Major Canadian Record Collections for Genealogists (National Institute)
The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in December 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Canadian Ancestors by Doris Bourrie, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
- 1 Major Record Collections for Genealogists
- 1.1 Major Record Groups
- 1.2 Census Records
- 1.3 Vital Statistics
- 1.4 Land Records
- 1.5 Wills and Estate Records
- 1.6 Newspaper Holdings
- 1.7 Church Records
- 1.8 Cemetery Transcriptions
- 1.9 Naturalization and Citizenship Records
- 1.10 Passenger Lists
- 1.11 Border Entry Records
- 1.12 Home Children
- 1.13 Military and Militia Records
- 1.14 Maps, Atlases and Directories
- 1.15 School Records
- 1.16 Specialized Ethnic or Group Migration Records
- 1.17 Divorce and Adoption Records
- 1.18 Canadian Genealogical Websites
- 1.19 Canada Records
Major Record Collections for Genealogists
In Canada, most of the major genealogical record groups are the responsibility of a provincial or territorial government. Therefore the dates covered, and the method of organizing the records may vary from province to province.
Major Record Groups
The records used by today’s genealogist were not made specifically with genealogists in mind, but were made for some other purpose. Therefore the information collected, and how the records are accessed, depends on an understanding of the specific record group, who compiled the records, and who has jurisdiction over the records. Some records (for instance census records) may be available at the provincial archives, as well as at the Library and Archives Canada, and larger libraries across the country. Other records (such as civil registration records) may be available only through the appropriate provincial archives or provincial civil registration office.
|It would be wise for the researcher to investigate the holdings of both the Library and Archives Canada and the appropriate Provincial Archives in order to ensure that nothing is missed.|
We will examine each province individually in order to understand the variations in the records that apply to each province. Many of the records needed for Canadian genealogical research are also available through the FamilySearch Centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you are fortunate and have access to one of these FamilySearch Centers you may borrow the appropriate reels of microfilm through their loan system for use at one of their Centers.
The major record groups available for Canadian genealogical research are:
Later census records were Nominal census records, and provide names, ages, and place of birth, such as England, Scotland, Ontario, as well as additional information, for all family members.Some of these censuses have been indexed and have images online at Automated Genealogy.
Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths are the responsibility of each Provincial or territorial government and began at different time periods depending on the location. For records that pre-date civil registration it is necessary to consult church records for birth, marriage and death information. Also cemetery recordings and newspaper notices may be useful.
The Library and Archives Canada has microfilms of two early collections of Marriage Bonds with an online index.
|It should be noted that the existence of a Marriage Bond is not proof that the marriage took place, it is only proof of the intent to marry.|
- Lower Canada Marriage Bonds
RG 4, B 28, 1779-1842, 1860: There is a nominal index to the names of the prospective bride and groom, place, date and complete call number for the record.
- Upper Canada Marriage Bonds
RG 5, B9, 1803-1845: A nominal index to prospective spouses, township, date.
Again, the development of land settlement varied from one province to another, and eventually the system of keeping land records became the responsibility of the individual province. Early land petitions for Crown Land prior to provincial responsibility are held by the Library and Archives Canada in two record groups:
- Québec and Lower Canada Petitions
Lower Canada Land Petitions
1764-1841 RG 1, L3L (includes index to the Gaspé Land Commissioners’ report 1819-1825 RG 1, L7)
- Upper Canada and United Province of Canada
Upper Canada Land Petitions
1791-1867, RG 1, L3
Copies of Petitions and the alphabetical nominal index to Petitions are microfilmed and available through the Library and Archives Canada, as well as other locations. The early Land Petitions for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are available at the appropriate provincial archives.
Other specialized records regarding Crown Land available at the Library and Archives Canada include the records for land granted under the Manitoba Act of 1870 to settle aboriginal rights to land in Western Canada:
Métis Land Claims
The Manitoba Act of 1870 provided for the settlement of aboriginal rights to land in Western Canada. Applications, arranged alphabetically in Dominion Land Branch records (RG 15) include records for Manitoba 1870-1885 and for the Northwest Territories (which includes Saskatchewan and Alberta) 1885-1901. These records are microfilmed and available at the Library and Archives Canada. See the appropriate Province for any additional information, or holdings.
