The Canadian Census:
An Introduction

Brief History

The first Canadian census that we know of was done in “New France” (that is, Quebec and parts of New Brunswick and other eastern provinces), in 1666. Between that date and 1867, when Canada became a nation, there were 98 separate censuses taken, covering various areas of Canada.

In Canada, there is a 92-year restriction on the release of personal information in the control of Statistics Canada. As a result of those privacy concerns, the 1916 census of the Prairie provinces became available to the public in 2008. The 1921 census information was transferred to the Library and National Archives in 2013, and an indexed copy was made available to the public, via Ancestry, about six months later.

Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The 1851 and 1861 (pre-Confederation) Canadian censuses are available, although neither one was uniform across the areas that they covered. Rather, they were regional efforts; the information gathered was different in each area, and was taken as of different dates. In addition, parts of the 1851 Canadian census have been lost.

Starting in 1871 (i.e., 6 years after Canadian Confederation), the Canadian government conducted a census every 10 years until 1901.

Implementation of the Agricultural Census
in 1906 – Prairie Provinces

Once the coast-to-coast railway line had been completed, allowing easier access to the Prairies, large numbers of people began settling there.

It helped, of course, that free or low-cost land was available for those who could fulfill the homesteading requirements. (See my pages on land grants and homesteading in the Prairies for further information.)

In the 1890s and early 1900s, the population in those areas rose dramatically. The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of the Northwest Territories, and Manitoba’s border was expanded somewhat.

In 1905, the government decided to do a special Canadian census of these growing areas, which occurred in 1906. A separate “agricultural census” was taken for these provinces every 10 years from 1906 through to 1956, at which time the government began doing a national census every ten years, starting in 1961.

Alberta Farm. Wikimedia Commons

In summary, Canadian censuses have been taken every 10 years from 1871 to 1951; agricultural censuses were taken every 10 years from 1906 through 1956; and national censuses have been taken every ten years since 1961.

What Canadian Censuses are Available to Family Historians?

As previously noted, there is a 92-year waiting period before a census can be released to the public. Therefore, in addition to the 1851 and 1861 pre-Confederation census documents, Canadian censuses currently available to the public are those from 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1906 , 1911, 1916, and 1921.

Migration from Canada to the US, and Vice Versa

At times in Canadian and US history, there was a lot of movement of individuals back and forth across the borders, as people looked for work wherever it could be found.

Also, some immigrated to Canada with the intention of eventually moving on to the US, as Canadian immigration rules were less stringent than those in the US.

Given the above, it is not unusual to see immigration to the US from, or via, Canada. The reverse is also true. One example occurred after the US War of Independence. The US, having thereby gained its independence from Britain, was no longer a British colony. Canada still was.

As a result, many US citizens who were loyal to the British Crown migrated to Canada, some at great personal cost.  Many had fought on the 'wrong' side in the War, and thus were persona non grata in the US.  These individuals became known as United Empire Loyalists.

While many of these families eventually returned to the US a generation or two later, a large number opted to stay in Canada.  Even today, their descendants are very aware, and very proud, of their status as United Empire Loyalist families. Many are members of the current-day United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada.

In looking at my own family tree, I see that a number of United Empire Loyalists moved into the area in Ontario where my forebears lived, and some married into my family. 

Considering the amount of movement in both directions across the border between Canada and the US, American genealogists may need to become familiar with Canadian census documents and other sources of records, just as Canadians may well need to learn to use American census documents and other resources for their research.

A Few Reasons the Canadian Census is so Useful to Family Historians

There is a “goldmine” of information in the Canadian census documents. The following video outlines some of the things you can learn from a census. While it is based in the US, and thus focuses on US census data, the general comments and principles are applicable to censuses anywhere, including Canada.


Some of the main reasons that Canadian census documents are so useful to family historians are as follows:

1. They can prove how individuals are related, since they show children within their family units. However, one cannot assume that those listed in a particular census document are the only children in the family.

Some may be away from home apprenticing at a trade, working, in school, or married and raising their own families. Others may have died at a young age, and never were listed in any of the census documents. Still others may not have been born at the time of the census document you are looking at.

It therefore is not enough to look only at one census document. Rather, it is a good idea to look at the family group in as many census documents as you can find. When you cannot find a particular family member in the subsequent census documents, that is a clue to look for a marriage, a death, or migration, whether inter-country or inter-county, province, or state.

