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Researching Ancestors in the Canadian Census, 1871–1921

Searching the Census of Canada

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King Louis XIV

Canadian census records officially go back to 1666, when King Louis XIV requested a count of the number of landowners in New France.

Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Canadian census returns contain the official enumeration of the population of Canada, making them one of the most useful sources for genealogical research in Canada. Canadian census records can help you learn such things as when and where your ancestor was born, when the immigrant ancestor arrived in Canada, and the names of parents and other family members.

Canadian census records officially go back to 1666, when King Louis XIV requested a count of the number of landowners in New France. The first census conducted by the national government of Canada didn't occur until 1871, however, and has been taken every ten years since (every five years since 1971). To protect the privacy of living individuals, Canadian census records are kept confidential for a period of 92 years; the most recent Canadian census to be released to the public is 1921.

The 1871 census covered the four original provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. 1881 marked the first coast-to-coast Canadian census. One major exception to the concept of a "national" Canadian census, is Newfoundland, which was not a part of Canada until 1949, and thus was not included in most Canadian census returns. Labrador was, however, enumerated in the 1871 Census of Canada (Quebec, Labrador District) and the 1911 Canadian Census (Northwest Territories, Labrador Sub-district).
 

What You Can Learn From Canadian Census Records
 

National Canadian Census, 1871-1911
The 1871 and later Canadian census records list the following information for each individual in the household: name, age, occupation, religious affiliation, an birthplace (province or country). The 1871 and 1881 Canadian censuses also list the father's origin or ethnic background. The 1891 Canadian census asked for the parents' birthplaces, as well as identification of French Canadians. It is also important as the first national Canadian census to identify the relationship of individuals to the head of household. The 1901 Canadian census is also a hallmark for genealogy research as it asked for the complete birth date (not just the year), as well as the year the person immigrated to Canada, the year of naturalization, and the father's racial or tribal origin.
 

Canada Census Dates

The actual census date varied from census to census, but is important in helping to determine an individual's probable age. The dates of the censuses are as follows:
 
  • 1871 - 2 April
  • 1881 - 4 April
  • 1891 - 6 April
  • 1901 - 31 March
  • 1911 - 1 June
  • 1921 - 1 June
     

Where to Find the Canadian Census Online
 

1871 Canadian Census - In 1871, Canada's first national census was conducted, including the four original provinces of Nova Scotia, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Quebec. The 1871 census of Prince Edward Island, unfortunately, did not survive. "Manual containing the 'Census Act' and the Instructions to Officers Employed in the Taking of the First Census of Canada (1871)" is available online at Internet Archive.
   

1881 Canadian Census - Over 4 million individuals were enumerated in the first coast-to-coast census of Canada as of April 4, 1881, in the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Northwest Territories. Because many Aboriginals were spread over a great extent of the unorganized territory of Canada, they may or may not have been recorded in all districts. "Manual containing the 'Census Act' and the Instructions to Officers Employed in the Taking of the Second Census of Canada (1881)" is available online at Internet Archive.

1891 Canadian Census - The 1891 Canadian Census, taken on the 6th of April 1891 in both English and French, is the third national census of Canada. It covers the seven provinces of Canada (British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec), as well as the Northwest Territories, which at the time was comprised of the districts of Alberta, Assiniboia East, Assiniboia West, Saskatchewan, and Mackenzie River. A "Manual containing the 'Census Act' and the Instructions to Officers Employed in the Taking of the Third Census of Canada (1891)" is available online at Internet Archive.

1901 Canadian Census - Canada's fourth national census, the Canadian Census of 1901, covers the seven provinces of Canada (British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec) in existence at the time, as well as the Territories, a large area that encompassed what later became Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories. Digital images of the actual census records are available for free online viewing from ArchiviaNet, Library and Archives Canada. Since these images don't include a name index, volunteers with the Automated Genealogy project have completed a Canada-wide name index of the 1901 census - also searchable online for free. The 1901 census enumerator instructions are available online from Internet Archive.

    1911 Canadian Census - The 1911 Canadian Census covers the nine provinces of Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) and two territories (the Yukon and the Northwest Territories) that were then part of Confederation. Digitized images of the 1911 census are available for free online viewing at ArchiviaNet, the research tool of Library and Archives Canada. These images are only searchable by location, however, and not by name. Volunteers have stepped up to produce an every-name index, which is also online for free at Automated GenealogyThe 1911 census enumerator instructions are available online from Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI).

    1921 Canadian Census - The 1921 Canadian Census covers the same provinces and territories of Canada as were enumerated in 1911 (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova ScotiaPrince Edward Island, Yukon and the Northwest Territories). Canada added 1,581,840 new residents between the 1911 and 1921 censuses, with the biggest increase in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan which each grew by more than 50 percent. Yukon, during the same period, lost half of its population. The 1921 Canada Census is the most recent Canadian census available to the public, released in 2013 after a 92-year waiting period to protect the privacy of those enumerated. The 1921 census enumerator instructions are available online from Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI).


    Related Resources:

    Searching the Canadian Census in One Step (1851, 1901, 1906, 1911)

     

    Next: Canadian Provincial Censuses Prior to 1871

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