Laying the Groundwork: Census Records Part 1

Experienced researchers know that the Canadian census collection is the first place to look for your ancestors. Census records pinpoint your ancestors in a time and place, but they can tell you so much more if you know how to read them.

The first official Canadian census was taken in 1851/1852, and covered what is now Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, As per the British North America Act, it was taken every ten years until 1901. Then in 1905, the Census and Statistics Act was implemented. It stated that a national census was to be conducted in 1911, and ever ten years afterward. As well, an additional agricultural and population census was to be taken in the prairie provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) in 1906, and taken every subsequent ten years. So this means that the Prairies were enumerated every five years, and the rest of the country every ten years. This continued until 1956, when all of Canada started being enumerated every five years. The type of questions asked vary from census to census. Later years have more detail on individuals than earlier ones.

The only exception to this is of course, Newfoundland. They did not become a province until 1949, There are census returns for 1921, 1935 and 1945 at the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, and at Library and Archives Canada. Labrador can be found in 1871 census under \”Quebec, Labrador District\”, and in 1911 under \”Northwest Territories, Labrador Sub-district\”.

Privacy laws dictate that census records are to be held by Statistics Canada, and not publicly available, for 92 years. Yes, that is an odd number, and to be honest, I have no idea how they came up with it. So, as of right now, you can access up to the 1921 Canadian census. According to Library and Archives Canada\’s website, the only way you can access post 1921 census returns is for information on yourself. Even then, it can only be accessed for pension and legal concerns. We will not see the public release of the 1931 census until at least 2023.

In genealogy we work backwards through the years, so your goal is to get your family back to 1921. has this census. You can sign up for a free account with your email to search. Let\’s take a look at the family of Arnold WOOD. From the census I found out the following information:

  • He lived at 477 1/2 Bolliver Street in Peterborough, Ontario.
  • He is 29 years old. Also in the house was his wife Christina Wood (28), his daughters Doris J Wood (7) and Evelyn M Wood (1), and his \”wife\’s daughter\” Christine Black (11).
  • The house had 6 rooms, and he paid 18 dollars a month.
  • Arnold was born in England, as was his parents.
  • His wife Christine was born in Scotland, as were both her parents
  • Daughters Doris and Evelyn were born in Ontario.
  • Christine the younger was born in Scotland, as was her father.
  • Arnold came to Canada in 1907, and both Christines came in 1912.
  • Everyone could speak English, but not French.
  • They all belonged to the Church of England.
  • Doris and Evelyn could not read or write, but everyone else could.
  • Arnold was employed as a painter. However, he was unemployed for 8 months in the past year. It was not due to illness.
  • He earned 850 dollars in the last year.
  • Next door to Arnold at 477 Boliver Street is Hamlet and Julia WOOD.
Wow, that\’s a lot of information. Some of it, like the house information, is more to give you a feel for the time period. The rent of 18 dollars a month seems unreal when you look at housing costs today, but when you factor in he earned 850 dollars a year, it puts it into perspective.
Let\’s look at the immigration years of Arnold and Christine the elder. The obvious information we can get from this is what time frame to search passenger lists. But did you notice that there\’s a five year gap? That, coupled with Christine has an 11 year old daughter from a previous relationship, says that chances are they married here in Canada. So there\’s a possibility we could find a marriage registration for them in Ontario. We can surmise that they were married between 1912 (Christine\’s immigration year) and 1920.
Also looking at the immigration years, we now can look for Arnold in the 1911 census, but we might not find Christine. Don\’t discount it though. Sometimes, people forget what year they actually came over, and give their best guess instead.
Take a look at next door to Arnold and Christine. Their neighbours are Hamlet and Julia WOOD. Among their information is the fact that they are in their 50\’s, born in England and came to Canada in 1907. There is a very strong possibility that they are relatives of Arnold\’s. 
So now, let\’s look at Arnold in the 1911 census. I also looked at this on, of which I am a subscriber.
  • He lives at 573 Bollivar Street.
  • He is 19 years old and single. Also in the house are his father Hamlet Wood (41), his mother Julianne Wood (40), brother Wildred (15), and sister Doris (12).
  • Though there is a space for birth month and year, the enumerator has only listed the months. Arthur was born in August, Hamlet in March, Julianne in July, Wilfred in August, and Doris in October.
  • Everyone was born in England.
  • There is a space for immigration year, but it was not filled out. Only one family on the page had it filled out, even though most of the people were born outside of Canada.
  • They all state their religion is Anglican. 
  • Arthur is a moulder. Hamlet is a painter. Julianne has no occupation listed. Wilfred is a collar maker in a factory, and Doris is at school.
  • The men all work 60 hours per week. Arthur made 140 dollars the previous year. Hamlet made 400, and Wilfred made 200.
  • All of them can read and write, and their mother tongue is English.
Again a lot of information. One thing we have confirmed is that Hamlet and Julia Wood from the 1921 census are indeed relatives of Arthur\’s. They are his parents. From the 1921 census we know that they all came over in 1907. They probably came together. It\’ll be much easier to find them on a ships list as a group.
Another interesting fact is that in 1911 Arthur has a sister named Doris. In 1921 he has a daughter named Doris. This family is part of my mother-in-law\’s genealogy, and confirms the family story that Doris the younger was named for her Aunt Doris the elder.
It\’s a shame we don\’t have birth years on the census. But we do have birth months and with the ages given, we can determine a birth year. With this information, we could look at English civil registration for birth certificates.
So there you have it. In only two census records, we have found out the following things about Arthur:
  1. He was born in England in August @1892
  2. He was a moulder, then a painter.
  3. His parents are Hamlet Wood and Julianne Wood.
  4. He has a brother Wilfred and sister Doris.
  5. He came to Canada in 1907.
  6. He married Christina between 1912 and 1921.
  7. Arthur and Christine end up living next door to Hamlet and Julianne.
  8. They had two daughters, Doris and Evelyn, and we know their approximate birth years.
  9. He has a step daughter named Christine Black.
Using all this information, we now know where to look for Arthur\’s birth, his marriage to Christine, and the births of their children. We can look for Arthur\’s immigration records. If we choose to, we can follow his siblings\’ life in Canada as well.
This is why we should always look at census records first for a person. In part 2 we will look at where to look at census records online, and where to look for people pre 1851.

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