Top 5 topics addressed by our Reference Librarians

By Emily Dingwall

At Library and Archives Canada (LAC), reference librarians respond to requests on a wide variety of interesting topics from clients. This blog post outlines five types of reference questions librarians frequently handle and suggests resources to consult on these subjects.

The cover page from Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada with the title “Public Accounts of Canada, for the Fiscal Year ended 30th June, 1884.”

“Public Accounts of Canada” report found in Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, 1885, Vol. 1, No. 1. (OCLC 1007491677, image from Canadiana)

  1. Federal government documents

Annual departmental reports. Clients are often seeking annual departmental reports. Annual reports from Confederation in 1867 to 1925 are printed in the Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada. Learn more about the Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, 1867 to 1925. If you are in Ottawa, you can access the Sessional Papers at LAC by requesting them from staff in the 2nd floor reference room. They are also available through these websites:

Departmental reports post–1925 are published separately from other government documents in the Sessional Papers. You can request 1925–1930 annual reports from LAC staff or through the Internet Archive.

After 1930, search our library catalogue Aurora for annual reports by the name of the department as it was known  during that period.

Beginning with 1995, you can find annual reports at the Government of Canada’s Departmental Results Reports. For more recent years, you can search the specific government department website.

Parliamentary documents. We also receive many questions on searching parliamentary debates, journals and committee materials of the House of Commons and the Senate, such as for a speech made by a prime minister in the House. You can find these documents online:

A typewritten page with two columns of text, separated by a crest. The text on the left is in English and the text on the right is in French.

Front page of the Canada Gazette, Part II, Vol. 137, No. 23, November 5, 2003. (OCLC 1082716964, image from Canada Gazette)

  1. Legislative Research

Librarians frequently receive questions about legislation in print or legislation that can be found online through Justice Laws.

You can trace legislation through these main sources:

  • The Statutes of Canada include all acts and amendments to laws passed during each session of Parliament.
  • The Revised Statutes of Canada (R.S.C.) are consolidations of the Statutes of Canada incorporating amendments and acts that have been added since the last revision. The R.S.C have been published for the years 1886, 1906, 1927, 1952, 1970, and 1985.

The Statutes of Canada and the Revised Statutes of Canada are available in print format in our reference collection at LAC, as well as at many public and academic libraries. They are also accessible through the legal database LLMC Digital, which can be searched onsite at LAC.

To learn more about the Statutes and researching legislation, see the blog post Tracing Historical Legislation.

You can find official regulations and statutory instruments in Part II of the Canada Gazette, the official newspaper of the Government of Canada. Published in three parts, the Canada Gazette is searchable by keyword at these sites:

To learn more about the three parts of the Canada Gazette please see Canada Gazette publications.

Readings of bills, such as the First and Third readings, can be found by searching the library catalogue Aurora.

LEGISinfo, the Library of Parliament’s research tool, provides information on all bills considered by the Senate and the House of Commons since the start of the 37th Parliament in 2001.

An image of a four-column newspaper, Courrier canadien.

Courrier canadien, March 11, 1900. (OCLC 109270836)

  1. Newspaper Research

Librarians often assist clients in searching newspapers for information such as local histories, articles on individuals, or references to a past royal visit to Canada.

We hold newspapers in print and microfilm formats, which can be found through the Aurora library catalogue. We also subscribe to several newspaper databases.

The Geographical microform list names all the newspapers that we hold on microfilm (click on the OCLC number), as well as newspapers available online. The list is organized by province/territory, then alphabetically by location.

Major newspaper titles such as Le Devoir, the Montreal Gazette, and the Ottawa Citizen are available in our self-service microform reading room.

These newspaper databases can be accessed on the public workstations in our reference room: The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Paper of Record and Newspaper Archive.

Online newspaper resources include:

The cover page of “Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War.”

Cover page of Colonel C.P. Stacey’s Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume I: Six Years of War: The Army in Canada, Britain and the Pacific. (OCLC 317352934, image from Government of Canada publications)

  1. Military History Research

Librarians receive military history questions from clients looking for published histories of specific regiments/units, recruitment statistics per year, and locations of Canadian units in Europe during World War II.

