Researching 20th Century Ancestors with the 1940 National Registration File

Tracking Canadian ancestors after the 1921 National Census can be frustrating at times. Those with Western Canada ancestors recently had the 1926 Census released to the public. Canadian law says that a Census will only be released after 92 years. The 1931 National census won\’t be eligible for release until 2024. If past experience is any indication, it will be a longer wait than that before the general public will get to see it. 

Provincial privacy laws dictate when birth, marriage, and death records get released. There are some mid 20th century marriage and death records available, depending on the province. However, as far I know, no provinces allow any births past 1919 or so. Because you can\’t depend on BMDs and Census records, you have to look outside the box to find your ancestor. 
One of these sources is the 1940 National Registration File. This excellent resource was created under the National Resources Mobilization Act, 1940 and the War Measures Act. They are held by Statistics Canada. Between 1940 and 1946, every person over the age of 16 was required to register. The only exception were people:

  • serving in the military
  • who were a member of a religious order
  • confined to an institution
The purpose of the files were to establish a pool of people who could contribute to the war effort. The obvious reason was to identify potential people for conscription into the military. But, they also wanted to know who had training in agriculture, nursing, or other special skills that might be used to contribute to the war effort here at home as well. Once completed, people were given registration cards to carry for proof they had registered. 
So what information can you get? There were two different forms for men and women. Library and Archives Canada has sample images of them on their blog. I\’ve found a link to a PDF of instructions for registrars/ You can find it here. On both forms, the following information was asked:
  1. Full Name
  2. Address at time of registration and date of registration
  3. Age last birthday and birth date
  4. Marital Status- Single/Married/Divorced/Widowed
  5. Dependents- Sole support of Mother/Father/ Number of children under 16 years/ Number of other dependents? Do you partially support anyone?
  6. Country and place of birth – Yourself? Mother? Father?
  7. Are you a British subject and by what means? If not born in Canada, provide details of Immigration and/or Naturalization
  8. Racial Origin
  9. Languages known- English? French? Other (state details)
  10. Education-level of education
  11. General health- good/fair/bad. Any disabilities and details.
  12. Disability pension- War pension? Workman\’s Compensation? Old Age or Blind?Other (provide details)
  13. Employment information (the questions and detail wanted were slightly different for men nd women)
  14. Agricultural experience and details- Brought up on a farm? Worked on a farm? How long? Drive a tractor? Use farm equipment? Handle horses? Milk a cow? Other farm work?
  15. Men- past military experience, and if rejected for military service in the present war. Women- whether you could contribute to the war effort at home, and in what way
Because of the nature of the collection, these records do not fall under the 92 year rule that our Census records do. They instead fall under the Privacy Act. If a person has been deceased for more than 20 years, then the information contained in the file is no longer considered personal and therefore private information. The rules are simple. If your ancestor:
  • Was born less than 110 years ago- proof that death occurred at least 20 years ago must be submitted with your request. A death certificate is the preferred proof, but they will also accept an obituary.
  • Born 110 or more years ago – no proof of death is necessary
Take note that if your ancestor died between 1940 and 1946, then their file may have been destroyed


This is not a free resource. But it is reasonable for the information you get. Each successful search is $45. According to Statistics Canada the following conditions apply:
  • Canadian clients add either 5% GST and applicable PST or HST.
  • All sales are final.
  • Orders under $250 must be prepaid.
  • Clients outside Canada pay in Canadian dollars drawn on a Canadian bank or pay in equivalent US dollars, converted at the prevailing daily exchange rate, drawn on a US bank.
  • Shipping charges: no shipping charges for delivery in Canada. For shipments to the United States, please add $6 per issue or item ordered. For shipments to other countries, please add $10 per issue or item ordered. 

