Using Canadian Census Aids to Locate Your Family (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 ($).

Searching for your family in a census record use to be very time-consuming, especially if you do not know a specific township or city ward for the family. Online indexes are available for a number of census records making the search for ancestors easier. If there is no online index available, it makes sense to use whatever finding aids have been produced to help speed up the process. If you believe that your family lived in a certain county, or division of a province, but do not know the specific location, it might help to locate a directory for that county or division for the appropriate time period.

Locating your name in a contemporary directory can lead you to the census records for the appropriate census district and sub-district to search for your family.

Census Charts

Another aid that may prove helpful would be a blank census chart for the census year you wish to search. These charts provide the headings for each column you will find in the census record, and by reviewing these headings you will be prepared to understand the information contained in the actual census record. They will also provide a convenient means of transcribing the information from the original record. If your resource center has a reader/printer, however, it is always wise to make a copy of the actual record for your files. If the handwriting is not very legible, or the page faded, it is best to have a written transcription as well as the printed copy.

These charts may be obtained through various sources:

  • Some genealogical societies sell copies of blank forms for the various Canadian census years. Check the website of the appropriate society for their publications list.
  • It is possible to obtain copies of blank forms on the Internet. The FamilySearch website provides blank forms for Canadian census records that may be downloaded to your printer. Go to Learn >Research Wiki and then search on the phrase Research Forms
  • If you are unable to access these sources, you can very readily develop your own master form for the census record. Before you begin your search for your family, simply take a few minutes to review the headings across the first page of the census and make sure that you understand what information will be recorded in each column. If you wish, you can list the column number and heading on a blank piece of paper, and use it as a guide while reading the census pages.


By far, the most helpful aid for a researcher would be an index to the census records which would lead the researcher immediately to the appropriate census reel and page that would show the proper family. Indexing of census records is the type of ongoing project generally undertaken by various local genealogical societies and/or historical societies to make records for their local area more accessible, and to raise operating funds for their society, or local branch of the society.

The indexing project might cover only one township for one census year, or might cover the records for a larger geographic area, such as a specific county within a province. Some of these indexes have been published in various forms, while some exist in card format and may be deposited with a provincial archives or a local municipal archives, library or museum.

Because these indices are so helpful, new versions are constantly being produced in various formats. You may need to do a little digging to determine what is available for your area of interest. The local genealogical society, or historical society would have current information on indices being published for their particular location, and the local genealogical library would usually have copies of previously published indices. Many indices to Canadian census records are available through the LDS Family History Library. Check the Historical Records online or search by place in the FamilySearch Catalog.

  • What records were used to produce this index?
  • What information was included, and was any information in the original record left out of the compiled index?
  • How was the material rearranged?

In order to understand the information contained in the compiled record, you will need to understand exactly how that compiled record was formed, and to remember that any reorganisation of the original material might result in errors or omissions occurring in the published information.

Be sure to read the introduction to the publication, which should answer any questions regarding the source of the material, and how it was handled.

An index to census records may be a very useful tool for the genealogist, and save valuable research time by directing you to the exact entry for your family. However, as with all compiled information, there is always the possibility of human error. A name may be misread, or transcribed incorrectly, or missed entirely from the original record.

There are basically two types of published census index records:

  • One would be an every name index.
  • The second might be a “Heads of Family” type index. An example of this type of index is the Index to the 1871 Ontario Census, which will be discussed in more detail later.

If the index is a “Heads of Family” type of index, you may be looking for Joseph Fitzroy, father of your ancestor. Perhaps Joseph was not alive at the time of this census, and the person listed as the “Head” of his family (and therefore listed in the index) might be his wife, or the eldest son, whose name you do not know. In this case, you may have to trace the entries for all Fitzroy surnames to locate your family.

If you do not locate a listing in this type of index that matches your family, there is the possibility that the name was incorrectly entered, or inadvertently missed. If you are fairly sure your family should be listed, then you may have to ignore the Index and read the census yourself.

Canadian Census Finding Aids

  • Index of the entire 1871 census for the province of Ontario. This huge project was undertaken by The Ontario Genealogical Society to mark the Society’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1986. With the assistance of members from all branches (some 400 volunteers and 26 Branch co-ordinators) a listing of all heads of families and all strays was compiled for the entire province from the records of the 1871 census for Ontario. An agreement was reached with the Machine-Readable Archives division of Library and Archives Canada to enter this information into a computerised database. The 1871 census Index was originally published by The Ontario Genealogical Society in a number of volumes, and these published volumes are available at many genealogical libraries and Archives. The computerised database of this index has been made available since the original printed publications released by The Ontario Genealogical Society, and may be found on the Internet at various sites, including Library and Archives Canada: . A “stray” is a person whose surname differs from that of the head of household.
  • The LDS Church has produced an every-name finding aid to the 1881 Census of Canada. Initially (and still) available as a set of CD-ROMs, it is available for searching on their website: . It contains information for approximately 4.3 million people who lived in the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories. Newfoundland is not included, as it did not join Canada until 1949. Alberta and Saskatchewan did not become separate provinces until 1905, and information for these regions is in the Northwest Territories. It is a very versatile finding aid, from individual names to a full household transcription with all reference details and microfilm reel numbers, both LDS and LAC. It is even possible to click on the “Neighbours” button to show other households on the same page, preceding page, or following page. The CD-ROM set has similar features; purchase information is at the same site.
  • Library and Archives Canada has the 1901 and 1911 databases on their website. These databases are not indexed and can be more difficult to use. You may access the databases through the LAC website . Both of these censuses have been indexed on the Automated Genealogy website and links to the digital images in the Library and Archives databases.

Other general genealogy sites provide census information, or links to census information online. These sites may be updated as additional information becomes available:

1. Granny’s Gardens. Contains various online census records.

2. Cyndislist. Check out census related sites by clicking on Categories or go to the Canada Index, choose Province, then C.


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.