Visitors to Canada often point out that the country shares many cultural traits with its neighbour to the south, the United States, while also upholding traditions of its mother country, Great Britain. It’s not surprising then, that after the US and UK began serious census taking in the early 19th century, Canada soon followed suit. These records are extremely useful to UK family historians as so many English, Irish, Welsh and particularly Scottish people went to Canada’s provinces to find their fortunes.
The first Canadian census was taken in 1851, 16 years before Canada actually gained independent home rule in 1867. It covered Canada East (Quebec), Canada West (Ontario), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The 1851 pages are much trickier to get to grips with than British or US census returns – for a start you have to read two documents to get the full picture for each individual. When you view a record the first document lists people (referred to as ‘inmates’ on the Canada East and West returns) by name, numbering each individual from one to 50. Occupation, birthplace, religion, age at next birthday and sex are given.
Make a note of the number the individual was given in the first document before moving to the next document. Here you’ll see their marital status, race (columns for ‘Negro’ and ‘Indian’ people), whether they were members of the household or visitors, if anyone was absent from the house, new births, whether anyone was attending school, and who was deaf, dumb, blind or a lunatic. Other information is provided, for example what the home was made from – such as wood or stone – and the county and sub-district are given at the top. It’s a comprehensive and useful swathe of data, but printing out the pages makes looking at them much easier.
There’s far less detail for each resident of New Brunswick in 1851 – just name, sex, age, nationality (if they were born in Canada it just says “Native”) and occupation. Nova Scotia is similar to US censuses before 1850, and merely gives the name of the head of household and a headcount for the rest at the residence.
The 1861 Census saw the tiny province of Prince Edward Island added to the enumeration of Canada, but sadly its records for this year were of the same poor quality as Nova Scotia’s. New Brunswick and Canada East and West generally kept the same amount of information as they did in 1851, although the returns are on one sheet and much easier to read.
The following decade, Prince Edward Island disappeared from the census because it wasn’t part of the Dominion of Canada that formed in 1867. British Columbia joined Canada in 1871 but too late for its census to be included that year. However, in 1871 Nova Scotia improved its record keeping, bringing it in line with the other provinces on its census returns. For each household you can discover each person’s name, age, sex, country or province of birth, religion, origin (ethnicity, for instance English, Scottish etc), profession, marital status and any infirmities.
The 1800s and beyond
By 1881, Canada was becoming much more like the country it is today: Manitoba, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territory were all enumerated at census time, while Ontario and Quebec became the new titles for Canada West and East respectively. Thankfully, the forms filled in by the enumerators were standardised across the country, so they now give researchers all the key information for each person, although the materials used to build the home were no longer recorded!
Similar to US census pages, and sensitive to immigration patterns, from 1891 Canadians began recording the birthplaces of each person’s parents. In 1901 they also began recording the actual date of birth, making the pursuit of birth certificates, whether Canadian, British or American, so much easier. By 1911, there were nine provinces – Alberta and Saskatchewan were new – as well as the Northwest and Yukon territories. Actual birth dates disappeared from the census documents but some enumerators recorded them anyway, and far more information was taken about each person’s profession, level of education and languages spoken.
If your ancestors lived in the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan or Manitoba in 1906 or 1916, don’t forget to check their additional censuses in those years, which are also available to our Worldwide members.