Resources for military history research include:

An image of a Grand Trunk Railway timetable from 1922.

Timetable of the Ontario lines of the Grand Trunk Railway from 1922. (e011297622)

  1. Railway Histories

Many clients contact Reference Services about railway history research. Examples of questions we receive include the histories of specific train stations, the histories of railway companies (Canadian Pacific Railway, Canadian National Railways, Grand Trunk, etc.), and routes of particular railway lines.

We hold railway maps, as well as passenger and employee timetables in print format that can be located by searching Aurora. Many timetables are part of the Merrilees Transportation Collection, which contains about 5,000 publications including books, trade literature, technical manuals, timetables, broadsides, periodicals and pamphlets.

An Ontario railway historian has made rail timetables available on Charles Cooper’s Railway Pages.

Canadian Pacific Railway timetables from 1930–1985 are available through the Chung Collection at the University of British Columbia Library.

These are two excellent print publications to consult on railway history:

  • Andreae, C., & Matthews, G. Lines of Country: An Atlas of Railway and Waterway History in Canada. Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 1997. This publication is a comprehensive outline of railway and waterway history in Canada and includes maps of railways in Canada from early days to the present. It can be accessed in our reference room.
  • Ballantyne, B., and Bytown Railway Society. Canadian Railway Station Guide. Ottawa: Bytown Railway Society, 1998. This publication lists stations, plans and pictures.

 I hope that these resources will help you with your research on these subjects. Of course feel free to ask us a question on any topic, and a reference librarian will be happy to assist you!


Emily Dingwall is a Reference Librarian in the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Canada’s first declaration of war

By J. Andrew Ross

Among the rarest documents at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are those signed by Canada’s monarchs, and they represent some of the most important moments in the nation’s history. As part of our digitization programme, we recently scanned one such document that resides in the Ernest Lapointe fonds: a single sheet of paper that marks Canada’s entry into the Second World War.

A typed, one-page document asking the the king to authorize a proclamation of war on the German Reich on September 10, 1939.

Submission requesting the king’s approval to issue a proclamation declaring a state of war with the German Reich, September 10, 1939 (Ernest Lapointe fonds, e011202191)

Signed by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the document is a request for permission to issue a proclamation declaring war against the German Reich. The king indicated his approval with a handwritten “Approved” and a signature: “George R[ex]. I[mperator].” Though a seemingly straightforward document, the date—September 10, 1939—raises a question. While this was indeed the day Canada declared war, as Lester Pearson (then working at Canada’s High Commission in London) observed, “some historian of the future will wonder how George VI and Mackenzie King could have been together on September 10th 1939.” (Pearson, Memoirs, 139) In the era before supersonic transatlantic air travel and the wireless transmission of documents it would have been impossible for Mackenzie King (in Ottawa) and the King George VI (in London) to have signed the same document on the same day.

The answer to this conundrum can be found in LAC’s collections, and further research shows that this document was just one of several that had to be created to resolve a problem Canadian officials had never encountered before: How do we declare war?

As the prospect of Germany invading its neighbours grew in 1939, Canada expected to have a role in the resulting conflict. Unlike the onset of the First World War, when British dominions like Canada had been assumed to be included in the British declaration of belligerency against the Central Powers, Canada now had the option of making its own decision. In 1926, the Balfour Declaration had established that the United Kingdom and the dominions were now autonomous in domestic or external affairs, and this had been formally enshrined in the Statute of Westminster of 1931.

Fast forward to September 1939. As the Blitzkrieg rolled across Poland, prompting the UK to declare war against the German Reich on September 3rd, it was now up to Canada to decide its own fate—to join in, or to stay neutral. Most Canadians generally understood that Canada would be involved, if not militarily then at the very least economically, but Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wanted parliament to formally endorse the decision to enter the war. It did so on Saturday, September 9th.

Major policy announcements such as declarations of war also required a formal proclamation to be issued by the governor general on the advice of the Cabinet of Canada. This advice was in the form of a formal request signed by a cabinet minister, called a submission, to the governor general. To issue a proclamation in this case, there were two obstacles to overcome.

