has introduced Bill S-15 to ensure access to all censuses. Under the terms of the bill, censuses older than 30 years would be transferred from Statistics Canada to the National Archives. All censuses would be released to the public 92 years after they were first taken. This last provision is the current schedule of release for censuses. Gordon Watts and Global Genealogy have done a tremendous job of keeping the genealogical community informed on the situation. For a more detailed history of the circumstances surrounding the controversy and current updates, see the Global Genealogy Website.

    Following is a chart of censuses that were microfilmed by the National Archives of Canada:
    Province Census Years

    Province Years Available
    Alberta 1881, 1891, 1901
    British Columbia 1881, 1891, 1901
    Manitoba 1831, 1849, 1870, 1881, 1891, 1901
    New Brunswick 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901
    Nova Scotia 1770-71, 1785-87, 1791-95, 1811,
    1817-18, 1827,1838, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901
    Ontario 1801, 1803, 1842, 1847, 1848, 1850, 1851, 1861,1871, 1881, 1891, 1901
    Prince Edward Island 1841, 1860-61, 1881, 1891, 1901
    Québec 1666, 1667, 1681, 1811, 1813, 1825, 1830, 1831,1832-35, 1842, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1901
    Saskatchewan 1881, 1891, 1901
    Territories 1891, 1901

    Helpful Websites


    1Thomas A. Hillman, Catalogue of Census Returns on Microfilm 1666-1891 (Ottawa, Ont.: Public Archives of Canada, 1987), viii.

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