Canada: Who Do We Think We Are?
Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.
Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.
Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.
A page for Joliette, Quebec, from the first Census of Canada, 1871
Can you find the entry for Adolphe Perrault? Times change: Perrault made his living as a voyageur! As time passed, census data would feed social policy. Many programs by which Canadians define themselves are the result.
Tell us about yourself
I am a lover of history and enthusiastic about unraveling family history puzzles. I have worked at Library and Archives Canada for over a decade, most of that time spent with the genealogy team answering questions, giving tours, recording podcasts, wading through family folklore and giving advice at the Genealogy and Family History desk.
Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?
When I first saw the entry in the 1871 Canadian census return for Adolphe Perreault (also spelled Perrault), I noted that his occupation was “voyageur” and that he was from Joliette, Quebec. I assumed that this was a cut-and-dry census entry for a fur trading family. I was even a little disappointed as it seemed so plain, so ordinary. I made a list of sources to check that may give hints on his voyageur career, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives biographical sheets, and the BANQ notarial records (in French only) and then hurried back to my work as a genealogical consultant, putting it off for another day.
But then a colleague pointed out that the term “voyageur” can be ambiguous. At first I thought my colleague was overcomplicating a simple census entry, but then I started digging into the life of this voyageur Adolphe Perreault.
Adolphe Perreault was born in 1848 in Saint-Sulpice, Quebec, son of Alexis Perreault and Victoire Peltier. In the 1861 census, our voyageur was living with his family. His father Alexis was listed as a farmer. Adolphe married Odile Vézina in 1866 in Joliette. His marriage record lists him as a “cordonnier,” which translates to shoemaker. They had two children who died soon after birth in the late 1860s.
Next time we see Adolphe is in the 1870 U.S. federal census. He and Odile were living in Spencer, Massachusetts with the Vézina family. Adolphe is listed as working in a boot shop along with his father and brother-in-law, whose occupations are listed as “boot bottomer.” Their first surviving child, Zelphrin (Marie-Selférina) Perreault (Perrault), was born in 1870 in Massachusetts.
He then crosses the border to Canada and we find him back in Joliette with his young family a year later in the 1871 Canadian census, where he is listed as a “voyageur.”
He then returns to Spencer in 1872, where his next daughter Cordelia is born, and he is working in a boot factory. Adolphe is well documented over the next three decades in Spencer either as the father listed on his many children’s birth records or in the U.S. census returns, always listed as being in the shoe business. He died in 1906 in Spencer, his occupation listed as shoemaker.
In the end, we will never know if he tried his hand at being a fur-trader for a year. There are no hints that he was involved in the fur trade during his time in Quebec in any of the sources that I found. My guess is that he was a “commis-yoyageur,” which can be translated as a travelling salesman, perhaps selling the boots that he constructed with his in-laws in Spencer.
Either way, I can now say that I will never again be disappointed by a Canadian census return. A simple notation can lead to a fascinating search and bring you in a different direction than you originally thought.
Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition.
One of the most surprising census items I have found during my years as a genealogy consultant was from the 1916 Prairie Provinces census for the Montana Indian Reserve in Alberta. When I first started in the genealogy section, I didn’t really realize how one single document could show the progression of a way of life.
When I came across this page, I found it interesting because it shows the way that First Nation people’s naming practices changed over the years. This particular census document is unique because it demonstrates three name variants.
In some entries, the enumerator has the name written in Cree (spelled phonetically in English) as you can see on the entry on line 6, household 20 (the Ah-wee-new family).
Then you can see how the enumerator wrote the literal English translation, which can be found on line 41, household 29 (Looking Glass Wah pah mon).
Finally on this census return page, you can see the European style of standard first name then family name, as seen on line 14, household 22 (Louis and Josephine Crookednose).
This project reminded me how wonderfully complex and layered the history of Canada can be. Even when you think you have a small portion of our history figured out, it throws you for a loop.