Another searchable database available on the Library and Archives Canada website is the index to Western Land Grants 1870-1930. This index covers Letters Patent issued by the Lands Patent Branch of the Department of Interior, and covers grants issued for Crown Land in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the railway belt of British Columbia. Prior to settlement in the Western Provinces it was necessary for government surveyors to survey the vast area and divide it into manageable portions for settlement. This survey covered the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, as well as the railway belt of British Columbia. In order to locate the land of an original settler it is necessary to consult this index to determine the legal designation of his land patent.
The legal land description is rather intimidating to the uninitiated. It might be something like:
SW Part; Section 10; Township 39;
Range 6; Meridian W4
The reference for this description would read:
Folio: 471 File reel number: C-6520
Name: John A. Lancaster
A copy of this folio may be requested from the Library and Archives Canada. Basically it will indicate the above land description, and possibly include the date of the grant and possibly the Province.
In order to locate this property from the legal description, you begin at the right side of the description with Meridian W4, indicating the land is west of the 4th Meridian. Range indicates the township on an east-west line, while the township number places it on a north-south line, numbered from the southern border of the Province. Each township was divided into 36 sections, containing 640 acres each, while the quarter indicates which portion of the section, about 160 acres, the individual received.
A very useful book explaining this system, with detailed maps of each Province is Back to the Land. A Genealogical Guide to Finding Farms on the Canadian Prairies, Including an index to townships in the 1901 census, compiled and published by Dave Obee and available from his website .
Wills and Estate Records
These records are also held by the appropriate provincial or territorial government. Two legal systems govern wills and estate records in Canada:
- English Common Law, and
- Droit Civil (based on the French law system) in Québec.
Section 92 of the British North American Act of 1867 gave jurisdiction over wills and the distribution of estates to the provinces.
There are additional records of interest to the genealogist, which cover specialized subjects and which may not be available for the entire country, but should not be overlooked in your ancestor search. In most cases the Provincial Archives for your area can direct you to their holdings in the following areas:
The Library and Archives Canada has an online index to their holdings of Canadian newspapers, and to various published indexes to these papers. The holdings to be found at the provincial level may differ from those at the National Library, and may include additional papers, or different time periods. Microfilmed newspaper collections may also exist in various libraries within the country, and even in some cases copies may exist, perhaps in the original format, in small local libraries and/or museums.
The information contained in a church register is the best source of birth, marriage and death information prior to the start of civil government registration for your area.
The difficulty is in determining the correct church, and locating the appropriate register, providing that it has survived. These records may be found in National and/or Provincial archives, in church archives, university archives, local libraries and/or museums, or they may still be at the original church, or in private hands. Many of the church registers which have been microfilmed are available through the Family Search Centers of the LDS church. However many of the early surviving registers have not been microfilmed, and these are usually only available at the appropriate church archives.
Various genealogical societies across Canada have ongoing programs to transcribe tombstones in local cemeteries. Information regarding these transcriptions will be available from the local society. In the case of Ontario, the Ontario Genealogical Society has an ongoing program of making cemetery transcriptions, and their publications are available from local branches. The Archives of Ontario microfilms these publications periodically and they are available at the provincial archives. However, these transcriptions cover visible tombstone information only. They do not necessarily include all burials in any given cemetery, unless permission has been granted to include a burial register.
- CanadaGenWeb's Cemetery Project is an ongoing project that has indexed many cemeteries in Canada.
- Find a Grave has thousands of entries for Canada and is growing rapidly.
Naturalization and Citizenship Records
The Canadian Citizenship Act was passed in 1947. Prior to that time, from 1763-1947 individuals born in the provinces or colonies of British North America were all British subjects, and did not need to apply for citizenship. Immigrants from Great Britain and the Commonwealth were also British subjects, and not required to apply for citizenship. Records for citizens of other countries from 1854-1917 have been destroyed, although a card index has survived. Records after 1917 are more detailed. A special collection known as the LI-RA-MA Collection, MG 30, E 406, 1898-1922 contains Passport/Identity Files covering Russian and East European immigrants. See the Library and Archives Canada website for information on accessing these and other citizenship records.
