How Do I Locate My Family in a Canadian Census? (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 ($).

Enumeration Districts and Sub-Districts

Enumeration districts and sub-districts were established to facilitate the census enumeration. It is necessary to have some indication of the location of your family during a census period in order to determine the correct reel of film required.

Enumeration districts normally covered a county or portion of a county. These enumeration districts were then broken down into smaller geographical sub-districts which might cover a township. The larger centers (cities) would be assigned their own sub-district division.

As the population grew, and as township boundaries and county boundaries changed, so did the census district and sub-divisions change. A township that was covered in one sub-division in 1861 might now become Sub-District A1, A2, A3 in 1871, all containing a portion of the township enumeration. You may need to search all sub-district divisions in order to locate your family in that township. Cities which were covered in one sub-division in 1851 might later be divided into various wards within the city, and knowing the correct ward will direct the researcher to the correct section of microfilm.

Prince Edward Island

When Prince Edward Island was acquired by the British in 1763, it was divided into Lots, which were generally held by British landlords living in England. When enumeration districts were later determined, these districts were based on Lot numbers rather than townships. It is therefore necessary to know the proper Lot number to locate your family in the census records.

Prairie Provinces

The prairie provinces were divided by the surveyors using north-south meridians and land descriptions that include Quarter, Section, Township, Range and Meridian. Later enumeration districts for the 1906 census were based on these divisions. A finding aid to determine the appropriate enumeration district is included with the online database provided by Library and Archives Canada.

Determine Location of Family

It is necessary that you determine an approximate location for your family. If they lived in a rural area, it would be necessary to know the township in which they lived. If they lived in a small village or town which was not large enough to be assigned a separate sub-district, then you must determine where that town was situated, and what township would include the enumeration of people living in that town.


For a person living in Cookstown, Ontario in 1881. Cookstown is located in Simcoe County, but in 1881 it was not a separate enumeration sub-district. It was located where four townships of Simcoe County came together, and therefore enumeration for the residents of Cookstown were located in the four townships: Innisfil, West Gwillimbury, Tecumseth and Essa. To locate your family it might be necessary to search all four township census records for 1881.

Boundaries for townships and districts changed from one census period to the next, probably due to the changes in population.


In Ontario, the Catalogue of Census Returns on Microfilm 1666-1901 indicates that Kitley township was enumerated under Leeds County for the years 1842, 1848, 1851, 1861; under Leeds & Grenville Counties for 1871, 1881 and under Brockville for 1891 and 1901. In 1911, Kitley township is again under Leeds County.

In most cases it will not be difficult to follow this progression in the finding aid, as the listings will be alphabetically consecutive under the township name, which has not changed. A variation of this problem occurs when a town or city changed names. Ottawa, for example, was first enumerated as “Bytown”, Carleton County in 1851, while later enumerations were made under the name “Ottawa.”

These entries will be listed alphabetically, so it will be necessary for the researcher to understand if a change in name has occurred and the appropriate film for a later census will be listed in the Finding Aid under the new name. A search of historic maps and a gazetteer for the time period of interest will assist the genealogist to become familiar with the area and to locate the proper census reel.

The more you understand the local history, geography and boundaries that affected your area of interest, the easier it will be to locate the appropriate census records.


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.