by Sandra Bell
Are you looking for documents offering credible information to use in research on the period between the late 19th century and the interwar years of the 20th century? You may find that the Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada contain much useful information.
History and organization
Sessional papers are among the oldest form of government serial records, and are part of the family of parliamentary publications that includes journals, debates, votes and proceedings. They have been published since pre-Confederation times and were formerly collected in the appendices to the Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. A distinctive group of these papers, titled Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, exists for the period of 1867 to 1925. After this period the papers were issued separately.
Sessional papers are any documents formally presented in the House of Commons, filed with the Clerk, and tabled in the House during a given session of Parliament. Each report is recorded as a sessional paper and, as such, is open to public review. They are assigned a unique number in chronological order, known as the sessional paper number.
Sessional papers include the following:
- Annual departmental reports
- Reports of committees and task forces
- Royal commission reports
- Census returns
- White papers (issued by the government as statements of policy) and Green papers (official documents sponsored by Ministers of the Crown to invite public comment and discussion on an issue prior to policy formulation)
Sessional papers are classified as either “Printed” (i.e., available for distribution) or “not Printed”. Printed papers are collected and published by session in bound volumes that include the full text of the reports. They are proof of the government’s business and support government decisions. They also constitute a collection of data on a variety of topics related to the military, political, social and economic issues in the country at a specific point in time.
Each bound volume includes the text of papers for a given session of Parliament, separated into issues. The spine of each volume has the date along with the volume and issue numbers.
Inside each volume is an alphabetical list of papers as well as a numerical list arranged by sessional paper number. Some volumes have a limited subject index at the back of the final volume for a specific session of Parliament.
Finding a sessional paper
How do you find a sessional paper? If you know the date of the parliamentary session, the chronological arrangement of the volumes allows you to locate the paper by year of publication. The alphabetical and numerical lists at the front of each volume will provide the sessional paper number; you can then locate the paper by its number in the text of the volumes.
If you don’t know the date but you do know the subject, title or some keywords, you can access the comprehensive five-volume set of indexes to this collection of sessional papers: General index to the journals of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada and of the sessional papers of Parliament, OCLC 1006682532
The indexes provide the number and date of the sessional paper. However, many sessional papers are published separately, so even if you don’t know the date of a particular parliamentary session, you can conduct a search using Aurora, the online catalogue of Library and Archives Canada.
Many of these sessional papers are now available online through the following databases:
- Early Canadiana Online houses digital copies of the sessional papers from 1867 to 1900.
- The University of Toronto library website provides links to the sessional papers from 1901 to 1925. Links to general indexes for these sessional papers are also available here.
Other formats of the sessional papers include microfilm. The following publication can provide additional information on sessional papers and other parliamentary proceedings:
- Publications of the Canadian Parliament: a detailed guide to the dual-media edition of Canadian parliamentary proceedings and sessional papers, 1841-1970, by Pamela Hardisty
Library and Archives Canada holds a complete collection of sessional papers (in print) for the period of 1867 to 1925. These are located on the 2nd floor at our 395 Wellington Street location in Ottawa. Should you need assistance in using these documents, please feel free to contact the LAC Reference Services.
Sandra Bell is a Reference Librarian in the Reference Services Division of Library and Archives Canada.