A guide to key Canadian genealogy resources, coast to coast!
East to west, Canadian genealogy resources offer an abundance of delights for family history! The record landscape begins with the first non-indigenous early 16th century settlement by the French in present-day Quebec, and although things didn’t really start rolling in terms of nation-wide settlement until Confederation in 1867 — the birth of the Dominion of Canada — the tantalizing opportunity for many families to be traced in Canada as far back as the early 17th century exists.
Yet where should your exploration begin? If your non-indigenous ancestor lived in Canada before Confederation, it’s a safe bet — with some exceptions for Métis and fur trade ancestors — that you’ll be hanging out in provincial record sets belonging to the eastern half of Canada, for the country had yet to expand significantly beyond what are now the following provinces: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Following Confederation, you’ll be casting a wider net to embrace all of western and northern Canada: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. And so, let’s take a look at some choice Canadian genealogy resources from east to west — aside from those available on sites such as MyHeritage, Ancestry and FamilySearch — beginning with three national gems. All are a must-visit whether online, onsite or vicariously through genealogy professionals!
Explore Pan-Canada Genealogy Resources
You’ll want spend a little ‘getting-to-know-you’ time learning about Canada’s history and settlement, each province’s specialized records sets, and civil registration dates. Start with the mini-history over at Canada GenWeb, and pause to explore all the provincial and territorial volunteer-donated treats.
Next, shift to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to build on your knowledge of the history of each province and territory and their associated genealogy records. From LAC’s home page, select ‘Genealogy and Family History’ from the drop-down menu under ‘Search the Collection’. To the left of the ‘Genealogy and Family History’ page, select ‘Places’ from the menu, and begin exploring! Under ‘Discover the Collection’, you can also learn about resources available for researching fur trade and Métis ancestors, and all of Canada’s ethno-cultural groups. Make sure to have a rummage through LAC’s essential collection of databases, which can be accessed again from LAC’s home page by selecting ‘Ancestors Search’ from the drop-down menu under ‘Search the Collection’. Of intrigue here are the Land Petitions of Upper and Lower Canada, for in pre-Confederation days, the paper trail was often parsimonious with information concerning an ancestor’s origins or relations. However, if an ancestor petitioned for land — which many did — the details in a petition have been known to resolve some particularly stubborn questions! Best of all, links to free, digitized images of the original petitions are provided at the bottom of each database page under ‘How to Obtain Copies’. If you can manage a visit to LAC in Ottawa, you’ll be treated to so much more, for only a tiny percentage of their dizzying collection of holdings — LAC is the 4th largest library in the world — has been digitized.
After LAC, head over to Héritage, LAC’s partner website, where you can access, for free, close to forty million digitized primary-source documents, such as parish registers, all of which are searchable.
Explore Eastern Canada Genealogy Resources
In Ontario, the Archives of Ontario (AO) is a must-access repository. AO houses so many key records — it’s the second largest archives in Canada — necessary to tracing families from the early days of settlement in the regions known as Upper Canada and subsequently Canada West. The most critical of these are AO’s probate and land records, and, although a bit more fortuitously available, church records and cemetery transcriptions. When sought-after mentions of family members and origins evade, they are often found in these collections. AO’s value does not end here, for their holdings embrace a seemingly endless supply of maps, photographs, books, immigration records, military records, municipal records, historical correspondence, and so much more.
Research in Ontario will also benefit from a visit to the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library. Here, you can delight in finding a bevy of local histories, transcriptions of cemeteries, church records, early township census and population returns, immigration records and passenger lists, telephone books and city directories, newspapers and transcriptions, guide books, rare historical books, maps, and more… not only for Ontario, yet all of Canada.
Quebec is one Canadian province in which you might expect to trace ancestors to the 17th century. Also, if you suspect an early ancestor arrival to Canada — whether of French heritage or not — yet cannot place that ancestor, do try Quebec. Loyalists from the US, Scots, Irish, people of African descent, and many other groups started arriving before the 1800s. The best places to explore Quebec ancestors are Généalogie Québec and BAnQ, or Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec. Généalogie Québec is a comprehensive online source which offers, among their numerous prized sources, the complete Drouin and LaFrance collections of Quebec vital records. BAnQ’s impressive resources allow you to search online for ancestors in digitized original newspapers, directories, and importantly, files of Quebec notaries, which often contain wills and death information. For Quebec research, you will want to brush up on your French language skills, or corral the help of a translator or willing friend!