The organized keeping of passenger lists began in 1855 with the passing of the Passenger Act by the British Parliament. Under these regulations it was necessary for two copies of the passenger list to be maintained; one copy to be submitted to the Customs Officer at the port of departure, and the second copy, which would be amended to include any births or deaths during the voyage, to be given to the Customs Officer at the port of arrival. Canada had two official entry ports in the nineteenth century: Halifax and Québec City.
Passenger lists are available on microfilm for various ports from 1865 to 1935. See the lists available for specific ports on the Library and Archives Canada website. Scattered passenger lists exist for some earlier vessels, and very few lists are indexed. It is best to know the time period involved to locate a family in the passenger lists. Later official entry ports included St. John, New Brunswick, 1900; Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia, 1905; North Sydney, Nova Scotia, 1906 and Montréal, Québec, 1919.
Border Entry Records
The Library and Archives Canada holds border entry records for immigrants entering across the Canada/United States border from April 1908 to December 1935. For complete information on holdings, and how to access the information consult the Library and Archives Canada website.
- Ancestry has an online index with images of the registers, called Border Crossings: From Canada to U.S., 1895-1954. Ancestry may be available at your public library and FamilySearch Centers.
- FamilySearch has a free online index, United States, Border Crossings from Canada to United States, 1895-1956
It is estimated that over 100,000 children were sent to Canada from Great Britain through various Home organizations such as the Barnardo Homes. The British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa is currently compiling a database of these children as located in the passenger lists. See the link provided on the Library and Archives Canada website, as well as an explanation of the records available at the Library and Archives Canada.
Military and Militia Records
Some early military records are available at the Library and Archives Canada. These include various Medal Registers; South African War Service Records, British Military and Naval Records known as the Military “C” Index. The Library and Archives Canada also holds records of British regiments stationed in Canada, military records from the French Regime, and other records of various Loyalist regiments. See the Library and Archives Canada website for more details, and for their online database of members of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces for World War I.
Maps, Atlases and Directories
Published atlases and directories exist for various areas and time periods across the country. Check the holdings at the appropriate Provincial archives, as well as at the National Library and other large libraries for your area. Early maps will be useful, particularly surveyors’ maps and/or maps indicating land patents. A city directory compiled at the time of a census will be very helpful in locating the exact location of your family so that you can pinpoint which Ward or Division within the city would include your family.
Education records are a provincial responsibility. Check with the provincial archives to determine their holdings in this area. These records may include provincial government records from the provincial Department of Education, and/or records of private schools, perhaps of a religious nature.
Specialized Ethnic or Group Migration Records
One of the largest specialized group of records concerns records of the United Empire Loyalists who came to Canada as a result of the American Revolution. Various Loyalist records survive, both in Provincial and National Archive repositories. There is also a United Empire Loyalist Association, with branches across the country. Many large universities hold specialized collections, such as Le Centre d’études acadiennes at the Université de Moncton, and the Mennonite Archives of Ontario at the Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario.
Divorce and Adoption Records
Divorce in Canada prior to 1960 was handled by a private act of the Parliament of Canada. Records regarding divorce proceedings vary depending on the province and time period. Check with the local provincial archives for specific direction on your area and time period. Adoptions were a matter of local provincial regulations. Access to these records are generally restricted. Check with the local provincial archives for addresses to private associations who assist people tracing adoption records. In most provinces, prior to the middle of the 1900s there were no formal adoption proceedings, and children would be placed with family or neighbours without the necessity for any legal documentation.
Canadian Genealogical Websites
The Internet has proven to be a wonderful source of information to genealogists. The Library and Archives Canada, and the provincial and territorial archives all have websites, which are noted with a brief explanation of the information they provide. In addition, provincial genealogical societies also provide websites, and these, again, are listed with the appropriate province. Many of these sites have helpful links to other provinces, or to additional local sites. It is, of course, impossible to note all sites of genealogical interest, but there are a number of Canada-wide sites which should be noted.
