Guest curator J. Andrew Ross

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.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

Before I came to LAC, I was a post-doctoral fellow on the People in Motion research project at the University of Guelph. Our goal was to develop an algorithm linking the 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 Canadian censuses together, to create a database of thousands of records that researchers could use to explore important questions about post-Confederation Canadian society, including health transitions, occupational changes and migration mobility. In the course of my own research, I became interested in changes that show how Canadians have viewed themselves over time.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

Ever since Intendant Jean Talon ordered the first census of the European population of New France in 1665–1666, the precursors to modern-day Canada were keen on learning about the demographic, social and economic aspects of their populations. LAC is the repository for many of the surviving documents of these censuses, including a near-complete collection on microfilm of the handwritten forms filled out by the individual enumerators (census takers) who went door to door in 1871 collecting information for the first census after Confederation.

Enumerators were required to complete up to nine schedules (forms), which covered population characteristics, deaths, economic activities and the like. What made the Canadian census unique was a question on Schedule No. 1 (Nominal Return on the Living) that asked for information on a person’s “origins,” an important issue in a country with four different provinces, a wide variety of cultures, and political tension between two major linguistic groups.

What was meant by “origin”? The manual containing the instructions to enumerators did not provide much detail, except by example: “Origin is to be scrupulously entered, as given by the person questioned . . . by the words English, Irish, Scotch, African, Indian, German, French, and so forth.” With a few exceptions (“Indian,” “Half-Breed,” “Hindoo” and “Jewish”), the answers corresponded with countries of origin rather than culture per se.

Ironically, for the first national census the answer “Canadian” was not an option because the designers wanted clear lines drawn between English and French, and other groups. Allowing “Canadian” might reduce the size of one group or another, with worrisome consequences for both political representation and cultural pride.

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition

This clever cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News issue of May 6, 1871, which LAC holds in its collection, shows how the question about origins might produce a rather humorous conversation:

Enumerator. – “What origin, Ma’am?”

Lady. – “Canadian, of course!”

Enumerator. – “But you know we don’t take down Canadian origin.”

Lady. – “Well, then! follow Darwin’s theory, and enter us as descended from apes!”

A black-and-white cartoon of a census enumerator speaking to a woman sitting at a desk.

Cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News (AMICUS 133120) depicting a potential conversation about the first census (image from page 288, Canadian Illustrated News of May 6, 1871, e011180501)

Not only a fine joke, but also an astute observation. What was a person’s origin anyway? How far back should one go? If birthplace was not considered (it was recorded separately), then was it the father’s cultural heritage, or the mother’s? And why couldn’t people whose families might have been resident for centuries be considered “census Canadians”?

According to the guidelines, while the enumerator in the cartoon could have been justified in entering “primate,” in practice the enumerator entries were all checked before counting and changed if they were determined to be inappropriate. In this way, thousands of self-described “Canadians” (and also “Americans”) were reassigned to another origin, usually based on their surname, and when the origin totals were published in the fall of 1871, “Canadian” was not a category.

Over the 20th century, a sense developed that origin should be less about the national ancestry of a person and more about the person’s cultural background: what eventually came to be called “ethnicity.” With this understanding, the origin questions in 20th-century censuses came to rely on the ethnicity of the person’s first paternal ancestor who came to Canada.

This did not suit some people, such as the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, John George Diefenbaker, who was proud of his “mixed” ethnic heritage and even more proud of not admitting it to an enumerator. In his memoirs, he wrote (please feel free to wiggle your jowls as you read this):

“I have never registered as requested in any census. I am a Canadian, and I register as a Canadian. When I was Prime Minister, I made certain that the 1961 Canadian census contained the question ‘Are you a Canadian?’ Although the change was disapproved by the Liberal and bureaucratic establishments, and in consequence discontinued after I left office, hundreds of thousands of Canadians answered this question, ‘Yes,’ and with ringing pride.”

Diefenbaker’s “Are you a Canadian?” did not replace the origins question, which continued to be asked, but it may have led to the 1971 official change in policy—100 years after the first census—that finally allowed people to answer “Canadian” (and allowed the enumerator to record that answer and not have it changed). Only 71,000 chose to do so in that year, but the attitude trend accelerated over the next 40 years; by 2011, over 10 million were answering “Canadian,” sometimes in combination with other origins, but for almost 6 million, exclusively. In 2016, the question was, “What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person’s ancestors?” We will soon see how many people now want to be counted as “census Canadians.”


A colour photograph of a man standing in front of a white board with his arms crossed and smiling at the photographer.

