Canadian Criminal Records

Does your family tree contain ancestors with Canadian criminal records?

It seems that everyone, at some point in researching their family tree, will discover that a relative - perhaps close, perhaps distant - ran afoul of the law for something.

In some cases, there is no record of a conviction, or even a charge, as the individual "disappeared". I heard of one such instance recently, when a fellow working in the mines in England, whose father was British but his mother was Irish, was insulted by a fellow worker, in what was essentially an ethnic slur, based on his Irish accent. He reacted by hitting the other man over the head with a shovel.

Charges resulted, and the police were looking for him. He and his family picked up and immigrated to Australia, virtually overnight.

I would not be surprised if a good percentage of immigrations were prompted by similar considerations!

But what about those who were tried, convicted, and served their time? What records are available?

The Canadian Justice System

Canadian criminal records are part of the justice system.

All three levels of government – municipal, provincial / territorial, and federal – are involved in the administration of justice.

In order to know where to find Canadian criminal records, then, you need to know what sort of crime s/he was accused of, and where s/he was incarcerated.

Former Ottawa Jail, now a Hostel,
which is said to be haunted.
Public Domain

Determining the level of court handling the crime

Municipal ‘crimes’ today tend to be by-law infractions, such as operating a business in an area zoned residential, or owning a dog or cat without a municipal licence. In the majority of cases, the penalty involved is a fine, rather than imprisonment.

In the past, in addition to those who had committed more serious crimes and were awaiting transportation elsewhere, municipal or county jails commonly were used to house those who had spent too much time at the local pub, and were causing a disturbance as a result.

Vagrants often spent the night there as well. Also, individuals with mental difficulties, who were destined for a mental institution (termed an 'insane asylum' in those days), often began their journey to the institution in the local jail.

Provincial and territorial courts deal with matters which are subject to a maximum prison term of ‘two years less a day’. Sentences for those crimes are served in provincial jails.

Federal courts deal with criminal matters for which the maximum prison sentence is two years or more. These tend to be more serious crimes, and include those for which an individual could have received a death sentence in the past, but for which the maximum penalty now is life in prison.

Federal sentences are served in federal penitentiaries.

Federal Criminal Records

Many federal Canadian criminal records are held at Library and Archives Canada, with the main branch located at :

395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0N4

613-996-5115 or
1-866-578-7777 (toll-free in Canada and the US)

There are also regional offices which house federal Canadian criminal records generated in their area, located in Vancouver, British Columbia; Edmonton, Alberta; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their contact details are located here.

It might be wise to contact the regional office in the area closest to where your ancestor lived, to determine whether or not they hold his or her Canadian criminal records. An unnecessary trip to Ottawa might be avoided by making such an inquiry.

Privacy Concerns

Federal Canadian criminal records are subject to Canada's privacy laws. Access is restricted, to the lesser of the individual’s date of death plus 20 years, or 110 years from their date of birth.

Some Canadian criminal records which meet these criteria are contained within an index or a collection which houses criminal records for individuals who do not, as yet, meet those criteria.

When this is the case, you will need to contact the Access to Information division, giving details of the person’s name, location and years of imprisonment, and proof (such as an obituary, a death record, or a birth record) that the individual record meets the criteria for access.

Available Records at Library and Archives Canada

According to the Library and Archives website, the following Canadian criminal records are available for years prior to Confederation (1867):

  • (Quebec) Lower Canada and Canada East: Civil Secretary (RG 4 B21) - Gaol (jail) calendars and prison returns by district, 1765, 1800-1867. There are 14 volumes, which are not available on microfilm.
  • Quebec, Lower Canada and Canada: Provincial Secretary and Registrar (RG 4 B20) - Applications for pardon or clemency, 1767-1857. There are 32 volumes, which are not available on microfilm.
  • Quebec, Lower Canada and Canada East: Civil Secretary (RG 4 B16) - Court records, 1762-1867. There are 37 volumes, not available on microfilm.
  • (Quebec) Lower Canada and Canada East: Police Records (RG 4 B14) - Police records, 1836-1843, including registers of prisoners in Montreal and some rural areas. There are 68 volumes, not available on microfilm.
  • (Ontario) Upper Canada and Canada West: Civil and Provincial Secretaries (RG 5 B27) - Gaol calendars and prison returns by district, 1823-1847. Four volumes, not available on microfilm.

Canadian criminal records relating to the period after Confederation (with some overlap prior to Confederation), are as follows:

  • Registrar General: Warrants and Pardons (RG 68) - Various records relating to warrants for the removal of prisoners and some pardons, 1818-1953. Most of the records are available on microfilm.
  • North West Mounted Police (RG 18) - Most of these records relate to the western provinces and territories. They include crime reports for the period from 1880-1938, and court cases and legal papers from 1883-1919. Some of these Canadian criminal records are on microfilm.

    Finding Aids 18-2, 18-12 and 18-13, available onsite, will assist in identifying specific volumes of interest.

