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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Newspaper Records by Ryan Taylor, revised by Susanna de Groot, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
When we think of newspapers, we probably think of community papers marketing general news to everyone in a particular geographical area. There are many other journals, also in the news business, but with a specialised market. The news they purvey concerns itself with a particular topic, but is equally current and the publication is shortlived in its physical form. It is meant to be read and discarded, as the community newspapers are.
There are a great many of these special papers across Canada, and they contain material advantageous to the genealogist. Ethnic newspapers have a clear appeal to an immigrant population (and everyone except the aboriginal peoples were immigrants at some point). Religious newspapers had a strong appeal, especially in the 19th century. Other special newspapers, such as labour periodicals, also contain biographical information useful to researchers.
Immigrant groups wanted to keep in touch with one another for a number of reasons: because they had plenty in common, because they wanted news of the old country, because they needed a publication in their own language, not French or English. These needs might last more than the immigrant generation, too. The result was the publication of ethnic newspapers, some of which were for a specific city, and some of which were meant to serve a far-flung population.
Genealogists intending to search for family members in these ethnic newspapers should remember that they would be in the original family language. You will be at a disadvantage if you cannot speak it, but that does not mean you must abandon the thought of looking at them. Approach the matter with an open mind.
At best, consider learning some basic vocabulary and grammar of the language, because you are going to encounter this problem again in your research in other records, the further back you go. At the very least, have someone write down the words for birth, marriage, death and similar genealogical concepts for you. Obtain a dictionary which translates your language to English. Even the most obscure languages, such as Wend, now have dictionaries available. If you intend to do research on your family for any length of time, a good dictionary of their language is a necessity anyway. Remember that you are looking for personal names. In many languages, these will be immediately identifiable no matter what the context. If the language you are dealing with is inflected, have someone write down the inflected forms of the commonest names you are researching, to use as a reference list. If the language you are researching is in another alphabet (Cyrillic, perhaps, or Greek), have someone write down the names for you in that form, again as a reference list. Make a copy of any news items you find which seem to mention a family member. Photocopies are best, but transcriptions will do if photocopies are not available. It is important that transcriptions be absolutely accurate. Then find someone who speaks the language and have them do the translations for you. You will probably have to pay for this service.
What kind of news items can you hope to find? There are bound to be the usual BMD columns, especially obituaries. There may be other items, if your relatives were politically active or involved in ethnic organizations. It may be that there is a family tradition which describes this involvement, but even if you have none, look for it in case the tradition has not been passed down. Here is an example. Niilo Hursti was born in Finland in 1901, came to Canada in the 1920s, settling in Timmins, Ontario. He worked in the mines there, but had always been interested in the theatre. He appeared in musicals, singing in performances for a number of Finnish organizations across northern Ontario for many years. Anyone researching his life for family history reasons would find reviews of the shows and news of his tours in the many Finnish newspapers published in that era. Finnish is a notoriously difficult language, but ‘Hursti’ or ‘Hurstinen’ are both easy to spot in newspaper type.
A basic question for all North American genealogists is finding where the family originated. If there is no family tradition about place of origin, searching in other resources may be necessary. Since immigrants tended to travel with, or settle with, people from their own home area, newspaper references may be useful in establishing that a group came from a certain village or province back home. There may even be a reference which links your relatives to a locale in the homeland.
The first step will be locating a newspaper which might be relevant to your search. There are bibliographies which will help:
George Bonavia. Ethnic publications in Canada: newspapers, periodicals, magazines, bulletins, newsletters. Ottawa: Dept. of the Secretary of State of Canada, Multiculturalism, 1987.
Canadian ethnic press review = Revue de la presse ethnique du Canada. Ottawa: Citizenship Branch, Secretary of State Dept., 1972-
Andrew Gregorovich. Canadian ethnic press bibliography: ethnic, multilingual and multicultural press of Canada, selected bibliography. Toronto: Canadian Multilingual Press Federation, 1991.
Andrew Machalski. The ethnic press in Canada. Toronto: Hilda Wilson Group, 1988.
The growth in interest in groups other than the two principal founding societies in Canada, which began in the 1960s and continues today, has meant that there are many compilations or studies similar to those listed above. Many of these will be unpublished, perhaps in the form of theses. Theses are another greatly underused genealogical resource. Canadian theses are deposited at the Library and Archives Canada (LAC), which makes them available on interlibrary loan on microfiche. Access to all these materials is very inexpensive and easy. There is no charge for the loan, and the theses are all listed in the Library and Archives Canada catalogue. Look at the online catalogue using the name of the ethnic group which interests you, or make a reference query to the LACvia their website.
You will also find that there have been studies of the newspapers of the particular group you are researching, or studies concentrating on a particular geographic area.
Arja Pilli. The Finnish-language press in Canada, 1901-1939: a study in the history of ethnic journalism. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1982.
Herbert Karl Kalbfleisch. The history of the German newspapers of Ontario, Canada, 1835-1918. London, University of Western Ontario, 1968.
The multilingual press in Manitoba. Winnipeg: Canada Press Club, 1974.
These studies may not be book-length. Articles or essays may be found in periodicals or collections, accessible through using periodical indexes or by database searching. An example is “The Chinese press in the United States and Canada since World War II: a diversity of voices,” by Him Mark Lai, published in Chinese America: history and perspectives 1990 (Chinese Historical Society of America, 1990).
Since many of these ethnic newspapers served a wide area, you may need to consult an expert on the ethnic group to see which newspaper would have been the most popular or the most likely to include your family. There are considerations other than geographical ones, also. Particular newspapers might have catered to factions within the ethnic group, and you should know which faction your family might have favoured. For example, the Finns of northern Ontario in the period between the wars and especially after World War II were divided between Red Finns (those who favoured the socialist or communist system) and White Finns (those who did not). Feelings ran quite high between the two groups.
There may also have been divisions based on cultural differences from the homeland which drew a line between emigrants in Canada. These may not necessarily have been particularly antagonistic, but simply reflected interests or feelings from an earlier time. For your own family history narrative, you should be aware of how your relatives felt about these issues, but knowledge of them will also help you in choosing resources such as ethnic newspapers here.
One of the best resources for persons doing ethnic research in Ontario is the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, based in Toronto. They have an enormous archives, which includes newspapers. Many ethnic newspapers were microfilmed as a joint project of the Archives of Ontario and the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, and a catalogue published, Multicultural newspapers (Toronto: Archives of Ontario, 1992). These films are available on interlibrary loan from AO; their catalogue of materials to be lent can be found on their website.
The difficulty, of course, is determining whether there is a newspaper for your ethnic group in a time period which interests you. The Multicultural History Society of Ontario has made it easy to answer this question, by using the handbook, A guide to the collections of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, compiled by Nick G. Forte; edited and with an introduction by Gabriele Scardellato (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1992). There are newspaper listings under each ethnic group, with details of publication years.
Other provincial archives will also include non-English and non-French newspapers in their collections; consult their catalogues and websites. Many ethnic groups have their own archives if they are large enough to support them. The Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada in Winnipeg, for example, has back issues of Jewish newspapers and a computerized index of articles from them. Their database includes a category ‘genealogy’ which includes over 18,000 references. The form of the computer entries is an abstract of the contents, including most personal names.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.