Collectively, some families in the maritime provinces can be traced to the 17th century, for many, such as Acadians, shifted from province to province. You may find that your research in the Maritimes will need to appeal to the Drouin collection of Acadian records.
For the individual maritime provinces, beginning with Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Archives online genealogy guide is key, as are their digitized collections of early — dating to roughly the mid-18th century — land records, census records, and historical newspapers. Next, an absolutely critical resource is the online, searchable Nova Scotia Historical Vital Statistics database.
Neighboring New Brunswick’s Provincial Archives have amassed a collection of thirty-seven compelling databases for you to search, and in many cases copies of original documents may be ordered. And, to augment your New Brunswick research, be sure to sift through the comprehensive listing of links to further treasures over at Can Genealogy’s page for New Brunswick.
Tiny, yet teeming with genealogy resources, Prince Edward Island’s PARO Collection is the place to begin. Here, vital records from the 1770s, census records and archival collections can be searched, and copies of original records ordered. Complement your research over at a favorite of PEI historians: The Island Register, a searchable trove of information. Finally, if you have early French PEI ancestors, the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer offers scanned images of the original parish registers of Port-La-Joye, one of the first settlements of PEI (formerly known as Île Saint-Jean). Yes, here again, the French language will be a requirement!
Newfoundland and Labrador did not join Canada until 1949, and so its record system is distinct. Start learning about Newfoundland and unraveling family ties in the cherished, volunteer-run website Newfoundland’s Grand Banks Genealogical and Historical Data, which is crammed with transcriptions of historical documents of all manner, and directions to locate sources for originals. You’ll also want to explore The Rooms, Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Archives’ collection, embracing parish registers, wills, crown land records, and more key resources. Also, considering this province’s rich maritime history, you can explore shipping ancestors over at Memorial University’s Maritime History Archive, starting with a search of their Crew List Index.
Explore Western and Northern Canada Genealogy Resources
Post-Confederation vital statistics research in the western provinces and northern territories will be a slightly protracted affair, because the original records held by each province and territory are, for the most part, not accessible online. However, to ease your search, each provincial and territorial government vital statistics agency or archives offers searchable indexes or, in the case of Alberta, digital images of their vital statistics index, followed by instructions for ordering copies of original documents. If you can visit any western and northern provincial archives in person, hire a genealogist, or choose to appeal to any archives’ ‘research from a distance’ services, you are encouraged to access homestead — or land — records and probate records, which are all-important to genealogy research in western and northern Canada. While you wait for any of your requested archival documents to arrive, reward your patience by exploring what’s on offer at the following key resources!
If you are researching fur trade or Métis ancestors, you’ll certainly want to make use of the excellent Hudson’s Bay Company Archives offered by the Archives of Manitoba, followed by the treasured collection of online resources at the Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture. For early Scots Selkirk settlers, the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives is again your go-to, followed by the labor-of-love website Red River Ancestry.
If your ancestors hailed from British Columbia, be sure to visit the Vancouver Public Library, home to several indispensable online collections such as their British Columbia City Directories and Historical Newspapers databases.
Finally, in the comparatively sparsely populated historical regions of western and northern Canada, research in newspaper announcements can be the answer to piecing together family histories. For a round-up of digitized historical Canadian newspapers, you’ll want to explore Can Genealogy’s comprehensive summary.
We hope you have enjoyed your east to west exploration of some key Canadian genealogy resources. Do keep in mind that many Canadian ancestors were an itinerant bunch, and so you may be tracking them in more than one place!
With these key resources you should soon be nudging your Canadian ancestors into view!
Do you need help tracing your Canadian ancestors? With genealogists specializing in all different types of research and onsite agents worldwide, we can help you track down those elusive records that might provide the clue(s) needed to extend your family line. Get started today by requesting a free quote.