Tracing Historical Legislation at Library and Archives Canada

Are you thinking of doing some research on Canada’s past laws? Although current legislation is available on the Justice Laws website, the Reference Team at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) frequently assists clients in tracing historical legislation. While it might seem like a daunting task, with the right tools it often proves easy and interesting.

Most research of this type will require consulting one or more of the following sources:

  • Statutes of Canada (S.C.): The S.C., also known as the annual or sessional statutes, include the text of all acts and amendments passed during a given session of Parliament, in both official languages. The annual statutes for 2001 onwards are available on the Justice Laws website. You may access the earlier S.C. here at LAC or at many public and academic libraries.
  • Revised Statutes of Canada (R.S.C.): The R.S.C. represent the periodic revision of all current laws to incorporate any amendments. Any subsequent modifications to legislation will be carried out on the basis of these new, revised statutes, preventing the Table of Public Statutes (see below) from becoming too unwieldy. The latest revision occurred in 1985 and had previously been carried out in 1886, 1906, 1927, 1952 and 1970. The R.S.C. are also available to consult here at LAC, as well as at select public and academic libraries.
  • Table of Public Statutes: This useful resource lists all of the amendments to and repeals of legislation from either the previous revision or from the date of a law’s enactment, whichever is more recent. Modifications since the most recent revision in 1985 are also found on the Justice Laws website. For any legislation or amendments prior to 1985, the table will be at the end of the annual editions of the Statutes of Canada.

Now that we have the relevant resources at our disposal, tracing historical legislation becomes relatively simple. Let’s use a concrete example: How has Canadian legislation with regards to immigration changed over the years? Did we even have an immigration law on the books a hundred years ago and, if so, what did it entail?

The best place to start is with the Table of Public Statutes, as it will show at a glance which laws are in effect in a given year, when they were first enacted or last revised, and what changes have been made since. A quick look at the 1915 Table of Public Statutes, appended to that year’s Statutes of Canada, indicates that the Immigration Act that was in effect was passed in 1910 and amended in 1911. By examining the text of the Act itself and that of the amendment, found in the 1910 and 1911 Statutes of Canada respectively, you can reconstruct the Immigration Act as it existed one hundred years ago.

To determine when Canada first enacted particular legislation, the quickest way to narrow down a logical time frame is to consult the Revised Statutes. Let’s return to our example. As there is no immigration law on the books in the 1867–1868 annual statutes, but there is an Immigration Act in the 1886 Revised Statutes, it follows that the legislation must have been passed somewhere in between: 1869 being the year in question. Some revisions will even directly indicate when a law first came into force. However, if the text of the Revised Statutes doesn’t provide any clues, going through the indexes of the annual statutes year by year should point you in the right direction.

If you require any assistance in tracing historical legislation or with any other research topic, please visit us at LAC or ask us a question!

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