  • Capital Case Files (RG 13 B1) - Case files on most of the individuals convicted of capital murder from 1867 to 1976. Files may include correspondence, medical reports, other evidence, summaries and transcripts of the trial proceedings, petitions, and newspaper clippings. The records must be consulted onsite. Consult Finding Aid 13-39 for assistance.
  • Inmate Case Files, 1886-1966 (RG 73 C3) - Correctional Service Canada keeps only a small number of inmate case files, which eventually are transferred to Library and Archives Canada.

    The indexes/Finding Aids and the corresponding files are restricted under Canada's privacy legislation, since they contain references to individuals within the restricted period. See the Privacy section, above, for information on how to obtain the records.

The Kingston Penitentiary
Public Domain

Federal Penitentiary Records

Library and Archives Canada also has a number of Canadian criminal records pertaining to penitentiaries in Canada, as follows:

  • Operational Records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962 (RG 13 D1) - Files on escapes, transfers, convictions and sentences of prisoners at federal institutions.
  • Kingston Penitentiary, Kingston, Ontario - The following records are available:
    • Prisoners' Record Book, Kingston Penitentiary, 1843-1890 (RG 13 D1) - The Register is arranged by date of incarceration, and includes name, marital status, age, trade, where born, etc. (vol. 1047, microfilm reel T-2044).
    • Warden's Letterbook, Kingston Penitentiary, 1848-1856 (RG 13 D1)
    • - Correspondence relating to escapes and the release of convicts, including military prisoners. The volume itself is on microfilm, but the subject and name index (Finding Aid 13-19) is only available on paper and must be consulted onsite at LAC(vol. 1050, microfilm reel T-2045).
    • Kingston Penitentiary, 1834-1974 (RG 73 C6) - Liberation and punishment books, daily reports and medical registers. Finding Aids 73-28 and 73-29 provide lists of contents for each volume and must be consulted onsite. Some of the volumes are available on microfilm.
  • Stony Mountain Penitentiary, Stony Mountain, Manitoba - The following records are available:
    • Stony Mountain, Inmate Admittance Registers, 1871-1921 (RG 73-C-7, W87-88/365) - These registers are arranged by date of incarceration and include name, where born, trade, religion, crime, when and where sentenced, length of sentence and date discharged.
      • 1871-1885, Register 23, 8 pages at end of microfilm reel T-11089
      • 1885-1913, Register 24, 157 pages, microfilm reel T-11095
      • 1913-1921, Register 25, 101 pages, microfilm reel T-11095
  • Other Penitentiary Records - Library and Archives Canada holds some convict registers for St. Vincent de Paul Institution in Laval, Quebec, starting in the 1860s; however, as the registers also include more recent entries, access is restricted, due to privacy legislation.

    The indexes/Finding Aids and the corresponding Canadian criminal records also are restricted.

Other Sources of Information

Some lists of federal prisoners/convicts were included in the annual reports of the Department of Justice. Those annual reports were published in the Sessional Papers.

Copies are available at Library and Archives Canada and in many university libraries and larger public libraries.

Another source is the Criminal Ancestors Database webpage. The author of that page has provided an alphabetical listing of individuals who were imprisoned in various jails in what is now Ontario, from the 1830s to approximately the 1880s.

In addition, he provides some background information about each of the various jails which existed during that time period, and the areas that they served.

He also offers a service, by which he will obtain the full jail record of a particular individual listed in the database for you. He does not indicate what he charges for that service.

Toronto (then known as York)
Courthouse and Jail, 1829. Public Domain

Another source of information is the decision that the court made. A full decision may not be available at the lower court level, but if the person appealed, the appeal courts write a full decision. This generally contains a summary of the case and the key pieces of evidence, and gives reasons for the judge(s) arriving at the decision they did.

If you know the name of the individual accused, the court in which s/he was tried, and an approximate date, the court's decision may be listed on the CanLii website.

For those attempting to use the database, criminal cases are always referred to ('cited', in legalese) as "R. v. [surname]", with "R" standing for Regina (the Queen). That is, the Canadian government tries the person on behalf of the Queen.

Archived Newspaper Crime Reports

In addition to the above, many newspapers, both now and in the past, have a local crime reporter, who covers the activities in the courts, and publishes the results in the local newspaper.

If you are unable to find a record of your ancestor's trial, try obtaining the microfiche of the newspaper in the area where he lived, and scrolling through the pages around the time of the trial.

You may also find information about the actual event at the time of its occurrence, and of your ancestor's later arrest for the crime.

Provincial Sources of Criminal Records

Provincial and territorial archives have custody of some older Canadian criminal records.

More recent Canadian criminal records are still held by the courts.

See my pages with respect to provincial criminal records for further information.

See also:

for related information.

Go from "Canadian Criminal Records" to Criminal Records in Ontario

Go to Criminal Records in Nova Scotia

Go from "Canadian Criminal Records" to Family History Alive home page

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