Canada Immigration Background (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 ($).


Beginning in the 18th century and continuing well into the 19th and 20th centuries, various themes arose in immigration policies and activities. Depending on the needs at the time, these themes co-existed or leap-frogged over each other into the forefront, each in their own way paying a significant contribution to the populating of British North America. In order to put these themes in perspective, it helps to understand what was going on in other parts of the world—those parts from which Canada (or her predecessors) would attract settlers.


After the American War of Independence, Britain recognized the necessity of attracting to Canada, settlers loyal to the Crown in order to present a defensive front should another war with the United States erupt. It was unlikely that hordes of settlers would sail from British ports during the Napoleonic Wars. With that source of immigrants limited until after the wars ended, where was the next most likely source? We begin to see, particularly in Upper Canada in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the offer of free land as a means of attracting settlers and in the cases of those coming from Britain, often their passage was paid in whole or in part by the government, sponsoring agencies or wealthy landowners. Those who could prove they were loyal to the British during the war with the 13 Colonies and later their sons and daughters were offered free land grants. Many went to the Maritimes, some to southern Quebec and others made their way up the St. Lawrence or overland to Niagara and established settlements along the north shores of Lakes Ontario and Erie.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain experienced a period of peace. This contributed to some problems at home: how to accommodate the military no longer required. At the same time, industrialization was beginning to have an impact, causing worrisome unemployment and poverty. Add to that, the decisions of large land-owners to switch from renting small portions of their land to peasant farmers to take up the more lucrative business of raising sheep. It became evident that Britain had a growing problem on her hands. Concerned that the displaced tenant farmers of Scotland, and then the starving masses in Ireland would make their way to the industrialized cities of England in search of work, placing incredible burdens on cities and parishes already feeling the pressure from their own citizens, the British government realized that a solution existed on their doorstep.


So, we see a second theme arising: provide some of the poor willing to settle in British North America with free passage, provisions and a promise of land (free or affordable) on arrival. This also helped solve another problem—that of the merchant ships carrying timber from the new world to the old. Human cargo could provide the ballast on the westward journey.

A third theme developed with the realization that there were opportunities in British North America for people with money. As the available land began to decrease, the immigration assistance programmes also began to disappear. There were immigrants willing to come to Canada at their own expense, and who, once here and established, could invest in the country.

Settlement programmes were of 3 main types:

  • land grants to loyalists, children of loyalists and retired/decommissioned/demustered military
  • free passage, assistance and land for poor willing to emigrate from Britain and settle in British North America (could be government or charity/church sponsored programmes)
  • affordable land for sale to those interested in immigrating to BNA at their own expense (land companies who surveyed and sold the land)

Upper Canada Land Petitions - Darley

John Darley Land Petition (Page 1 of 2). Library and Archives Canada. Upper Canada Land Petitions, 1811, Vol. D, Bundle 10, #25, Microfilm C-1744.

Upper Canada Land Petition Darley.jpg

John Darley Land Petition (Page 2 of 2). Library and Archives Canada. Upper Canada Land Petitions, 1811, Vol. D, Bundle 10, #25, Microfilm C-1744.

Upper Canada Land Petition Darley2.jpg

Land Petition (transcription):

Ontario Land Petition.jpg

Notable Names and Events (And Some Others Worth Mentioning)

In 1740 the British Parliament passed an Act establishing uniform rules of naturalization for its colonies in America.

“Thereafter a foreign-born adult male person who had resided in any of those colonies for more than 2 months at any one time, who took the prescribed oaths, and within three months of taking them, received the sacrament in a recognized Protestant church, and had a certificate of this communion registered with the secretary of the province concerned, should acquire all the rights of a natural born subject.” (Bell 1981, 24)

*“Foreign-born” of course meant born in someplace other than Britain or one of her colonies.

The first real settlement of Nova Scotia under the British began when in June of 1749 thirteen ships arrived in Chebucto harbour with British colonists. It’s interesting to note that in July of that same year, Colonel Cornwallis wrote to the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations in London stating most of the settlers were unsuitable. He went on to urge the recruitment of German and Swiss Protestants. Just over a year later (Sept. 1750) the ship Ann arrived from Rotterdam with over 300 “Germans”. Another ship, the Alderney arrived from London but carried a number of foreign Protestants. Many of these immigrants settled in Lunenburg County. The Lunenburg County GenWeb has transcriptions of a number of passenger lists .

The Winthrop Pickard Bell Fonds held by the Nova Scotia Archives include “research notes, incoming and outgoing correspondence, photocopies of registers and lists, card files, and draft manuscripts created and compiled by Bell for his book,The “Foreign Protestants” and the Settlement of Nova Scotia. It also includes three notebooks containing Bell’s notes on individual settlers of Lunenburg County, called “Register of Lunenburg Settlers”. Card files were compiled as an index to the registers and contain additional information on emigrants and their families, their origins, and early years in the community. For a description of the fonds in the Archives Catalogue, click here, then type Pickard Bell in the search box.

Another book on the subject which can be recommended is the following: Register of the Foreign Protestants of Nova Scotia (ca. 1749-1770) in two volumes by Winthrop Picard Bell; compiled and prepared for publication by Dr. J. Christopher Young; c. 2003, Mount Allison University, Sackville, N.B.


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.