Using Canadian Census Returns at–Time for Another Look

by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot 

Back in February I wrote an introductory article about Recently two census databases have been added, the national enumeration of 1901 and the 1906 census of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. These are added to the 1911 census data that was available from the launch of the site. It is the recent additions that I am considering in this article.

The Fourth National Census, 1901
The first census of the young nation of Canada was taken in 1871, four years after four colonies became Canada. Manitoba and British Columbia joined Canada in 1870 and 1871 and therefore missed being included in the census. By 1901, the year of the fourth census, there were seven provinces, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia, and the Territories, a vast area that included what became Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories.

Government officials planning censuses increased the number of questions every time; for example, there were twelve columns to be completed on the form in 1891 and thirty-one in 1901. All the additional information is a benefit to genealogists, although I wish two columns from 1891 had been retained–the ones asking for the birthplaces of the individual’s father and mother. Their absence is partially compensated for by the addition of questions about origin, nationality, and date of immigration. Also useful for genealogy is the addition of columns for date and place of birth, as well as another for the exact date of birth. The 1901 census also seeks information about the work or employment of each person and how much they earned.

The 1901 census register volumes are wide and the column headings, especially on a computer monitor or on a print out, appear in tiny print. Beginning with the name of each person enumerated, this is the list of columns:

  • Name of each person in household 31 March 1901
  • Sex
  • Colour
  • Relationship to head
  • Single, married, widowed, or divorced
  • Month and date of birth
  • Year of birth
  • Age at last birthday
  • Country or place of birth (If Canada, include province and add “r” or “u” for rural or urban.)
  • Year of immigration
  • Year of naturalization
  • Racial or tribal origin
  • Nationality
  • Religion
  • Profession, occupation, or trade
  • Living on own means
  • Employer, employee, or working on own account
  • Working at a trade in factory or in home
  • Months employed at trade in factory
  • Months employed at trade in home
  • Months employed in other occupation than trade in factory or home
  • Earnings from occupation or trade
  • Months at school in the year
  • Can read
  • Can write
  • Can speak English
  • Can speak French
  • Mother tongue
  • Infirmities

[AWJ Editor’s Note: You can download a printable blank form for the Canadian Census at:

Look Closely at What Was Asked
We use census returns primarily for their relationship information and for details about age, place of residence, birthplace, and occupation. All these facts give each individual a unique identity and this helps in tracking the course of an ancestor’s life. The 1901 census provides additional details that can be used to find other records or to look for unusual sources of background history or biography.

The extended information about occupation could lead you to resources about local economic history, to the agricultural returns of the 1901 census, to local directories and to newspapers looking for advertisements and articles. The question about religion had been asked in every census up to this point. This means you can check the information against past census returns and in relation to the churches in the vicinity of where your ancestor lived. Canada did not have an established church, and civil registration records start later than census returns, in some cases after 1900, so help with church records is valuable.

I was intrigued to read the point on the 1901 form about using “r” and “u” to indicate whether the Canadian birthplace was rural or urban. I have gone back to look at the forms of some of my ancestors to see what was entered. This fact can be another clue to family origins and background.

The Special Prairie Census, 1906
A large number of immigrants went to the Canadian West in the five years after the 1901 census. In addition, there were some boundary changes because Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces. The Canadian government decided to take a mid-term census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in 1906.

Scan the pages of this census and you see a lot of people who were born in the United States. This was a period when tens of thousands came north every year to help in the Canadian harvest. Many of them stayed and many families had children born in Canada and in the United States.

Only five years separate this census from those of 1901 and 1911, and all three are online. The information is not as extensive as in 1901 census, but there are details about year of immigration to Canada and the precise location of the residence.

Taken together with the 1911 census, these two resources add a great deal to help with research in Canadian ancestors, especially those who lived between Ontario and the Rocky Mountains.

Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of Your English Ancestry (2d ed., 1998) and Researching Scottish Ancestry (2003), and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study-tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two-year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Online Classes
Sherry Irvine has teamed up with Helen Osborn for a new series of online courses. For more information, visit

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14 thoughts on “Using Canadian Census Returns at–Time for Another Look

  1. Is the 1891 Canadian Census on-line anywhere?? I found my Grandpa in 1881 and by 1900 he was in U.S. but I need Ontario in 1891 . Any help???

  2. Would someone please give me some ideas for researching an ancestor with the only information I have is that he was in Alberta in 1941? This was noted in his brother’s obituary.

  3. When I clicked on the “click here for printer friendly” of the article on Canadian Census, I get message “site moved or out of date etc.)

  4. Hi Sherry, I have used the on-line census for 1901 and 1911 but have found them both incomplete when it comes to what was then the ‘Northwest Territory’ Entire communities were not surveyed because of the isolated nature of the area, while those that were surveyed had questionable reliability. The enumerators seemed to be dependant on information provided by the local churches or store managers rather than personal contact with the area residents. Frustrating!!!

  5. I read this article on & went down to print a printer friendly version. Each time I click on the link it comes up saying it is not available. Where can I get the printer friendly version?

  6. Does Ancestry have an index for the 1871 Ontario, Canada census?
    Is ther a marriage index for Canada for 1860 – 1900?

  7. Hi,
    I don’t know how this can be rectified; however, the spelling of names and places in the 1911 Index are so incorrect as to make them fairly meaningless unless you know who and where to look. I was only able to locate my Great-Grandparents (McCarthy) by knowing the name of their closest neighbour (Hersey). Even then I was only able to establish that they had been included in the index by contacting Ancestry and giving them the information I had about them. The name McCarthy had been transcribed “Mebarty”. In another case Eatman was transcribed “Edmond”. Sunbury Co. was rendered “Sunberry”.
    I don’t know if the U.S. versions are any better. I do know in one case the Talbot family was marked W(hite), while the census clearly was marked B(lack). In another Ford B. Clark was transcribed “Fred” and his son Ford B. Jr. was renamed “Fay”, while remaining male and marked “Jr”.
    Unfortunately, I am engaged in trying to work with the entire (as much as I can)Black population of New Brunswick, CANADA starting with the 1851 census for N.B. At the age of 74, I imagine I will get about 25% of the project done, but it should make things easier for future genealogists. This makes it impossible for me to proofread and correct even the data for New Brunswick in Ancestry indexes. The N.B. archival information is largely accurate having been transcribed and proofread by either different people or by the same person at different times.
    Thanks and I hope you and others at Ancestry are able to improve the already magnificent work you do to enable amateurs like me to make better use of it.
    Vernon Smitz

  8. Follow-up to Vernon:

    You should see the transcription of the French names both in the Canada Census and, especially, all US Censuses. There are two problems: The first is the way the census-taker spelled the French names of over a million French Canadians and their descendants who either immigrated to the United States or worked there for many years. This we can’t correct.

    The second is the way even easily readable French names have been transcribed at This can be corrected.

    It is unbelievable that an organisation/website of this size puts out so lousy records. I would think that could afford to employ somebody with a good knowledge of French Canadian surnames to check the data! I am especially amazed about the census in Quebec! At least that should have been transcribed by somebody who understands French…

    Some years ago, I gathered data directly from the microfilms at NARA New York Office and had entered the information in my data-base. I wanted to check a record recently and the only way I could find the family was to search by a first name & by the town. It took a lot of time to browse through the records but I found them. The surname ‘Dionne’ (very readable and correctly indexed by NARA) had been transcribed ‘Imme’ by

    No wonder we do not find the people we are looking for!

  9. Vernon, i am also doing some research into the black communities of new brunswick. i would love to swop notes.


  11. The 1911 census that has does not list all the people living in Ontario. Itried to find a Richard Harrison living in York County – Vaughan Township and was unable to find him. He does appear in the Indexed 1911 Ontario census living with Ken and Ida Stevenson.?? Tks Wayne

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