First, despite the independence given by the Statute of Westminster to Canada to make its own decision to go to war, it turned out that the Canadian governor general himself did not actually have the power to approve a proclamation declaring war, so the government required the permission of George VI himself, as king of Canada. After the House of Commons vote on September 9th, the Department of External Affairs asked Canada’s high commissioner to Great Britain, Vincent Massey, to arrange an audience with the king to get His Majesty’s signature on a document approving the issue of the proclamation. On the morning of September 10th, Massey hopped into his son Hart’s sports car and was driven to see the king at the Royal Lodge, the monarch’s country retreat on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Massey got the royal signature and cabled the news back to Ottawa, where Mackenzie King was anxiously awaiting the news and convincing himself that “the enemy” might have contrived “to destroy the [transatlantic] cable between Canada and England.” (WLMK Diary)

The other obstacle was that the two-page document that the king had approved had been written out in longhand from a telegram and was not signed by a cabinet minister, as was required. For this reason, External Affairs referred to this as an “informal approval” document and promised that a formal (signed) submission would soon follow.

Even before the king’s approval had been received, the proclamation had been drawn up and signed by Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir (in the name of the king), Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe.

A proclamation, bearing the Great Seal of Canada, announcing that Canada was at war against the German Reich.

Proclamation of war against the German Reich, September 10, 1939. Note that the day (“tenth”) is handwritten in the document (Registrar General sous-fonds, e011202192)

The staff of the Government Printing Bureau also produced a published version as an “Extra” edition of The Canada Gazette, the official organ for conveying government announcements. The Printing Bureau staff were locked into their office on Saturday and Sunday, to preserve secrecy, and were released only after the arrival of the published Gazette at the offices of External Affairs (then in East Block on Parliament Hill). The time of delivery was 12:35 p.m. EDT (another source says 12:40 p.m.), and by pre-arrangement this was agreed to be the moment that Canada could be considered to be officially at war against the German Reich.

But was it?

A printed, bilingual declaration of war against the German Reich bearing three signatures across the page.

The Canada Gazette “Extra”, September 10, 1939, the published version of the proclamation of war against the German Reich. Curiously, this copy is autographed by Tweedsmuir, Mackenzie King, and Lapointe (Arnold Danford Patrick Heeney fonds, e011198135)

On October 24th, six weeks after Canada’s announcement, Massey cabled External Affairs asking when the formal submission with a minister’s signature would be received, as had been promised. The king’s private secretary, Sir Alexander Hardinge, had told Massey he was concerned that “the document which the King signed on the basis of cabled representations may well have no constitutional validity owing the fact that it did not and could not bear the actual signature of the minister.” In other words, there was some question as to whether Canada was technically at war at all.

External Affairs went into action and sent a typewritten document signed by the prime minister and backdated to September 10th. King George VI signed this on November 27th and returned it to Ottawa. So it took two-and-a-half months after Canada had declared war for the official documents to catch up to the event!

In the end, there are four key items that document Canada’s first declaration of war: the informal approval created from a telegram and signed by King George VI; the proclamation issued by the governor general; the “Extra” of The Canada Gazette; and the backdated formal submission signed by both Mackenzie King and the king. Three of these documents reside in LAC’s collections and are reproduced above, but the whereabouts of the first—the informal approval from the King—is unknown. There is a clue, however: we know that over the fall and winter of 1939–1940 Massey had actually refused several requests to send the document back to Canada, saying that Buckingham Palace did not want it “embodied in the records of the Canadian government” because of its dubious constitutional status (Pearson, Memoirs, p. 140). Lester Pearson, who was second-in-command to Massey, later wrote that he understood that the document had remained in London, “though whether in the possession of His Majesty or the Canadian High Commissioner, I never learned.” (Ibid.)


By J. Andrew Ross, archivist in the Government Archives Division, with contributions from Geneviève Couture, archival assistant in the Private Archives Branch, Library and Archives Canada.