Naturalization in Canada

Did your ancestors immigrate to Canada from a country not part of the United Kingdom?

Naturalization records may provide information regarding when they arrived in Canada, where they previously lived, and many other details which could supply the ‘missing links’ to their village and country of origin.

Prior to the 1947 Citizenship Act, any person born in Canada was automatically a British subject, with all the rights and privileges which attached to that status.

Individuals born in the United Kingdom could move to Canada, as British subjects moving from one British territory to another. Becoming a Canadian (or rather, British) citizen was not required.

Those born in countries not part of the United Kingdom, however, could apply to be ‘naturalized’ once they came to Canada, and had been here a specified period of time.

The Pre-1947 Naturalization Process

As noted above, prior to 1947, an ‘alien’ person (one who was not already a British subject) could petition for naturalization in Canada.

If successful in his petition, he would swear allegiance to the Crown of England, and would then be granted all of the rights and privileges of a person born in the British Empire.

Up until 1932, a man’s wife and children technically were included in his petition, although they might not have been specifically named. Those individuals could apply in later years for documentation proving their naturalization, using the husband's or father's certificate.

Under the 1932 amendments, alien women were no longer included in their husband’s application. They had to petition separately for their own naturalization certificate.

German immigrants at Quebec City, 1911.German immigrants at Quebec City, 1911. Public Domain

The Challenge for Genealogists

Naturalization records may not include the original spelling of the foreign-born person’s name, as English-speaking immigration officials may have been unfamiliar with the non-English-speaking immigrant’s language and pronunciation, or with the spelling conventions in that language.

In many cases, especially in the early years, the immigrants also were illiterate. They therefore would have been unable to tell whether the name, as written (likely phonetically) by the person completing the form, was spelled as it had been in his homeland, and could not write it himself.

Further, like many of the British subjects who migrated to Canada, many of the 'aliens' were not certain where they wanted to settle in Canada. Much depended on the suitability of the land for farming, or of a site for their particular occupation; in many cases, on the location of others who could speak their language; and, in later years, on whether suitable schools for their children were available.

Naturally, this makes it more difficult to match the documentation with the right person, both before and after their naturalization in Canada.

That is, generally speaking, when faced with two different spellings of a name, one of the best indicators of whether you are looking at the same person is that the location is the same for both the intended place of settlement listed upon arrival and for the citizenship application. In this instance, that indicator may not be available, as the place where the immigrant eventually settled may not match the original intended location listed on other paperwork, such as ship's manifests.

The family historian, then, in searching for immigrant ancestors who were naturalized in Canada, may have some difficulty matching the spelling of the family name, as recorded by Canadian officials, with other documents. This is especially true if the person was part of a community in Canada which spoke his original language, in which case his name would have continued to be recorded in that community using the original spelling of the surname.

Bridging the gap, in terms of linking the name on the Canadian citizenship documents with records from the country of origin or with other Canadian documents, may require some 'creative thinking'. Other documents may be needed to corroborate that two names spelled differently actually relate to the same person.

I remember reading of one case of this sort, in which an individual had immigrated. On the immigration documents, the person's forename and surname in the English-language records were different enough from the original name in the country of origin that it raised questions in the mind of the genealogist searching for him as to whether this was the same person.

The researcher found an individual with the anglicized version of the name in the census document following his immigration. The address was noted.

Further research revealed that other siblings, who migrated later, had referenced this same individual, at the address seen on the census, as their brother. As it was already known that they all were siblings, this was the ‘missing link’ that proved that the two spellings of the surname did, in fact, describe the same person.

Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Immigration Examination Hall, 1951. Public Domain

Where can I find the Records?

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (the agency which currently governs the immigration process, from the original application to come to Canada to the final granting of citizenship) has records dating from 1854 to the present.

The more recent records are more detailed and complete than the older ones. The following is a summary of the available records, with respect to different time periods:

  • 1854 – 1914 - the original records no longer exist. However, a card index, arranged alphabetically, did survive. Information includes:
    • present and former place of residence;
    • former nationality;
    • occupation;
    • date of certification;
    • name and location of the court which handled the application.
  • 1915 to 1951 - these records provide more information of interest to family historians, including:
    • surname, given, name, and date and place of birth;
    • date of entry into Canada;
    • occasionally, the names of spouses and children;
    • paperwork, such as
      • the original petition for naturalization;
      • a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report on the person;
      • the oath of allegiance, as sworn by the immigrant; and
      • any other documents.
    • These records were posted in the Canada Gazette (the government “newspaper” which publishes changes to statutes and regulations, and any other government business or transactions affecting Canadians) on a weekly basis, and also in the annual reports of the Secretary of State (the government official responsible for immigration), known as Sessional Papers.

      All issues of the Canada Gazette, from 1841 to 1997, are now online, in a searchable database, at Collections Canada. More recent issues (of less interest to family historians) are on the Canada Gazette website.

    Library and Archives Canada also has a searchable, online database of naturalization and/or citizenship applications from 1915 to 1951, for what is now the province of Ontario. (After 1947, naturalization was replaced by Canadian citizenship).

To obtain copies of the naturalization records listed in the database or in the card catalogue, the following procedure must be followed:

  • the application must be made by a Canadian citizen or a resident of Canada;
  • an Access to Information Form must be completed;
  • the form must be accompanied by one of the following:
    • the written consent of the person who was made the naturalization application; or
    • proof that the person has been deceased for at least 20 years. Proof of death can be a newspaper obituary, a photograph of the tombstone showing name and date of death, or a death certificate;
  • as much information as possible, including name, date of birth, place of birth, where the person lived before coming to Canada, and, if known, the Naturalization Certificate number; and
  • a fee of $5.00 per file requested.

Be sure to indicate that you want copies of the original documents, or you may receive a transcript or a computer print-out summarizing their contents.

Send your request, with the above information and documentation, to:

Citizenship and Immigration Canada
Public Rights Administration
360 Laurier Ave West
10th Floor
Ottawa, ON
K1A 1L1

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