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Many individuals do genealogical research to determine whether they have an Indigenous branch in their family tree. For some, this is simply to confirm or disprove a family story. For others, the research is connected to self-identity, empowerment, possible registration in Indigenous organizations or funding connected to self-identification.
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) cannot make any determination about whether you are Indigenous, but our documents can assist in your research.
Sadly, sometimes, our family stories are just that—stories. Likewise, family photographs may lead us to make false assumptions. Are we seeing something that is not really there?
You might find the answer in census returns.
Identifying First Nation, Métis or Inuit in historical census returns
Seeking an understanding of Indigenous identity through family histories and genealogical research can be a challenging task in Canada. Two systems of definitions exist—one based in law and legislation, the other in family tradition and community practice.
For example, a researcher will find that early documents may use derogatory terms, such as “Indian,” “Half-breed,” and “Eskimo,” which have since been replaced by accurate terms. It is important therefore to recognize that languages have contexts and histories. As cultures change, so do the meanings of words and their usage for a given period, place and culture. Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 recognizes three distinct groups of Indigenous peoples: Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples. These are separate groups, with each having unique and diverse heritage, language, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.
The various censuses were not consistent in the questions they asked Canadians. For those researching a potential Indigenous ancestor, there are some census returns that are more helpful than others. A classic example is the 1870 Census for Manitoba, in which the federal government clearly wanted to know whether the residents of the new province were either Métis, Indian (First Nation) or White. Similarly, the 1901 Census refers to Canadians as being White, Red, Yellow or Black.
Note: The Inuit in the North were not generally counted in the federal Canadian Census until after 1941.
Searching the databases
You can explore our census records in Ancestors Search. Each database has its own search screen as well as help pages.
When you find a database entry, click on the item number to see the full reference. Then click on the link to see the digitized image of the census page. What does it say about your ancestors? You might be surprised to discover that they were Prussian or African or Welsh.
What else does the page tell you about their lives and where they lived? Were they farmers, hunters or other professions? Were they Roman Catholic or Methodist? Be sure to check the top of the census page to see the location of that census sub-district. It might be a city, village, township or other rural area. Knowing the place where an ancestor lived helps when you’re looking for other historical records as you explore Genealogy and Family History.
For search strategies, see the Research Tips on our Censuses page.
Examples of census pages
On this 1861 census page from Addington, New Brunswick, William Crocket was “Scotch,” but his wife and children were born in the province and are listed as “Native.” In the 1861 census of New Brunswick, “Native” meant born in the province, not First Nations.
On this 1881 census page, you can see that the Pullett family were Micmac (now Mi’kmaq First Nation) living in the city of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Benjamin was a cooper and basket maker.
On some pages, the sub-district name is an “Indian agency” or “Indian reserve.” Here’s a 1911 census page showing Cree families in the Fisher River Agency in Manitoba.
For First Nations families that were living on reserves, you can continue your research in other records. Find out more by visiting our Indigenous Indigenous Heritage pages and our Indigenous Genealogy guide.