J. Andrew Ross is an archivist in the Government Records Branch of LAC.

Do you have Aboriginal ancestry? The census might tell you

Many individuals do genealogical research to determine whether they have an Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal organizations or funding connected to self-identification.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) cannot make any determination about whether you are Aboriginal, 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 Aboriginal 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. Continue reading

More frequently asked genealogy questions

We receive many interesting questions from our clients at the genealogy desk at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Here are more frequently asked questions.

How do I start my genealogy search?

The first step is to ask questions (such as “who,” “what,” “where”) and start writing down information. Find out which details in your family tree you are missing.

Some family members might not remember exact dates, but they might remember events (a great aunt may not know the exact year of her grandmother’s death, but she may remember that her grandmother died when she was in high school, and they drove to Toronto for the funeral). This narrows down the years and the province where the death certificate was issued. It also may give you a clue in which newspaper to find the obituary.

You can learn more on our website on how to begin your genealogy search.

Why does LAC have census records but no birth certificates?

The division of power between the federal government and the provinces dictates which government records are part of the LAC collection. We house federal documents such as census returns, military records and passenger lists. The records pertaining to births, marriages and deaths are a provincial jurisdiction and are thus found in provincial and territorial archives. A lot of vital statistic indexes and records can now be found online, but you should also consult the provincial archive for up to date information about its collections. Continue reading

Major Update to the 1861 Census of Canada Database

Following the release of the 1861 Census of Canada database in 2013, a number of missing records and misplaced images were reported by Library and Archives Canada clients and staff. We corrected over 133,000 entries! Following is a list of improvements to the database.

Canada West and Canada East Issues

In Canada West, the records for the cities of Hamilton, Kingston, London, Ottawa and Toronto were previously reported missing but the records did exist. The five cities, although enumerated separately in 1861, were tucked away amongst their neighbouring rural districts. For example, the city of Ottawa was listed under the district of Carleton and the city of Kingston was listed under Frontenac. The five cities are now correctly identified as districts and their respective wards are identified as sub-districts.

Additionally in Canada West, the rural districts of Renfrew and Russell were also reported as missing. The records for those two districts and their sub-districts can now be searched. In the rural district of Kent, the sub-districts of Camden and Gore, the town of Chatham, and the district of Chatham have been correctly identified. The images in the districts of Brant and Dundas are now correctly linked.

In Canada East, several image linking errors were corrected, particularly in the districts of Argenteuil, Montcalm and St-Jean. Continue reading

Immigration and Citizenship records at LAC: Did your ancestor arrive in Canada between 1865 and 1935?

This second article of a series depicting Immigration and Citizenship sources held at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), explains how to find arrivals between 1865 and 1935. Passenger lists reveal details such as the country your ancestor came from, his or her occupation and the intended destination in Canada.

Key resources*:

The Passenger Lists for the Port of Quebec City (1865-1900) database provides 967,017 references to names found on this list. As an example, Laura Muntz Lyall, the Canadian artist who painted Interesting Story, arrived in Canada from England in 1870. A search in the database yields a reference and a link to the image for the arrival of  Laura Muntz and her family on 27 June 1870 aboard the SS Scandinavian.

Arrivals in Canada are also found in the Passenger Lists, 1865-1922 database where documents can be searched by name of ship, date, and place of arrival.

From 1919 to 1924, a form for individuals called Form 30A was used instead of the large sheet manifests of all passengers on a ship. The microfilms of these records have been digitized and can be consulted online. First locate the number of the microfilm, then consult the digitized microfilms of Ocean Arrivals, Form 30a, 1919-1924.

For ancestors who arrived between 1925 and 1935, you first consult the Passenger Lists and Border Entries, 1925-1935 database. As an example, let’s search for Johannes Nisula. He arrived aboard the Montrose at Quebec City on May 26, 1926. Click on “Search” in the left menu, type in his information, and click the “Submit” button. Looking at the result, it’s important to note all the details: name, ship, port of arrival, the volume, page number (189), and microfilm reel number (T-14722). Then navigate to the microform digitization page, select “Passenger Lists: Quebec City (1925-1935)” and click on the reel number (T-14722). Page number refers to the paper sheets, so you will have to look for the page number in the top right of the image. In our example, page 189 of the pages appears on page 335 of the microfilm. Continue reading

Validating your ancestor’s arrival in Canada before 1865

So you have searched the immigration records prior to 1865, and still no trace of your ancestor? If you didn’t find your ancestor’s arrival before 1865, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has other genealogical resources that can assist in confirming an ancestor’s arrival in Canada.

