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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 Research: Quebec Non-Francophone Ancestors by Althea Douglas M.A., CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Genealogical research in Québec has changed so much over the past thirty years that anything written before 1970 on where to locate documents, what records are open or closed, and what published sources are best, is obsolete. Even if written before 1993, information can be out of date and misleading, so always check publication dates.
Québec is Divided in Many Ways
- As of the year 2000, Québec is officially divided primarily by language: Anglophone or Francophone.
- But—for two centuries after the battle on the Plains of Abraham, the important division was not linguistic, but religious. Québecers were either Roman Catholic or non-Catholic, i.e. “Other”, who could be anything from Anglican to Zoroastrian (Jews, for the most part, are anglophone, and Protestant for educational purposes).
- There are two defining breaks in the historic timeline; the Treaty of Paris signed in 1763 which made Québec a British colony, and 1970 (give or take a year or two), when the “Quiet Revolution” brought new laws and regulations, changes that brought Québec society into the 20th century.
- Like any large area there are geographic divisions with rivers, lakes and mountains forming boundaries. The Townships l’Outaouais, Gaspé, the Gulf and the north-west, each requires special consideration.
- Social divisions are similar to those everywhere, urban or rural, rich or poor, long-established vs. newcomers (which sometimes translates as pure laine vs. “ethnic”)—put all the above together and the permutations and combinations can be complex, not to say daunting.
British and French Settlements in North America
Map 1: British and French Settlements in North America
Detail from A Map of the British and French Settlements in North America,
J. Lodge, Gentleman’s Magazine (July 1755) author’s collection.
Some Thoughts on Language
While 80 percent or more of the records and books you are likely to use are in English, or have a bilingual format, when researching in Québec you will encounter some material in French. Simply put, you must understand enough French to use the P.R.D.H. database. It is not difficult, you need a vocabulary of a few hundred words at most. Entries in Parish registers usually follow a standard format, as do most legal documents. Translate one entry and you have translated almost all except for names, dates and relationships.
If you ever studied French, any Traveller’s Phrase Book will refresh you on the basic genealogist’s vocabulary: names of the months, days of the week, numbers from 0 to 100, family (mère, père, frère, soeur, belle-mère, beau-frère, etc.). There are a number of guides written for Americans searching French-Canadian ancestry that will help you with translations of the parish register and legal forms, as well as archaic word usage and old occupations. The Rev. Dennis M. Boudreau, Beginning Franco-American Genealogy, published by American French Genealogical Society (2nd printing 1993), contains vocabulary lists, sample documents with translations, and a guide through the mysterious and assorted formulas used in various Répertoire des mariages de....
Four Important Words
Learn the four following words, you will want to recognize them when you meet them in bibliographies and catalogues:
| répertoire [repertwa:r]
|| m alphabetical list, index, directory|
|| m card file index, data file|
|| directory published annually (e.g. telephone book)|
|| census, or counting (of votes) |
If you have never studied French, you have more of a problem, but not the one you may think. You need to know how French is pronounced. Phonetic spelling occurs wherever the two languages meet. A francophone Notary will usually spell Douglas with a double ‘ss’, Douglass, because Douglas with one ‘s’ is pronounced Doog-lah. The Irish Bridget family settled for a while in Lotbinière County and their name became Bridgette, so neighbours would pronounce the last ‘t’. If you do speak a bit of French, you will understand how, and not be surprised that, O’Brien became Aubry, and Sauvé turned into Sophy.
St. James is St-Jacques
You will have to learn to think geographically in both languages. Today, L’Office de la langue française insists every place and street name be in French and modern road maps follow their dictates. However, for almost two centuries many documents and maps used English names. St. James Street in Montréal was once the financial heart of Canada. Today it is rue Saint-Jacques and the power has shifted to Toronto’s Bay Street. Dorchester Street is now boulevard René Lesveque—but that is a political change. Do not confuse a reference to St. Johns, officially St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, with Saint John, New Brunswick, or St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland. We will be using a lot of the older English terminology, with some translations, in part because these are the names you may well encounter, and in part to alert you to the language divide in Québec geography.
The Religious Divide
Nevertheless, in Québec, the Two Solitudes of Genealogy are not Language but Religion. Official vital records are either Roman Catholic or Non-Catholic.
- In Québec, before 1926, all registration of vital records was done by the church. Each Parish of whatever denomination, sent a copy of their registers to the local Prothonotary Court where it served as the Civil Registration of baptisms (normally giving date of birth), marriages and burials (usually giving date of death). Most church registers and/or official copies have some sort of annual index, but not all. The individual courts were expected to index their register holdings.
The process of finding Roman Catholic ancestors in Québec, whether they spoke French, English, German, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Creole or Vietnamese, is essentially the same. Finding English-speaking Irish Catholics is the same as finding Francophone ancestors. Records and sources are covered elsewhere and will be noted here briefly, or when there are exceptions or special situations in society that warrant consideration. Finding the “Others” is similar, but with certain differences. Books on the methodology of genealogical research in Québec rarely cover both segments of the population, though they often divide by language rather than religion. Local histories tend to cover a single county, city, or region of the Province and if you read one by an English writer and another by a French Canadian, you may wonder if they are writing about the same place. And speaking of place, Québec refers to the whole province, Québec City to the city.
Where Are They?
“English” Québec has always been a mobile society. Moreover, it is very important to understand that at the time of Confederation (1867), the racial balance in Canada East (as the province of Québec was then called) was very different from what it is today:
- In Canada East, … people of English, Scotch and Irish origin made up well over 20 percent of the population in 1867. Montréal was more than half “English,” Québec City about 45 percent, the Eastern Townships were overwhelmingly “English,” and there was a substantial “English” minority in Gaspé and several other counties.
The late Senator Eugene Forsey wrote these words in a letter to the Toronto Globe and Mail of 10 February, 1986. Memorize them! By “English”, he meant English-speaking peoples, both from the British Isles and the United States. He tells you where, even today, you will find most of the English-speaking peoples of Québec. If this material seems to stress geography as much as records and documents, that is because to find the latter, you will have to pay attention to the former. The hunt for Non-Roman Catholics in Québec, whatever their origins, will be treated in part, geographically.
“English” Communities In Québec Divide Into Four Groups
The major urban centres along the Saint Lawrence River: Montréal, Sorel, Three Rivers and Québec City, where merchants, and then industries provide employment for managers, labourers and tradesmen. Today, Montréal and its surrounding suburbs still matter, the English population in the other cities have shrunk and assimilated.
The Eastern (and western) Townships along the border with the USA; these are predominantly rural and agricultural, with a few towns, and in spite of French expansion into the region, still have a lot of ‘English’.
“Several other counties” are in the Ottawa river valley, where forestry was originally the main source of wealth and employment. Only partially in Québec, the population and their records spill across the river in both directions. Here, large groups of “English” remain; those around Hull taking advantage of lower Québec housing costs while working in Ontario.
Parts of Gaspé and some small Gulf of Saint Lawrence settlements, where the dominance of the fishing industry means that most travel was by boat. These small, shrinking communities are a special case, more or less unrelated to the others, though vital records and land ownership are the same as in the rest of Québec.
A new organization, founded at Bishop’s University in 2000 is the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network. It is a Quebec-wide “umbrella” organization linking historical societies and heritage groups, encouraging cooperation and improving communication. Full address in the Historical addresses section.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Quebec Non-Francophone Ancestors 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.