How Accurate is the Information Contained in Canadian Census Records? (National Institute)

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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 Census Part 1 and Part 2  by Doris Bourrie, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Let us begin with a refreshment of some genealogical standards:

  • The sources and records we consult for genealogy can be original or derivative. A census record is an original, contemporary document (which we are likely viewing as a microfilm reproduction). An index or finding aid for a census is a derivative source.
  • The information contained in the source might be primary or secondary depending on who created the record, and whether that person was present to witness the information being described. A census return contains multiple pieces of information or data about each individual. We do know an enumerator wrote the information down for posterity, but we can rarely be sure of who spoke to the enumerator that day to give the family information.

The information collected in the census records was subject to human fallibility. The enumerator may have misheard some information, or misunderstood what was said.

He probably wrote the names as he heard them, not necessarily recording the spelling normally used by the family.

The informant may have been the head of the family, who answered the questions to the best of his/her ability. On the other hand, the informant may have been a child, or neighbour, or hired man, who was not in the position to give accurate answers.

Sometimes memory is faulty, and dates and ages in particular are given incorrectly. There may also have been some problems encountered by the enumerators in obtaining information.

When making his report to the Board of Registration and Statistics on the 1851-52 census, secretary William Hutton commented “...a very general feeling was found to prevail throughout the Colony that the census had some direct or indirect reference to taxation—and in this belief the Enumerators were frequently received most ungraciously, and the information sought was not only partially, but in some cases, altogether withheld.” [1]

It is advisable to collect census records for your family from all available census periods. Then compare the information given in each record in an effort to determine, as far as possible, the accuracy of the information provided.

When locating your family in any census, be sure that you document the exact location of the record you have found. Years later you may wish to have another look at that particular census record, or you may wish to pass this information on to another researcher. If you have accurately documented the source of the information you will have no difficulty in locating the information again, or in guiding someone else to that information.

Example of complete census documentation:

  • John Smith household, 1891 Census of Canada, Ontario, Kingston City (district 80), Frontenac Ward (sub-district 8), division B2, page [#], line [#], household [#], family [#]; microfilm T-6346, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.

Age: This category frequently varies from census to census. A person’s age may have changed by 12 years during one census period, and only 8 years during another. By comparing the ages given in all the census records found, a median may be worked out for year of birth, with outside dates based on the different ages listed in the various census records.

Special care should be taken in calculating the year of birth based on the 1851 census record. This census was actually taken in January 1852, and requested the ages that year, so be careful with calculations.

Name:  Names were provided by the informant, and written down by the enumerator. In many cases the surname (and even the given name) was written as the enumerator thought it should be spelled. Therefore, a surname of Whyte might quite possibly be written as White.

Enumerators had difficulties with unfamiliar ethnic names, or information given in heavily-accented English. Imagine an early census-taker trying to handle the pockets of French-Canadian, Germanic-origin, and Gaelic-speaking highlanders! They did their best with phonetic spellings.

Often a given name was the name commonly being used (i.e. Peggy instead of Margaret, Essie instead of Esther, Sandy for Alexander).

A family with a French name, such as Roi, may have anglicized their name to blend in with the English community, and now are listed as King.

Keep these variations in mind as you search the census records for your family.

Place of Birth:  This is usually shown as a province or as a country, and in many cases is fairly accurate. However, my great grandmother (actually born in Newfoundland) was listed as born in England (1861, 1871 census) and New Brunswick (1891 census). The only census year that proved to be correct was 1881 which indicated her birthplace as Newfoundland. This is not an uncommon story. Canadian place names may be abbreviated to such forms as NS for Nova Scotia, NB for New Brunswick, LC or CE (Lower Canada, Canada East) for Quebec, UC or CW (Upper Canada, Canada West) for Ontario.

If the records vary from one census to the next, you must look for other information to determine which listing, if any, is accurate.

Religion:  This category is present in all Canadian returns from 1851 to 1901, unlike many other countries. The information is extremely useful in assisting a search for local existing churches, or clergy who were available at the time. Changes may also occur in this category from one census year to another, perhaps with the entire family or just one individual. You may need to acquire a knowledge of local church history to sort out possible changes in church names or denominations, church closings or amalgamations.

Occupation: This was usually accurate for each census, but the individual’s occupation may change from one census period to another.

Origin: This category indicated a person’s origin, usually English, Irish, Scots, French. The children took their origin from the father. The wife’s origin would be that of her father.

Marital Status: This column was to indicate married, single, and sometimes widowed. It was not always completed. The 1901 and the 1906 census of the Northwest Provinces also included “divorced” in this column.


  1. 1851-52 census of the Canadas. Personal Census. Volume 1. First Report of the Secretary of the Board of Registration and Statistics on the Census of the Canadas for 1851-52. Quebec. John Lovell at his Steam Printing Establishment, Mountain Street, Montreal 1853.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian Census Part 1 and Part 2 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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.