A word of caution is necessary regarding the use of Internet information. The careful genealogist will use this source as a guide to the location of original documents. Not all “facts” presented on websites are accurate, and those presented without sufficient source information should be viewed with scepticism until proven or disproven through further research. In general, using the Internet as a Finding Aid to determine the location of certain record groups, information regarding addresses and holdings of archives, etc. will be most helpful to the genealogist.
Some of the more useful general Canadian sites, apart from Provincial Archives or Genealogical Societies are:
- United Empire Loyalist’s Association of Canada - Information on branches across Canada.
- Canadian Genweb site -This site will provide a gateway to all Genweb provincial sites, just click on the appropriate province.
- Geographic Names - Provides geographic information by place name.
- Canadian Vital Statistics Offices - Most provincial vital statistics offices may be contacted through the appropriate provincial government website. However, this site, maintained by the government of Nova Scotia, provides convenient addresses to Vital Statistics Offices across Canada, together with a brief explanation of fees.
- Canadian Archival Information Network (CAIN) - This site provides links to archival institutions of all types across Canada.
- Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada- This site provides English and French access to many online resources for Canadian Aboriginal information. Not necessarily a genealogical site, but a means of accessing appropriate addresses regarding aboriginal records.
- First Nations House of Learning - In conjunction with the University of British Columbia, this site offers many links to sites providing information on First Nations. The subject “genealogy” has many links, by province, to Aboriginal Ancestry sites for Indian, Inuit and Métis information.
- Listings Canada - Provides links to a number of adoption information sites and agencies.
- Cyndi’s List - A large genealogical site which offers links to Canadian sites of genealogical interest.
- Rootsweb - Another large genealogical site which offers links to Canadian sites of genealogical interest.
Library and Archives Canada
395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0N3
Genealogical Reference Desk: (613) 996-7458
The Public Archives was created in 1872 with a mandate to collect and preserve documents dealing with Canadian history. Since that time, in addition to Canadian documents, the Archives has collected copies of papers and documents relating to early Canada from archives in France as well as from Great Britain, and what is known as the LI-RA-MA Collection of documents created by the Imperial Russian Consular offices in Canada (1898-1922).
The National Library of Canada was established in 1953 with a mandate to acquire and preserve the published heritage of Canada, and to make this published heritage available to all Canadians.
To better serve the objectives of both the National Archives and the National Library, the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada have merged and are now known as Library and Archives Canada.
Many of the records available at the Library and Archives Canada are of interest to genealogists have been microfilmed, and may be borrowed through interlibrary loan arrangements. Records which have not been microfilmed must be consulted in person at Library and Archives Canada. Due to the large volume of inquiries received, the staff cannot undertake extensive research. They will provide specific information regarding records, and can provide a list of professional researchers who may conduct research on your behalf. Also, most Provincial archives have acquired copies of Library and Archives Canada microfilmed records which apply to their specific geographic area. The Library and Archives Canada website is available in both English and French versions which provides general information regarding the Archives. The Our Services button provides a guide to services available at the Archives, and how to access them. The ArchiviaNet button gives access to Finding Aids for specific topics and provides an online research tool to certain databases. You can search by Themes, by the Type of Document required, such as photographs, or through the Alphabetical List of Research Tools. Databases available online will be found in the list of Research Tools.
The Genealogy and Family History section provides an overview of the major genealogical sources used for Canadian research, with an indication of the records kept, and where the researcher may access them.
Click on Databases to see various projects developed by the Canadian Genealogy Centre and its partners. Click on AVITUS for a listings of the major genealogical resources. You will find a list of addresses for Genealogical Societies and Provincial/Territorial Archives. Click Browse by Subject for various categories such as newspaper holdings, directories, parish registers, and others.
Of particular interest to genealogists will be the Index to the Canadian Newspaper Collection held by the National Library, arranged by Province, as well as a checklist of published Indexes to Canadian Newspapers, also by Province. In some cases the holdings of the National Library will differ from the holdings for the same newspaper at the Provincial Archives. It is wise to check holdings for both locations.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Canadian 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.