August 27th, 2012

Working with Canadian Census Records

Canada’s first census took place in 1666 before it was even Canada. Jean Talon, an early colonial administrator for the government of France, oversaw the enumeration which recorded the names, ages and marital status of the 3,000 plus inhabitants of what was then known as New France. The first official census of Canada was taken in 1871, but between then and 1666, as many as 98 different census reports, both colonial and regional, were undertaken for purposes of taxation and military subscription. As with other countries, new questions designed to elicit more detailed information were added to the questionnaires, but prior to 1851 most returns are incomplete and rather vague in what they reveal.

Canadian census returns post 1851 used a Population Schedule format for their enumeration of individuals, while providing a separate agricultural schedule which was used to record; the size of the land held, structures, crops grown, livestock kept, and a property valuation. Most of the Canadian census records are held by Library and Archives Canada, including those from pre-Confederation years. Some are still held in provincial archives, including original documents pre-dating 1871 for New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, while has also digitized many of them.

Genealogical Value of the 1871 Census

The first Canadian census was extraordinarily thorough, and contained nine different schedules to glean information from the populace. These schedules included:

  • Population Schedule (record of names)
  • Mortality Schedule (names of those who died in the previous 12 months)
  • Listing of Public Institutions, Real estate, Vehicles and Implements
  • Agricultural Schedule – Record of Crops Produced and Quantities
  • Livestock Schedule – Record of Livestock and Animal Products Production
  • Industrial Schedule – Manufacturing Records
  • Return of Products for Forest Resources
  • Shipping and Fisheries Schedule – Records of Vessels, Catches, and Trade
  • Mining and Mineral Schedule

Finding your ancestor in the 1871 and subsequent census returns of Canada can reveal quite a bit of information about them, especially their economic standing, their holdings, and the success or lack thereof of their enterprise if they had one. Knowing this information can provide you with further insight as to their lifestyle and political and/or social influence. The Industrial Schedule was eliminated from the census in 1881, and although the following census reinstated it, only the population schedules survived.

Subsequent Canadian Census Reports

Canada had grown by 1901, and consisted at that time of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Columbia, the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and the District of Keewatin, and administrative district of the Northwest Territories. It is important to know the enumeration districts for the Canadian Census, as that information can be highly effective in finding your ancestor. Generally Canadian enumeration districts generally corresponded to electoral districts, though not always.  Again, you can find the electoral district for free at by doing a search of Canadian census records. Once you select a Province to search within, you’ll be given an option of choosing a District within that Province, and subsequently a chance to choose a Sub–District within that District.

The census enumeration process was much in Canada as in other countries, with enumerators going from household to household, questioning the head of the house, and gathering the data. The 1901 census was scheduled to be completed within 30 days of the 31 March, however the census commissioners were forced to revise them before they could be sent on to the census office, an action that resulted in a delay of around five months. This normally would have been no big deal, but in this particular instance the result was significant. The reports from British Columbia were shipped to the nation’s capitol by steamer, unfortunately this particular one – The Islander – sank with all records on board. Consequently the census had to be retaken, delaying the final tabulation of data.

This wasn’t the end of the adventures of the 1901 census. In 1955 The Public Records Committee ordered the Dominion Bureau of Statistics to destroy all the original documents from the 1901 reports, which they unfortunately did without question. Fortunately many of the population schedules as well as the reports on real estate, schools, and church records had been saved to microfilm before then, and still survive. These images have been since digitized by Library and Archives Canada, and you can browse them online.  Census reports for Canada have been taken, and hence are available for reference, in 10 year intervals since the original census of 1871.