Introduction to Canadian Census Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian Census Part 1 and Part 2  by Doris Bourrie, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Census records are among the most useful records available to genealogists. They are the only records that give a fairly accurate picture of the entire family for one specific location and time. While church records or vital statistic registrations may be more accurate, these only give information on one milestone in the life of a family: a birth, a marriage, a death. A census record will indicate information on the entire family at that point in time. By following the family through the 1851 to 1911 census records, 60 years of family information may be obtained with relatively little effort. By comparing the information from one census year to the next, the researcher will have a fairly clear picture of the family group, including any changes to that family group, and will be able to plan further research objectives.

Census records were compiled by order of the governing body to determine various statistics that were required by that governing body. The records were used for statistical purposes: to determine tax levies, to determine ethnic groups and religious groups, to provide information on type of crops, yields, information on specific industries and other purposes.

Types of Census Records[edit | edit source]

In general, there are two types of census records of use to the genealogist:

Heads of Family (HF)[edit | edit source]

  • Heads of Family census records, which contain one line devoted to one family’s or one household’s information. The name of the person considered the “Head” of the family is given, as well as the particular statistical information collected for that particular census. Some HF census records only collected an individual’s name, and basic agricultural statistics such as the amount of land cleared, and the extent of the crops produced.
  • Heads of Family census records cover earlier years than the Nominal census records, with the exception of the earliest Québec census records. These records are of limited value to the genealogist, although they do indicate an individual’s presence in that particular area at that particular time, and the agricultural statistics provided indicate that the individual may have owned property.
  • Other HF census records did provide some additional family information, indicating the number of males and females in the family, sometimes broken down into various age groups. These may also have indicated the country of origin and religion of the family, All useful information to further the genealogist’s knowledge of the family, and provide clues for research in other records.

Nominal (N)[edit | edit source]

  • Nominal census records, which cover the later years for Canada, are more helpful for the genealogist. This is the only source available to a genealogist which indicates in one record the extent of the family group at that particular time. The information collected varied from one census to the next, but in general you may learn the name of the head of the family, and the names of all others living in the household at the time of enumeration. Information such as sex, age, marital status, province/country of birth, religion, occupation, racial origins, etc. are included for each individual living in the household.
  • Obviously the nominal census record would be the first choice for genealogists, because it contains more detailed information than the HF census records. Much information can be gathered about a family by following that family through all census records available.

Census Years[edit | edit source]

1600s[edit | edit source]

The first census taken in Canada was enumerated on the instructions of Intendant Jean Talon in 1666. We are fortunate that this census was a nominal census, and recorded 3,215 inhabitants of New France. The nominal census records for 1666, 1667 and 1681 of New France provide us with invaluable information on the early residents of New France. These are the earliest census records available for Canada.

1700s to Early 1800s[edit | edit source]

After the end of the French Regime in 1763, census records were made by the various provincial governments as required, often in order to assess taxes. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has HF census records for Nova Scotia for the year 1811, 1817, 1827 and 1838, and HF records for Québec for 1825 and 1831.

In 1793 Upper Canada (Ontario) passed “An Act to provide for the nomination and appointment of Parish and Town Officers within this Province.”[1] This act provided that the Inhabitant Householders were to choose a town clerk who was responsible for compiling a complete list of every male and female living within his district.

Later amendments sometimes provided space to record the different religious denominations of the family. Few of these early records have survived. They were made primarily to collect necessary statistical information for the government of the day, and once the information had been collected, many of the records were destroyed.

Those that have survived generally cover localized areas, and may be scattered throughout various provincial archives collections, or may be preserved in other archival or historical collections. They are often included with municipal assessment records, probably because the original records were made primarily for assessment purposes, and preserved by the municipality in question. When turned over to an archive by the municipality, they were classed as Municipal Records.

1851 on[edit | edit source]

In general, for the eastern provinces, nominal census records for the years 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 are available, with some exceptions. For Western Canada, census records generally cover the years 1881, 1891, 1901, 1906 of the Northwest Provinces, 1911, and the 1916 of Western Provinces. The special 1906 and 1916 censuses were taken to document the high rate of population growth in western Canada, covering the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Although British Columbia was a province in 1916, it was not included.

While the pattern of taking decennial nominal census records began in 1851 in Eastern Canada, it was not until after Confederation in 1867 that the taking of a decennial nominal census became a constitutional requirement. Therefore, the 1871 census was considered the first Dominion or Federal census, and the 2nd was taken in 1881, the 3rd in 1891, the 4th in 1901 and the 5th in 1911.

Specialized Census Records[edit | edit source]

Some census records exist for various places across Canada that were not taken as part of the normal decennial census enumeration of the federal government. These records are localized in nature, and were taken for a specific purpose (Example: the 1877 Indian Reserve Commission (IRC) census of reserve lands in British Columbia).

The information contained in these records varies, and the researcher should check all provincial archives holdings as well as the local genealogical society and the records of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Family History Library to determine what is available for the specific location of interest.

Another format of census records available to the researcher is the number of census records that have been published either by individuals or by genealogical or historical societies. Some of these publications have compiled reconstructions of various early records for a specific area, or a specific group of settlers. Many of these are available through FamilySearch Centers with over 4,500 centers worldwide.

It is important that the researcher understands how any compiled or published census record was formed. Do the original records still exist and where can the researcher see them? Does the published record include everything from the original record, and has the information been reorganized in any way? The more reorganization of the original material, the more chance of errors or omissions occurring. These publications are intended to make early records more accessible to the researcher, but should be used in the same manner as you would use a census index to guide you to the actual original record.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 33 George III, 1793, c.2.

Additional Information[edit | edit source]

See: Canada Census

See: How Census are Organized


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian Census Part 1 and Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.