Canada Immigration Service and Ports (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 ($).

Establishment of a Canadian Immigration Service

In 1828, the British government instituted a new Passenger Act in order to regulate the conditions on ships bringing immigrants to the new world. An emigration agent was appointed to work at Quebec where by far the vast majority of immigrants were headed. The duties of this office required the agent to:

“...receive immigrants on landing, distribute landing money, if available, clothe and feed the indigent, hear complaints, launch proceedings against shipmasters violating passenger vessel laws, direct newcomers to places of employment, help new arrivals to locate their friends, and transship newly arrived immigrants to their destination.” (Knowles 1992, 36)

There was a huge increase in numbers of immigrants in the early 1830s. The numbers decreased around the time of the 1837 Rebellion, but picked up again in the 1840s. In order to encourage emigration to British North America, the British government made passage to Quebec cheaper than that to American ports. The government also at times provided free transportation in barges up the St. Lawrence to poor immigrants who declared their intention to settle in Canada. Most of the immigrants, being English speaking, were headed for Upper Canada, as by this time most if not all the good land in the Maritimes was taken. As the numbers increased, a network of agents operating in other locations was established. These agents continued to report to the chief agent at Quebec. The cost was borne by the British government until 1854 at which time the responsibilities were assumed by the government of the Province of Canada.

Immigration/emigration agents during the nineteenth century were of two types. Land companies often hired agents to recruit those willing to move to British North America and sometimes to assist them in settling on their land once they had arrived. Land company agents worked in locations on both sides of the ocean. We’ve also seen that sometimes their tactics were less than professional and in some cases unscrupulous. The other types of agents were the ones who were actual government employees. These agents like the private ones were stationed both in British North America and abroad.

As we discuss arrivals in this module, you will see the private emigration agent disappear as land companies ceased to operate and the role of the government immigration agent evolve from one of encouragement and assistance in the early days, to one of determining admissibility of immigrants in the 20th century. We will also see the development of Emigrant Societies in some of the larger cities—these were usually organizations comprised of well meaning citizens who volunteered their time and solicited money from the well-to-do to assist those in need.

Ocean Ports

As we have discussed in earlier modules, major points of arrival in the 18th and 19th centuries included Halifax, Saint John, Pictou and Quebec. Records for these arrivals are sporadic as there was no requirement for the keeping of passenger lists. It is important to remember that some Canadian ports were ice bound in the winter so the shipping season usually ran from spring to late fall. If you think your ancestor arrived during winter, he or she could have been on a ship bound for one of the American ports. It was not uncommon for immigrants to arrive in the U.S. and travel overland to Canada. Although American immigration is not the subject of this course it would be a great omission not to mention two very helpful research sites: Castle Garden and Ellis Island, both of which have searchable online indexes.

Castle Garden

From the Castle Garden website

Castle Garden is now known as Castle Clinton National Monument, and is the major landmark within a 23 acre waterfront park at the tip of Manhattan called The Battery. From 1855 to 1890, the Castle was America’s first official immigration centre, a pioneering collaboration of New York State and New York City. The website has a search engine which allows free access to a database containing information on over 11 million immigrants who entered the U.S. through this location between 1820 and 1892.

Rick Roberts of has written an article on Castle Garden which can be viewed at the Global Gazette (Canada's Online Family History Magazine).

Castle Garden Exercise

Search the Castle Garden website for any John Pullman entries.

  • What do you find?
  •  Examine the matches for more details.
  •  Can you eliminate any of the ‘hits’? On what basis?
  •  Are there any that could be the missing John Pullman, son of John and Ann?
  •  Why or why not?
  •  What other research could you do?

For answers, see Answers to Castle Garden Exercise.

Ellis Island

After the close of Castle Garden in 1892 and up until 1954, more than 12 million immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, a small island in the New York Harbour just off the New Jersey coast. You can read more about it at the Ellis Island site.

The Ellis Island site contains a free search engine which you can use to search the index of passenger arrival records. In order to view the actual record, you must register (it’s free) and create a password.

Pier 21

From 1928 to 1971, over a million immigrants, wartime evacuees, refugees, troops, war brides and their children came to Canada through Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Pier 21 has been transformed into a National Historic Site, an incredibly moving tribute to the immigration experience. Interactive displays, virtual projections, interesting photographs and articles contemporary to the immigrant’s experience are all available for viewing in a very realistic environment.

The following figures taken from the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 website indicate the numbers of people who passed through this facility during its 43 years of operation:

  • 1 million immigrants
  • 100,000 displaced persons and refugees
  • 50,000 war brides and their 22,000 children
  • 3,000 British evacuee children, escaping the ravages of war at home
  • 494,000 Canadian troops bound for Europe during World War II

Part of Canada’s past and what continues to shape our future began at Pier 21. You will find photographs and the names of passengers and ships. If you have a chance to visit, you will see actual passports, immigration papers and other articles that illustrate the immigrant’s experiences of coming to a new land. The website contains a great deal of information plus links to other sites on immigration. Unfortunately, most of the records are still unavailable to the general public due to privacy restrictions.


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.