The best way to have a successful search is to provide as much information as you can. The records are arranged by electoral district, so having at least an approximate address is essential. You can try to find this by City Directories (see my blog post on how to find them). Voter\’s Lists on Ancestry are another option (I wrote about them previously here). You might also want to check Tax Roll records in Municipal archives.
If your ancestor was born over 110 years ago, you can use the online form . If it was less than 110 years ago, then you can mail your request and supporting documents to:
Statistics Canada
Census Microfilm and Pension Search Sub-Unit
B1E-34, Jean Talon Building
170 Tunney\’s Pasture Driveway
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0T6
You might also be able to email your request to
My maternal line is quite well documented. It\’s my paternal lines that I\’m having trouble with, especially my great grandfathers. I\’ve never been able to positively confirm birth or parental information on either one. I had suspicions both were in World War I. However, with such common names and very little birth information, finding their service files is an act of frustration. I was really hoping to get new avenues of research with their forms. So I requested searches of each of my paternal great grandparents. They were all born in the late 1800\’s, so I was able to use the online form and gave Stats Can the following information:
  • James Henry \”Harry\” Douglas – lived at 600 Roselawn Avenue, Village of Forest Hill, York South, Ontario (according to 1940 Canada Voter\’s List). Born @1888 in either Ontario or in England
  • Mary Douglas (nee McArthur) – lived at 600 Roselawn Avenue, Village of Forest Hill, York South, Ontario (according to 1940 Canada Voter\’s List). Born @1883 Scotland.
  • John Wellington \”Jack\” McDonald – lived at 17 Reed Street (1935 death cert. for child), and at 34 McMurrich in 1942/1943 (City of Toronto Directory and tax rolls). Born @1894 in either Ontario or NY state. His occupations have been listed as labourer, factory worker, driver
  • Edna McDonald (nee Johnson/Jordan, previous married names -Boutilier and Fredericks)- lived at 17 Reed Street (1935 death cert. for child), and at 34 McMurrich in 1942/1943 (City of Toronto Directory and tax rolls). Born @1894 in Nova Scotia.
I gave approximate years of birth as opposed to specific dates to leave wiggle room if needed. I submitted the online form on Dec 31. I received a reply Jan 2 confirming receipt of my requests. Each great grandparent was given their own reference number, and I was told that I would receive an answer within 60 days. To my surprise I received an email earlier than expected on Feb 6. They let me know that all four of my searches were successful. In the email they gave me a final total, and then payment options. I chose to phone in with credit card information. It took me a few tries but I was able to get through on Feb 7. I was told that my documents would come by courier, and I received them exactly 1 week later on Feb 14. My package included for each great grandparent:
  • a typed transcription of the form
  • a typed extract from the form showing Name/ Address/ Date of Birth/ Age/ Place of Birth/ Date of Registration
  • a photocopy of the microfilmed original registration. A nice bonus because now I have a copy of each of their signatures.
John McDonald and Edna Johnson
My great grandmother Edna Johnson\’s line goes back to the settlers of Lunenburg, and I\’ve documented it quite well. I didn\’t obtain any earth shattering information, but I wasn\’t really expecting to. I might have been more upset that her microfilm image wasn\’t very clear if I didn\’t have her so well documented already. Thankfully, the other three I requested were clear as a bell. I did however, find that she was skilled in sewing, and could milk a cow. 
Great grandfather John McDonald stated his birth was in Kingston, Ontario. He stated he lived on a farm until 13 years old and had skills in handling horses and driving a tractor. His mother was born in Dublin, Ireland, and his father in Belfast, Ireland. This matches information from his marriage to Edna. This brings up some interesting puzzles though, as through DNA I strongly think my great grandfather was adopted. I\’m beginning to suspect he didn\’t know he was adopted. But the best information I got was military service. He stated that he served from Aug 7 1914 to May 19 1919 as part of the 14th Montreal Battalion. He also stated he was rejected for military service in WWII due to being unfit due to being deaf in his left ear.
Headstone of James Douglas and Mary McArthur
My other paternal great grandfather James Douglas stated he was born in Woodstock, Ontario and his parents in Southern England. I\’ve always wondered why he was buried in Woodstock, having lived in Toronto and Windsor between 1921 and his death in 1966. He had stated on the 1921 census he was born in Ontario, but 2 of his children were born in Scotland. I suspected it was military service that landed him in Scotland but I could not find a Canadian WWI service record for him. His military service stated on the 1940 registration has potentially given me an answer. He stated that he served with the English Imperial Army as part of the Army Service Corps from 1915 to 1917. I\’ve been looking in the wrong record set the whole time. No wonder I didn\’t find him.
My great grandmother Mary McArthur gave me a critical nugget of information on her form. She stated that her father was born in Argyleshire, Scotland. I have been trying to narrow down which of two Dougal McArthurs was her father. One was born in Argyleshire, and one wasn\’t. Now I know which Dougal to trace farther back. I also found that she stated she had been trained as a registered nurse. 
This is just a sampling of what information I found out. For each of my great grandparents I also found out employment details both current and past, and other little interesting tidbits to file away for future research. I know that shilling out extra money on a record set can make you think twice. Especially one where you are not sure of what information you\’ll get. But take it from me. For about $50 a person, it was definitely money well spent on my part.  

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