Using Ancestry.com: Canadian Census Returns at Ancestry.ca--Time for Another Look

by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot

Back in February I wrote an introductory article about Ancestry.ca. Recently two census databases have been added, the national enumeration of 1901 Census of Canada and the 1906 census of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. These are added to the 1911 census data that was available from the launch of the site. It is the recent additions that I am considering in this article.

The Fourth National Census, 1901
The first census of the young nation of Canada was taken in 1871, four years after four colonies became Canada. Manitoba and British Columbia joined Canada in 1870 and 1871 and therefore missed being included in the census. By 1901, the year of the fourth census, there were seven provinces, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia, and the Territories, a vast area that included what became Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories.

Government officials planning censuses increased the number of questions every time; for example, there were twelve columns to be completed on the form in 1891 and thirty-one in 1901. All the additional information is a benefit to genealogists, although I wish two columns from 1891 had been retained--the ones asking for the birthplaces of the individual's father and mother. Their absence is partially compensated for by the addition of questions about origin, nationality, and date of immigration. Also useful for genealogy is the addition of columns for date and place of birth, as well as another for the exact date of birth. The 1901 census also seeks information about the work or employment of each person and how much they earned.

The 1901 census register volumes are wide and the column headings, especially on a computer monitor or on a print out, appear in tiny print.

[AWJ Editor's Note: You can download a printable blank form for the Canadian Census]

Beginning with the name of each person enumerated, this is the list of columns:

  • Name of each person in household 31 March 1901
  • Sex
  • Colour
  • Relationship to head of household
  • Single, married, widowed, or divorced
  • Month and date of birth
  • Year of birth
  • Age at last birthday
  • Country or place of birth (If Canada, include province and add "r" or "u" for rural or urban.)
  • Year of immigration
  • Year of naturalization
  • Racial or tribal origin
  • Racial or tribal origin
  • Nationality
  • Religion
  • Profession, occupation, or trade
  • Living on own means
  • Employer, Employee, or Working on Own Account
  • Working at a trade in factory or in home
  • Months employed at trade in factory
  • Months employed at trade in home
  • Months employed in other occupation than trade in factory or home
  • Earnings from occupation or trade
  • Months at school in the year
  • Can read
  • Can write
  • Can speak English
  • Can speak French
  • Mother tongue
  • Infirmities

Look Closely at What Was Asked
We use census returns primarily for their relationship information and for details about age, place of residence, birthplace, and occupation. All these facts give each individual a unique identity and this helps in tracking the course of an ancestor's life. The 1901 census provides additional details that can be used to find other records or to look for unusual sources of background history or biography.

The extended information about occupation could lead you to resources about local economic history, to the agricultural returns of the 1901 census, to local directories and to newspapers looking for advertisements and articles. The question about religion had been asked in every census up to this point. This means you can check the information against past census returns and in relation to the churches in the vicinity of where your ancestor lived. Canada did not have an established church, and civil registration records start later than census returns, in some cases after 1900, so help with church records is valuable.

I was intrigued to read the point on the 1901 form about using "r" and "u" to indicate whether the Canadian birthplace was rural or urban. I have gone back to look at the forms of some of my ancestors to see what was entered. This fact can be another clue to family origins and background.

A Special Prairie Census, 1906
A large number of immigrants went to the Canadian West in the five years after the 1901 census. In addition, there were some boundary changes because Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces. The Canadian government decided to take a mid-term census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in 1906.

Scan the pages of this census and you see a lot of people who were born in the United States. This was a period when tens of thousands came north every year to help in the Canadian harvest. Many of them stayed and many families had children born in Canada and in the United States.

Only five years separate this census from those of 1901 and 1911, and all three are online. The information is not as extensive as in 1901 census, but there are details about year of immigration to Canada and the precise location of the residence.

Taken together with the 1911 census, these two resources add a great deal to help with research in Canadian ancestors, especially those who lived between Ontario and the Rocky Mountains.

About the Author
Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of Your English Ancestry (2d ed., 1998) and Researching Scottish Ancestry (2003), and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study-tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two- year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Online Classes
Sherry Irvine has teamed up with Helen Osborn for a new series of online courses. For more information, visit www.pharostutors.com.


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