Canada Immigration, Planning and Strategizing (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:Immigration Records  by Patricia McGregor, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Planning and Strategizing

We need to spend some time thinking about strategy. You will discover that immigration and history go hand in hand. So we need to think about methodologies for finding clues to immigration information about our ancestors.

Consider your own research. How did you determine where your ancestors came from? List the various sources you have used below. Try to come up with at least five. If you have not yet done this research, think about where you might look for information.

1. ________________________
2. ________________________
3. ________________________
4. ________________________
5. ________________________

Now, the second step of this exercise. Do you know when your ancestors came? Hint: you don’t need to state the exact year, a ballpark estimate is fine. How did you find that out? Can you list five sources that might provide information to help establish time of arrival?

6. ________________________
7. ________________________
8. ________________________
9. ________________________
10. ________________________

If you were able to provide more than one source for answers to these questions you have already learned that information on immigration can be gathered from a variety of sources. Many of us just “always knew” where our ancestors came from. It was common knowledge as we were growing up and we heard it often from our parents or grandparents. But, does that make it true? For all family history stories, a good family historian searches for factual evidence to corroborate the lore.

If you identified sources in the exercise above that include such things as census records, BMD registrations, church records, land records, newspaper obituaries, military records or ships’ lists (to name a few) then you are already on the right track. A work of caution: individual ‘facts’ cannot be taken as truth on their own—as many facts as possible must be gathered so you can evaluate them as a whole collection of evidence.


Consider the following explanations accompanying the 1931 census:

“The term ‘origin’ as used by the census has a combined biological, cultural and geographical significance. It suggests whence our people came and the implied biological strain and cultural background... In tracing origin, in the case of European descent, the line is through the father... By mother tongue is meant the language commonly spoken in the home; in the case of immigrants it is usually the language spoken before coming to Canada.” (Gibbon 1938, vii)

The 1901 census is notable for four new questions in addition to the usual ones about age, birthplace and origin:

  • the actual date of birth
  • the year of immigration to Canada
  • year of naturalization (if not a British citizen)
  • the language spoken in the home (mother tongue)

For those of us with ancestors enumerated in the 1901 census, answers to these questions provide good detail in our quest for information.

After a lengthy grass roots campaign, the 1911 Canadian census was released in June 2005. Several questions provide useful information regarding immigration data. They include:

  • Country of birth Year of immigration to Canada if an immigrant
  • Year of naturalization, if formerly an alien
  • Racial or tribal origin
  • Nationality
  • Language commonly spoken

Library and Archives Canada has made the 1911 census pages available in JPEG and PDF formats on their website along with a searchable names index."

Land Records

In some cases petitions or deeds for land will provide information on your ancestor’s country of origin and, if you are really lucky, when he came to Canada.

Newspaper Obituaries

Often newspaper obituaries, not to be confused with death notices, will contain a wealth of information on the individual. Remember however, that it is not the individual talking but someone else, so the purported facts need to be confirmed. This writer has at least one example where the information in an obituary was later proven to be incorrect.

Example excerpt from an obituary in THE EVENING EXAMINER, Peterborough, Monday, December 18, 1905, page 1, column 5:

“The late Mr. Weir was born in the county of Monaghan, Ireland, and was a son of the late Lancott Weir. He came to Canada with his parents at the age of 6 yrs, and with them, settled in Cobourg, where he lived until 1860, when he removed to Peterborough, and had lived here until his death.“

Other Sources

To identify other sources you sometimes need to think outside the box. What was happening at the time, what kind of records might have been kept? Military records, voters’ lists, wills, petitions to town councils, general newspaper reports on local events, government publications and reports all should be considered as they place the individual in a certain location at a certain time.

Three interesting examples below are taken from the Dominion Annual Register and Review of 1878 under the chapter “Remarkable Occurrences”:

  • February 18th – Mrs. Catherine Jarvis died at Digby recently, 110 years old. She was born in slavery in the United States, and brought to Nova Scotia by a Loyalist in 1782. (p. 229)
  • April 4th – Mrs. Mary Johnson, of Donmount dies age 102. She was a native of Queen’s County, Ireland and came to Canada 40 yrs ago. (p. 231)
  • June 12th – Extensive labour riots occur in the city of Quebec. “B” Battery is called out, the riot act is read, and the troops fire on the mob killing Edouard Beaudoire, a Frenchman, lately arrived in Canada. (p. 234)

Think about joining mailing lists. There are many operated by RootsWeb. Consult the lists at the website and follow the instructions to join the ones that interest you.

The Olive Tree Genealogy website has a great deal of information on Canadian ships lists and records and other immigration data. It also provides a quick link to the ships’ lists mailing list.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Immigration Records 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.