Introduction to Canadian Genealogy Research
Introduction to Canadian Genealogy Research
by GFS Susan (Susan E. Norris)
Whether you are just starting out on your search for your Canadian ancestors or have been researching for a while, we hope that you will find the following information helpful.
The most important lesson for anyone doing genealogy research is that you must work from the known to the unknown and from the present to the past. If you know that great grandpa lived in Canada for a while on his way from Ireland to California, you can't just pick Canada as the starting point for your search. You will have to trace him backwards from his last residence in California.
Canada is the second largest country in the world. It has a long and colourful history that dates back several hundred years. At the same time however, Canada is a relatively young nation. Previously under French and English rule, Canada became it's own nation on July 1, 1867. This young nation was composed of the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Depending on the part of Canada that your family lived in, this will affect the records that are available for you to search.
If you are just starting to research your roots, you will want to start by writing down everything you know about you, the first person in your family tree. Write down where you live now, where you were born, who, when and where you were married and anything else that has been an important event in your life. Then do the same thing for your parents. If you know about your grandparents, you can continue back to that generation. Continue in this fashion until you run out of "what I already know" information. The next step is to talk to living family members and see what they can tell you about themselves or your common relatives. Don't limit yourself to family members though. If you can, talk to older friends of the family or former neighbours if your family lived in an area for a prolonged period of time. These people may be able to help fill in gaps in your relatives' memories. A key point to remember though is that you shouldn't take family memories as the absolute truth. Not that they are not telling the truth, but time and human nature tend to distort the truth a little. Once you have learned as much as you can from living relatives it is time to move on to other sources of information.
Collecting Information from Vital Records
Now it is time to start locating additional sources of information that will give you the details of your family. Some of these sources include but are not limited to: census records, birth, marriage and death records, wills and estate records, military files, and immigration records.
Census Records: The first census taken in Canada was conducted in New France (Quebec) in 1666. However the taking of a census was not a legal requirement until Confederation in 1867. The first census for the Dominion of Canada was conducted in 1871 and has been carried out every 10 years since. There are various census records that do exist for times before this. Some of these were province wide and some are for specific towns only. The amount of information that can be obtained from censuses varies. Some were every name listing while others named only heads of household. Some of the census records have been indexed. Many of these are in book format and are held locally in the county or parish that the index covers. Census records are available on microfilm from the National Archives of Canada. Most provincial archives hold copies of the censuses that pertain to them. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City also has copies of at least the federal censuses from 1871 - 1901. These can be viewed at your local Family History Center for a minimal rental fee.
Birth, Marriage and Death Records: Birth, marriage and death records can be valuable sources of information. In addition to providing information about dates and locations for life events, they can also provide clues to other family relationships and point to additional sources of information. Civil registration was not common practice in Canada until the provinces took it as their responsibility in the late 19th century. Recent records are in the custody of the provincial governments. Some of the records have been microfilmed and are available for genealogists to view. Prior to civil registration the most likely source of information for these life events is church records. To use these sources it is necessary to know where the person lived and their religious denomination.
Land Records: Petitions for land exist for Quebec for the period 1764 - 1841 and for Ontario for 1791 - 1867. These records are the applications that settlers were required to submit to the governor to obtain Crown Land. Many of these settlers were Loyalists who had served the British during the American Revolution. These land petitions can be valuable sources of information as they commonly included information on the applicant's family, country of origin and ancestors. Later land records are of less value as they frequently included only a description of the land, name of the grantee and the date of the transaction. This however, can be very helpful in placing a specific ancestor in a location at a certain point in time. It can also give insight into family life at the time by indicating how much wealth the family may have had.
Wills and Estate Records: These records are in the custody of the provinces. These can be valuable for identifying family relationships. When a person died there was certain paperwork generated whether the person had a will or not. Estate files can also include correspondence, inventories of property and guardianship papers.
Military Records: The majority of Canadian Military records cover only the 20th century. Access to these records is restricted. Depending on whether the person is living or deceased will impact who has access to the information. If you have someone who served in the Canadian Military, you should check with the National Archives of Canada to see what might be available.
Immigration Records: Unfortunately very few lists of immigrants arriving in Canada prior to 1865 exist. Microfilm copies of passenger lists for the period after 1865 to approximately 1919 are available for ships arriving at certain ports. The primary ports of immigration were Quebec, Que., Halifax, Nova Scotia and St. John, New Brunswick. Immigration to and from the United States was not recorded for the most part. Until the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947, persons born in British North America were considered British subjects. Therefore immigrants from Great Britain were considered equal and naturalization was not a requirement.
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