Canadian Census Research (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 ($).

Steps to a Successful Research Project

One of the skills necessary to research on a professional level is the ability to take a research project from the initial stage, and follow that research project to completion. In order to accomplish this it is necessary to take the following steps:

  • First, you must identify the goal of your research, whether it is to answer one question regarding an individual, or whether it is to go back in time as far as possible based on the information you have, and the records available for research.
  • Once a goal has been identified, you must begin your research, collecting and documenting all the information found, and listing all sources searched.
  • Next you must analyze the information you have obtained. You should evaluate the information to determine just how accurate it is. You should identify any relevant changes or questions arising from your research, and prepare a hypothesis to explain these changes. It is possible that there may be more than one reason that would explain the change you have identified in your analysis, and you should consider all as possibilities until research has proven what actually happened.
  • Finally, you must be able to develop problem solving skills to follow each hypothesis to a conclusion, using the appropriate genealogical records available to you to prove or disprove your hypotheses.

First Three Steps

In the following we will cover the first three points as listed. Imagine that you have been asked to locate family information on an individual named John Crosby, who married Mary Jane Baxter in the Town of Whitby, Ontario, in 1902.

Your ultimate objective is to learn everything you can about this Crosby family. Such an extensive objective or goal requires a step-by-step analysis of each source that is uncovered—smaller prioritized goals. The person requesting your help has told you about John Crosby’s marriage registration, which names his parents as George and Sarah Crosby. John’s age is given as 22, his religion is given as Methodist. John Crosby’s residence, and place of birth, are given as “Whitby.” Witnesses to the marriage were Hannah Crosby and Joseph Baxter.

Your goal at this point is to analyze the information provided in the marriage registration, and decide on a course of research based on the information you have. As the marriage registration indicates John Crosby was married in the Town of Whitby in 1902, it is reasonable to look for him in the 1901 census for that place.

In the 1901 census for the Town of Whitby you have traced a John Crosby, age 21, living with his mother, Sarah Crosby, age 52, a widow, and a sister Hannah, age 24. It seems likely that this is the John Crosby you are searching for, but this is not proven at this point.

Your client agrees that the John Crosby located in the 1901 census sounds like the correct family, and requests that you follow this family back through the census records as far as possible. Your research objective has now been expanded to trace the Crosby family back through earlier census records.

Finding a Family's Location

A search of the 1891 census for the Town of Whitby does not provide an entry for this family. As the family was not located there, your next priority is to determine where the family was living at the time of the 1891 census enumeration. Review the clues you have at this point, and analyze them to suggest a possible course of action.

  • Sarah is a widow in 1901. Possibly she moved to the Town of Whitby because she was now a widow. Where might she have lived prior to moving to the Town of Whitby?
  • Look back at the information provided on John Crosby’s marriage registration. You note that his residence and place of birth is given as “Whitby”, even though the marriage registration indicates he was married in the Town of Whitby.
  • Consult the census finding aid to determine if there is another enumeration district that might be indicated as “Whitby”. You learn that there are two enumeration districts, East Whitby Township and West Whitby Township, as well as the enumeration district for the Town of Whitby, in 1891.
  • It is always helpful to have an understanding of the geography of the area you are researching. If it is an area with which you are unfamiliar, try to consult a contemporary map of the location—in this instance, the Town of Whitby, and the surrounding country.

You begin searching these two enumeration districts, and you find a listing in East Whitby Township for the family of George Crosby, his wife Sarah and children, including a son John and a daughter Hannah. The parents for John match those indicated in John’s marriage registration, as does his religious affiliation, and you follow the family back through the census records, making copies of the family information for each census back to 1851.


This is one example of a typical census problem. With the ‘starting’ information (the marriage record), we went to the logical, nearest census return (1901). This was a successful step or small goal in the larger over-all goal of tracing the Crosby family. But they did not appear in the Town of Whitby in 1891. Although we have given you the actual results of earlier census returns, it is the line of reasoning to reach them that is important. John Crosby’s place of birth on his marriage record (‘Whitby’) made us look carefully at the census finding aid. If his birthplace had ‘Hamilton’ or ‘Port Hope’ for example, we would have had to look in another area for the earlier censuses.

Now, analyze the following census records collected for the Crosby family and note the changes that have occurred over the fifty years covered by this census search. You should be thinking about how reliable or credible each piece of data is.


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.