Canadian Divorce Records

Canadian divorce records are divided between the federal and provincial courts, and between the federal and provincial archives.

This reflects the complexity of the Canadian legal system when it comes to divorce.

Under the division of powers in the Canadian Constitution, the federal government has the exclusive right to make laws with respect to divorce.

However, each province has the right to pass laws about property rights and civil rights, both of which are areas which are directly affected when a divorce occurs.

So, family law in Canada is a matter of "divided jurisdiction", as the lawyers say, with the federal and provincial governments each having the power to pass laws with respect to some aspects of it.

Property and civil rights, and therefore the way that property is divided between spouses, can vary substantially from province to province.

Passing or changing federal divorce legislation, therefore, is a delicate balancing act which is done in consultation with all of the provinces and territories.

Perhaps that is one reason that, although Canada became a nation in 1867, it was not until 1968 that federal divorce legislation was passed.

Another is that, prior to World War II, divorce was very much the exception, rather than the rule, in Canada.

In the absence of that legislation, provinces handled divorces in one of three ways:

  1. they incorporated by reference the British divorce laws (that is, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857);

  2. their residents seeking a divorce had to apply ("petition") for a divorce by a private Act of the Parliament of Canada. The latter was the case in both Quebec and Newfoundland; or

  3. some provinces passed their own divorce legislation, allowing divorce for either spouse on grounds of adultery.
Catherine of Aragon pleads with Henry VIII
re his decision to divorce her.
Painting by Henry Nelson O'Neill. Public Domain
Painting - Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII

The 1968 federal Divorce Act introduced the concept of 'permanent marital breakdown' as a ground for divorce - the first 'no-fault' ground recognized in Canadian law - along with the retention of some other fault-based grounds, such as adultery and desertion. (See below for grounds for divorce prior to 1968 under the UK Matrimonial Causes Act).

Laws concerning divorce have continued to evolve in Canada since that time. However, since our focus is on family history, and access to Canadian divorce records from the past, it is not necessary to elaborate on the ways in which it has changed in more recent years.

1. The UK Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857

Under the UK Matrimonial Causes Act,

  • a husband could obtain a divorce on grounds that his wife had committed adultery, in which case she was not allowed any spousal support; and

  • a wife could obtain a divorce on grounds of
    • incestuous adultery
    • rape
    • sodomy
    • bestiality
    • bigamy or
    • adultery, accompanied by cruelty or desertion.

A husband could not seek spousal support under any circumstances.

Clearly, this was a "fault"-based system, which required one spouse to prove in court that the other had committed an act which fit into one of the above categories.

It also had a double standard, as a husband could obtain a divorce solely on grounds of adultery, while a wife had to prove adultery plus cruelty or desertion.

2. Before 1968: Petitioning Parliament for Divorce

Prior to 1968, before petitioning Parliament for a divorce, the petitioner had to file a Notice of Intention to Petition for a Divorce in two newspapers in the area where he or she resided, as well as in the Canada Gazette (which contained legal notices of interest to the legal profession, but was available to the general public). The Notices had to run continually for six months.

When the actual paperwork was filed, the person petitioning for divorce had to indicate when and where the marriage took place - thereby supplying additional supporting information for us as genealogists.

They also had to show that they had grounds for seeking a divorce.

After investigation by the Senate, if the petition was allowed, Parliament would pass an Act of Divorce putting an end to the marriage. Transcripts of the Acts were published in the following locations:

  • Prior to 1867 -
    • Statutes of the Province of Canada, or
    • Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada
  • Between 1867 and 1963 - Statutes of Canada for the current year
  • Between 1964 and 1968 - Journals of the Senate of Canada

Petitioning Parliament for a private Act of Divorce was an expensive proposition. It meant that this option really was only available to those who were rich.

According to the Library and Archives Canada website, there were only five divorces granted in this manner prior to Canadian Confederation in 1867.

3. Provinces Passing their own Divorce Laws

As noted above, in the absence of a federal Divorce Act, some provinces passed their own legislation governing divorce, which remained in force until a federal Act eventually was passed. It therefore may be possible to locate some Canadian divorce records at the provincial level, depending on the province.

Before World War I, only British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick had divorce courts. Between the first and second World Wars, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario also set up divorce courts.

Any Canadian divorce records prior to the date when a particular province began handling divorce proceedings would be located at the following address:

Department of Justice
Central Registry of Divorce Proceedings
339 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0H8
Telephone: (613)-957-4519

Under federal privacy laws, only the two persons involved in the divorce can obtain full access to Canadian divorce records.

It is unclear at what point the federal divorce record ceases to be private and is transferred to Library and Archives Canada.

I should clarify that, for divorces under federal jurisdiction, the only information available to the public about any divorce is the final order. Other records in the divorce file are closed.

Certainly, for divorces granted by a private Act of Parliament, there was nothing private about the fact of the divorce itself , as passage of the Act was published in legal publications for that year, including the Statutes of Canada.

For information with respect to the availability of Canadian divorce records at the provincial level, and the impact of privacy legislation, see the Vital Records pages for each Canadian province.

Empress Josephine faints after Napoleon
tells her he will obtain a divorce.
Print by Bosselman, engraved by Chasselat. Public Domain

Also, for Canadian divorce records after 1968, if you do not know which court registry processed the divorce, there is a Central Registry of Divorce Proceedings in Ottawa.

They will provide the registry location and the registration number, which you can then take to the appropriate provincial court registry for more detailed information.

Their street address was provided above. The mailing address is:

Family Law Assistance Services
Central Registry of Divorce Proceedings
PO Box 2730, Station D
Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5W7
Telephone: (613) 957-4519
Fax: (613) 941-2520

In order to find Canadian divorce records, the Central Registry staff will need at least four of the following seven items to complete a search:

  • husband's surname
  • husband's given name
  • husband's date of birth

  • wife's maiden name
  • wife's given name
  • wife's date of birth

  • date of marriage

Farm Buildings, Alberta
Vital Records
Canada Place, Vancouver
British Columbia
Vital Records
Steinback MB windmill
Vital Records

Fundy National Park, NB
New Brunswick
Vital Records
Fishing Boats, La Poile, NL, Canada
& Labrador
Vital Records
Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia
Vital Records
Toronto Skyline
Vital Records
Sandstone Arch, PEI, Canada
Vital Records
Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City
Vital Records
Grain elevator, Baring, Saskatchewan
Vital Records

Go from 'Canadian Divorce Records' to 'Canadian Vital Records'

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