Where did he or she settle?
Is he or she listed in census returns? LAC’s collection of census databases, which can be searched by a person’s name, can confirm an individual’s presence as early as 1825. Perhaps a reference exists for one of the parents (recorded as the head of the family) or for a sibling.

Many early settlers submitted petitions to obtain land where they could establish their family in Upper Canada or Lower Canada. LAC’s databases provide references to land transactions that give the person’s name, the date of the application and the county or township within a province.

Perhaps he served in the military?
Muster rolls, pay lists and various registers can reveal useful information when tracing former military personnel. Have a look at the Military page where many finding aids are searchable by name. For example, the RG8, C Series (British Military and Navy Records) includes records about Loyalist regiments, the War of 1812, and the Canadian militia. The documents for the RG8, C Series have been digitized and are searchable by name on our website. Refer to the Help pages for explanations of the records.

Life events in records
The date of arrival in Canada can be estimated by searching birth, marriage, and death records for first occurrences such as the birth of a child to confirm the presence of the family in a location. Consult our previous blog on how to search for Birth, Marriage and Death Records.

Published sources
Family histories, historical atlases and other published works can be searched in AMICUS, LAC’s online catalogue. It is also possible that your ancestor lived in a location that published a city directory.

The genealogical community
Many genealogical societies have resources specific to where your ancestor settled. Finding aids that describe a location are valuable tools when searching for ancestors.

Happy discoveries!

Kingston Penitentiary: Home to Canada’s most notorious criminals

Canada’s oldest penitentiary opened on June 1, 1835, under the name “Provincial Penitentiary for Upper Canada.” Located in Portsmouth, now part of Kingston, this institution was designated for the incarceration of prisoners from both Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Kingston Pen, as it is commonly known, closed its doors on September 30, 2013.

Who were the inmates over the course of the penitentiary’s 178 years of existence? To discover their stories, consult the Kingston Penitentiary inmate history description ledgers, which have been digitized and can be viewed on the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) website.

The ledgers provide photographs (mug shots) of inmates and information such as name; alias; age; place of birth; physical description; occupation; crime committed; and date, place and length of sentence.

Sample page, Kingston Penitentiary inmate history description ledgers.

Sample page, Kingston Penitentiary inmate history description ledgers. Source

To find the pictures of some of the inmates who were incarcerated at the Kingston Penitentiary, search for a person’s name in the Archives Search menu.

  1. On the left of the screen, under Archives Search, click on the Advanced option. The advanced search screen will appear.
  2. Type the word Kingston in the first search box, leaving the default “Any Keyword” in the drop-down menu. In the second search box, type the surname of the inmate, leaving the default “Any Keyword” in the drop-down menu.
  3. From the Type of material drop-down menu, select Photographic material.
  4. From the Online drop-down menu, click on Yes, then click on Submit. Your search will generate a list of results.
  5. Select an underlined title to access the full description of the photograph. The descriptive records display images of photographs that have been digitized.

Where else to look

Census returns, the official record of the population of Canada, also list the inmates who were incarcerated at the time of the census enumeration. In addition, nominal indexes can be searched for a reference to an inmate’s name. Remember that spelling variations are common.

Search for books on the Kingston Penitentiary and other Canadian penitentiaries in AMICUS using the author’s name, the book title, or subject keywords such as Kingston (or name of the city), penitentiary, prisons and criminals.

Mission Accomplished! Access to 15 Databases in One Stop!

On December 18, 2012, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) announced the upcoming deployment of a series of 15 databases on Canadian census returns. Following the online publication of the 1861 Census returns database a few weeks ago, LAC is proud to report: mission accomplished!

Now, using the LAC website, it is possible to consult nominal indexes for census returns from 1825 to 1916. That is a total of more than 32 million documents. Moreover, all these indexes are available at no cost!

This massive undertaking required continuous cooperation from members of a number of LAC teams, as well as highly organized operations, over a number of
months. Continue reading

Census of Manitoba, 1870 – now available online

Library and Archives Canada is pleased to announce that Canadians can now access the Census of Manitoba, 1870 online. This census was taken shortly after Manitoba joined Confederation.

This census provides the names of more than 12,200 individuals living in Manitoba at that time and contains information such as age, marital status, place of birth, religion, race and name of the father.

Census of Lower Canada, 1825 now available online

Library and Archives Canada is pleased to announce that Canadians can now access the Census of Lower Canada, 1825 online. The Census of Lower Canada, 1825 is partly nominal and therefore only contains the names of heads of family, their occupation, and the number of residents for each family.

Users can search this new database by the names of heads of family, as well as by geographical information such as district and sub-district names.