52 Ancestors: Week 29 – Finding 20th Century Ancestors


I\’m a little behind on my 52 Ancestors prompts. I took a bit of a vacation going back to Ontario to visit family. Of course I also took the opportunity to some research on my Ontario lines. As a result I\’ve fallen behind, so I\’ll be doing some catching up over the next few weeks.

The week 29 prompt for 52 Ancestors is \”Challenge\”. The biggest challenge for Canadian researchers is trying to research 20th century ancestors. Because of privacy constrictions, post 1921 research can be challenging. The 1921 National Census is the most recent census available, and we won\’t see the 1931 until at least 2023. If you have ancestors in the Prairie provinces, then you can access the 1926 Census done for that part of Canada. The valuable BMD records are scarce. No province that I know of offers access post 1921 for births. Some marriage and death certificates are available after 1921, but it depends on the province you are searching in. So how do you find those living in the 20th century?

City Directories
These are an often overlooked and useful resource. Through City Directories, I was able to find the names of my great grandparents. The only information I had to go by was the name of my paternal grandmother Madelynn Douglas, and two of her siblings, Marshall and Irene. By looking at Toronto city directories I was able to find them with their parents, James Henry Douglas and Mary Douglas. It gave me a jumping off point to take them back to the 1921 Census, and then back to Glasgow, Scotland. I wrote a blog post about City Directories when I first found them, which you can read here. The post gives links to find directories across the country.

Voter\’s Lists
Another great way to find those 20th century ancestors. With Voter\’s Lists, you can find eligible adults of legal voting age. If you have an Ancestry subscription, you\’re in luck because they have the federal voting lists from 1935- 1980. I used the Voter\’s Lists to take my Douglas great grandparents back to 1935. Using them and the help of a Douglas cousin who saw my post on city directories, I was able to find them in the 1921 Census. As a follow up to the City Directories post, I wrote a post on Voter\’s Lists, which you can access here.

Tax Assessment Records
While I was in Toronto, I stopped by the City of Toronto Archives. My great grandfather James Douglas ran the incinerator on Roselawn Avenue until he retired in the 1950\’s. I was hoping to find a picture, as the house my great grandparents lived in was very close to it. While looking at their record sets, I saw they had tax assessment records in their collection. Before I ran out of research time, I was able to find my Douglas great grandparents in the records for 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1928. At the time they were living on Spadina Road.

You are probably not going to be able to access these kinds of records online. It will require doing things \”old school\”. Cities will more than likely have dedicated archives. If your ancestor lived in a more rural community, then look to see if there are County or Township archives. Also look at the Provincial and Territorial Archives, especially for areas of Canada that have smaller populations. If you can\’t visit in person, then try emailing or calling the Archive in question. My experience with the staff at the City of Toronto Archives was a very pleasant one. They were very helpful. Keep in mind though that the services at these types of Archives will most likely not be free if you\’re researching from a distance. However, in my experience I have found most Archives to be reasonable with their fee structure.

The 1940 National Registration File
Between 1940 and 1946, every person over the age of 16 had to be registered as part of the National Resources Mobilization Act and the War Measures Act. The only exclusions to the compulsory registration were members of the armed forces, members of the clergy, and those institutionalized. Because of the circumstances and nature of the registration it is not held to the same privacy laws that Census records are held to. The rules for access are:

  • The person must be deceased for at least 20 years
  • Proof death is required, unless the birth date of the person is more than 110 years ago. A death certificate is preferable, but a published obituary is also accepted.
There is a $45 fee for any successful search. Taxes are extra. To find out what information is included in the questionnaire, you can look at Library and Archives Canada\’s blog post. To order a search from Statistics Canada, click here.
I could write a whole blog post about newspaper research. Most people forget to look beyond the Birth, Marriage and Death announcements in them. There\’s so much more to be found. As an example, I have found over the years in my research activities:
  • An article describing the increase of house sales in the past 6 months. Among the buyers listed was my mother-in-law\’s grandfather. It also stated the purchase price of the house he bought.
  • A friend\’s great great uncle was a prolific bootlegger. His activities and subsequent arrest made the news.
  • I received a picture of an unknown couple. By finding an ad for the photographer, I was able to narrow down the location and time period of the picture, and figure out which family line these people belonged to
  • A personal ad of a husband looking for his wife, who appears to have left him
  • A person that I had lost track of showed up in a local gossip column. They had moved from the area, and the column noted that they had come back for a visit to their parents.
A future post will delve more into newspaper sources. Here\’s a few starting points to looking for newspapers:
This is just a sampling of 20th century records that can be found in fill in the gap. If you have other suggestions, feel free to comment below.

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