Researching Ancestors in the Canadian Census

Searching the Census of Canada

King Louis XIV
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