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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
According to the Library and Archives website, the following Canadian criminal records are available for years prior to Confederation (1867):
Canadian criminal records relating to the period after Confederation (with some overlap prior to Confederation), are as follows:
Finding Aids 18-2, 18-12 and 18-13, available onsite, will assist in identifying specific volumes of interest.
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
Library and Archives Canada also has a number of Canadian criminal records pertaining to penitentiaries in Canada, as follows:
The indexes/Finding Aids and the corresponding Canadian criminal records also are restricted.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
for related information.
Go from "Canadian Criminal Records" to Criminal Records in Ontario
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