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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 ($).
That Most Important Man—the Notary
Notaries serve both the French and English-speaking communities, and by the late 19th century there were many “English” notaries. Their services were, and are, necessary whether your Québec ancestors were Roman Catholic or of “Other” religions. You cannot ignore them.
The Notary Public is not unique to the Province of Québec, but under the unique Québec Civil Code, Notaries do much of the day to day work that lawyers perform in other jurisdictions. The family’s Notary not only draws up deeds of sale for land, but mortgages, marriage contracts and wills as well. He can also administer estates (without the formality of probate).
Obviously, with his hands on all these events, the notary is a man of wealth and influence whose house is often the largest in town. In exchange for this, the Québec Notary must keep all such contracts and documents (Minutes) indefinitely; in fact they have been kept from the beginning of the French regime. The individual notary’s archives are termed his greffe. If he goes out of business he may sell to another Notary who takes over the greffe, or failing this, his greffe (original files) is deposited with the Prothonotary of the Judicial District.
For many years, this material remained in courthouse basements, with all the perils that exposed them to, until the provincial government decided to collect the surviving documents. Now after 80 to 100 years the greffes are supposed to go to the Provincial Archives [ANQ], to be placed in the branch that serves the appropriate judicial district. Here the notarial archives are being indexed (and computerized), finding aids prepared, and the records microfilmed. The Parchemin Project, based at the ANQ in Montréal, plans to index every notarial record from the beginning to 1885. Logically, the project started at “the Beginning”, but has already progressed into the 19th century.
Index des greffes des notaires décédes, 1645-1949, lists deceased notaries by place, name, dates, etc. and using it one can usually determine which man served where. For later years, the Chambre des notaires du Québec also issues annually loose-leaf Tableau de l’Ordre des notaires de la province de Québec which includes a lists of “Notaires qui ne sont plus au tableau de l’ordre”, [Notaries no longer on the rolls of the order] which gives names, last residence, date they were enrolled as a notary, the last year they worked as a notary and where the greffe is now. The regional branch ANQ should have a copy.
For large cities like Montréal and Québec, finding out who served your family can be a challenge. In the absence of any family documents that might give a name, one can look at an index to Marriage Contracts -Index des contrats de mariage (1780-1930) - at the ANQ. On a large set of microfiche, these hand-written cards name bride, groom, date of contract (usually same as date of marriage) and the Notary. Almost always this is the Family Notary.
Some of the Common Notarial Documents
Until 1 July 1970 the Québec Civil Code assumed ‘community of property’ for any marriage where the spouses did not have a marriage contract. Thus it became the custom, where the wife brought her own property into a marriage, to have a marriage contract drawn up by a Notary, establishing that the spouses were separate as to property, compensating the wife for her dower rights, and setting out any other things that the families were concerned about. These may be merely form contracts, but some can be of great interest.
A marriage contract became less necessary after 1970, when the Québec Civil Code made various provisions for spouses to own individually, the property acquired before marriage, but provided for property acquired jointly after the marriage. Nevertheless, for genealogical purposes, the hunt for a marriage contract should always be attempted; you may learn a lot of family details.
The Québec Civil Code provides for holograph wills and wills signed before witnesses, as well as ones drawn up by a Notary. Only the first two require probate, and while a notarial will requires paying the Notary, there are advantages. The Notary who draws up a will is also empowered to distribute the estate (without the cost of formal probate). An estate administered by the local Notary almost always includes a very detailed inventory of property with value of items. It might even include a list of “the following notarial contracts” sequestered by the deceased, which you can hunt for. The will, however, remains a part of the Notary’s greffe and may be passed on to other notaries. A record of such transfers is kept by the Chambre des Notaires but unless the will is over 100 years old, it may still be privately held and unavailable except for legal purposes.
In 1961 a Register of Notarial Wills was established, to obtain a notarial will for someone who died after 1 January 1961. You should contact the Registre des testaments et mandats, Chambre des notaires du Québec and ask for the form: Request for the Search of Will. The form outlines the requirements, and there is a fee.
Donations entre vifs or Deed of Donation
These records are said to be unique to Québec, though I have seen a similar contract in early Ontario land papers. In Québec they date from as early as the 1650s. Elderly people of both language groups, and any religion, expecting to die, would use such a document to divide their property among their children while still alive, making detailed provisions for their support and care until death. If such a contract exists, there may be no will, estate or probate. Again these notarial documents will remain with the greffe, and hopefully are now in the Archives of Québec. There may be a copy among family papers as well. We have one in which my husband’s great-grandfather, Alonzo Todd, turned his farm over to his son, Ernest, to run in 1895. The Notary was J.I. MacKie and both the document and its registration are in English.
Apprenticeship documents will normally only give the parents name. Guardianship papers were required for minor children if one parent died, naming a second guardian (tuteur/tutrice), usually another family member and this will give other family names and relationships. As in English law, wives had certain rights (dower rights) in the family home. A married man could only sell such property with his wife’s consent, and some such (et ux) document should be with the bill of sale.
Notaries serving English-speaking clients usually wrote in English, but while the words are English, the syntax is legalese and often hard to wade through. If you encounter older documents in French, get a copy of the document. It can be slow work translating 17th or 18th century legal French. One researcher suggested first you translate it into modern readable French, then into English.
Parchemin, Société Archiv-Histo
C.P. 25, succ D, Montréal (Québec) H3K 3B2
Chambre des notaires du Québec
1801, avenue McGill College, bureau 600
Montréal (Québec) H3A 0A7
Telephone: (514) 879-1793[[Image:]](514) 879-1793
Registre des testaments et mandats [Register of Wills]
1801, avenue McGill College, bureau 600
Montréal (Québec) ) H3A 0A7
- This material is extracted from "Chapter 10 - The Notary in Québec", Althea Douglas, Here be Dragon, too! (Toronto: OGS,2000) pages 67-71 For an extensive reading list on the profession, see John P. Dulong, Ph.D., "French Canadian and Acadian Notarial Records". a bibliography, published in Proceedings O.S.G. Seminar'95 (Chatham, Ontario: OGS, 1995) pages 126-127.
- Index des greffes des notaires décédes, 1645-1949, comp. Jean-Marie Laliberté (Québec: B. Pontbriand, 1967).
- It serves as an illustration in Here be Dragons, too! op.cit. page 70.
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