2. It gives you a picture of the family within the broader setting of their society. Their neighbours are listed on the census documents. Often a review of the neighbours will indicate the presence of other family members nearby. It may also lead to some surprises!

I recall reading one woman’s account of how she had been looking for her great-grandmother and her family in the 1851 UK census. She was unable to locate either of her great-grandparents in that document. For 10 years, she would periodically go back to and search again, in vain.

Close Neighbours!
Source: Darren Antrobus
via Wikimedia Commons

Then, there was an announcement that a number of pages had been missing from the database, because they were damaged and very difficult to read. With advancements in technology, the database owners now were able to salvage the pages so that they could be read, and had transcribed and indexed the missing pages.

The woman, intrigued, thought she would try her search again. Among the missing pages, she found her great-grandmother’s family. But that was not all; living just down the street was her great-grandfather with his parents!

She therefore had solved the mystery of where both of them were in the 1851 census, and as added bonuses, had discovered how they met, and confirmed who their parents and siblings were!

3. The census documents can give you clues to birth dates (if they don’t actually provide the date of birth, as some of the US and Canadian census documents do), as well as death dates.

Recently, I was looking for the true birth date, or at least the birth year, of a woman in my husband’s family tree. In the 1861 UK census documents, she stated that she was age 29; in the 1871 census, she was 34; in the 1881 census, age 41; and in 1891, 51. I wish I knew her secret for aging only 5 years between 1861 and 1871, and 7 years between 1871 and 1881!

Seriously, I wondered which age was correct. I suspected that, if I was able to find her in earlier census documents, I would find her actual year of birth, within a year or so. I assumed that her mother would not have the same motivation to “be creative” with her daughter’s age as the daughter had in later years!

To make a long story short, I found christening records in the late 1830s for three of her younger siblings, which gave the same address for her parents as those shown in the 1851 to 1881 census documents. After much searching, the 1841 census finally yielded up its secrets, and I found the entire family, including the child I was looking for. I have yet to locate the birth or christening records for the three older children, including her, but she was listed as age 11 in the 1841 census. 

While it is well known that, in the 1841 census, it was fairly routine to round a person's age up or down to the nearest 5 or 10, this one was not listed as age 10; she was listed as 11.  It would seem, then, that her age was correctly reported, although I still am looking for more solid documentation of her birth date.

So much for clues to birth dates; what about clues to death dates? If you look at a particular family over a number of census documents, at some point, you likely will see one of the parents listed as “widowed”, and the other not listed.

Or, you may find one parent and the children, but with a different spouse. That is a great clue that the missing spouse likely passed away at some point between that census and the last one on which s/he was listed (although on some occasions, I have found that it meant that the couple had broken up, and one was living with someone else).

It gives you a narrower window of time, and a general location, in which to search for his/her death, or to determine an alternate reason for the spouse's absence.

4. The year of marriage can also be determined by looking at some of the US census documents, which ask how long the couple has been married.

Source: Wikipedia.
Public Domain.

In the UK and pre-1911 Canadian census documents, and some of the other US documents, while this question is not explicitly answered, the approximate year of marriage can be inferred from the year of birth of the eldest child in a family grouping.

Another way of approaching this is to look at various census documents over time, to see a child progress to a teenager apprenticing or working, and then to establishing his/her own household with a spouse. Again, this helps to narrow down the time period in which to look for a marriage, and also gives a likely location for the marriage.

5. Some of the census documents, especially around the time of a war in the country, ask about men in the household who have done military service. Others ask about religious affiliation. The answers to both of those questions will point you in the direction of additional sources of information about your ancestors, which may yield a tremendous amount of information about where they had been and what they had done in their lives.

Additional Points

One additional point I should make: be sure to check the actual census document, if it is available, as not everything on the document is transcribed.

Further, sometimes the parts that have been transcribed contain errors, usually due to difficulties reading the writing on the document itself.

Without checking the actual document, you could miss some very important details of your ancestor’s life - details which might point toward the location of something that you have been searching for.

As noted above, we as family historians use the census documents extensively, as they contain so much relevant data with respect to various aspects of our ancestors’ lives, which help to narrow the field of search, in terms of location and time period.

They are a real boon to us as we search for our ancestors, as long as we keep in mind that their accuracy is not guaranteed!

Census - 1851

Census - 1861

Census - 1871

Census - 1881

Census - 1891

Census - 1901

Census - 1906

Census - 1911

Census - 1916

Canadian Census - 1921 - Coming Soon!

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