Census returns are official Government of Canada records that enumerate the country’s population. They are an invaluable source of information as they often include the age, occupation, ethnic origin, religious denomination and the place of birth for the persons listed.

For each census, the records are arranged by province or territory, and then are divided into districts which usually correspond to counties and cities. Districts are typically divided into sub-districts, corresponding to townships, parishes and larger towns.

From 1851 to 1901, a census occurred every 10 years in Canada; this was confirmed by the British North America Act (also known as the Constitution Act, 1867). The original purpose of the census was to help determine parliamentary representation based on population.

According to the Census and Statistics Act (which received Royal Assent on May 16, 1905) a general census of Canada was to occur in 1911, and every 10 years thereafter, and a census of population and agriculture was to be taken in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1906, and every 10 years thereafter.

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Research Tips

Part 1: Search strategies from name variations to indexing errors and more

  • Keep it simple - start with just a name or a name and a place.
  • Don’t forget the * wildcard. Try Fran* for Frank, Francis, François, Franz, Francisco.
  • Try searching by the person’s middle name or nickname. Try variations like Lizzie for Elizabeth, Tillie for Matilda, Nellie for Helen.
  • Some census enumerators recorded given names only by the initial or an abbreviation, such as M or Magt instead of Marguerite. Sometimes only a title was used: Mrs., Mr., Dr., Rev., Veuve [widow], Dame
  • Spelling variations of names are common in old records. Also, many names were written phonetically, as they sounded to the person recording them. For example, Thibault, Thibeau and Tibo are just three of many variations of that name.
  • Some people anglicized their names. Boisvert may have evolved into Greenwood. Johan Kuch might have started calling himself John Cook. Even the enumerator may have created his own variations, for example, an English speaker might have written Jean-Baptiste as John Baptist.
  • There are many indexing errors and omissions in databases because of poor handwriting in the original documents or pages that are barely legible because of faded ink, very dark ink or other issues on the census pages.
  • In some handwriting, many letters look similar and can cause confusion for indexers.  Examples: u and m; w and m; o and a; i and e; u and ee; d and t; f and t; l and t; v and r; g, y, z and j; capital letters L and S, I and J. In old handwriting styles, a double s resembled the letters fs or p.
  • Surnames appear different ways depending on how they were recorded and how they were indexed. Try these variations:
    • For names that start with the letter O: Ohara, O,Hara, O Hara, Hara
    • For Mc and Mac names: McDonald, MacDonald, M’Donald, Mc Donald, Donald, Donald Mc
    • For French-Canadian names with an apostrophe: Lheureux, L Heureux, L,Heureux, Heureux
  • Confusion over how names were presented on a page can lead to a given name being incorrectly entered in a database as the surname.
  • Inconsistent use of ditto marks can lead to the wrong surname attached to a given name.
  • In some Quebec census returns, women were recorded by maiden name instead of their married name.
  • Discrepancies in details such as dates and places were common in old records. Dates of birth or immigration may have been recalled incorrectly by the family member answering the questions. Also, census enumerators made mistakes.
  • Remember that databases are indexes to the records and are intended to reflect the information as it was recorded on the original page.

Part 2: Advanced search strategies

If you still can’t find a name in a database, try these tips:

  • Many of our census records are indexed on the free websites Automated Genealogy and Family Search. They are also indexed on Ancestry.ca (subscription required; free at many public libraries).
  • Many provincial, county and local genealogical societies publish indexes to census records for their areas.
  • Knowing the geography of the area is important. Census returns were enumerated by Districts and Sub-districts. In most years, the Districts corresponded to a city or county and the Sub-districts corresponded to a town, city ward, township, parish or other local jurisdiction. Small towns and villages were usually enumerated within the surrounding township and not identified separately. Each of our databases includes a list of the Districts and Sub-districts for that census year. In some cases, not all the census returns survived.
  • For help with maps and places, you can try the relevant GenWeb site for the province or county.
  • You can search our Post Offices and Postmasters database. Enter the place name in the Office Name field and if there was a post office there, it will indicate the federal electoral district, which usually corresponded to the county and census districts.
  • For larger cities, consult the annual city directories, which listed adult residents alphabetically and indicated occupation and address. For example, if the person was shown as residing at 102 Abbott Street in 1901, check the street index in the directory to find the names of neighbours on that street. Then try searching those names in the 1901 census database. City directories can also be useful to try to determine the ward for a particular address. Read our blog post What Can Canadian Directories Do for You? to learn more about directories.

Part 3: Search by place

You can try searching the census page by page for the place where your ancestor lived.

  • Check the list of Districts and Sub-districts to find the relevant numbers.
  • On the database search screen, select Advanced Search Options.
  • Enter the District number and Sub-district number. In some census years, the Sub-district “number” is a letter.  Some Sub-districts have more than one part.
  • In the Page Number box, enter 1.
  • From the results, click on the image thumbnail to view page 1.
  • To move to the next image, change the jpg number in the URL box at the top of the screen.  For example, for image http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/1871/jpg/4396332_00068.jpg change the jpg number to 00069.
  • For the 1891 census, some of the pages appear out of order because that was the way the records were arranged when they were microfilmed.
  • For the western provinces, you can learn about the land system of Townships, Ranges and Meridians by consulting the section called Western Canada Land System Description in our Land Grants of Western Canada database.


Abbreviations for places of birth in Canada:

Alb. / Alta. : Alberta
Assa. : Assiniboia
B.C. : Bas-Canada (Lower Canada, Quebec)
B.C. : British Columbia
C.B. : Colombie-Britannique C.E. : Canada East (Canada-Est, Quebec)
C.W. : Canada West (Canada-Ouest, Ontario)
H.C. : Haut-Canada (Upper Canada, Ontario)
I.P. : Île-du-Prince-Edouard
L.C. : Lower Canada (Bas-Canada, Quebec)
Man. : Manitoba
N.B. : New Brunswick
N.B. : less common usage - North Britain, i.e. Scotland
N.E. : Nouvelle-Écosse
N.O. : Territoires du Nord-Ouest
N.S. : Nova Scotia
N.W. / N.W.T. : Northwest Territories
O / Ont. : Ontario
P.E.I. : Prince Edward Island
Q : Quebec (the Q sometimes looks like an L)
Que. : Quebec
Sask. : Saskatchewan
U.C. : Upper Canada (Haut-Canada, Ontario)
YT / Yuk. : Yukon Territory
U. : Ungava

Each census database includes lists of other abbreviations used in the records.

Censuses available at Library and Archives Canada

Library and Archives Canada holds an extensive collection of census records, from 1666 to 1921.

Prior to the first Dominion Census in 1871, census enumerations were conducted in different areas in various years. Many of those early records have not survived, including portions of the 1851 returns. As provinces joined Confederation, they were included in subsequent federal census returns, for example Prince Edward Island in 1881.

Returns prior to 1851 are usually partly nominal, listing only the heads of households or families; the other members are just counted.

Most returns from 1851 to 1921 are nominal, listing each person individually, with details as to age, gender, country or province of birth, religious denomination, racial or ethnic origin, occupation, marital status and education. In some years, the census also indicates year of immigration.

Consult the following list to find out the extent of Library and Archives Canada’s census records collection.

By clicking on the relevant census year, you will be able to access:

  • an online database searchable by name of person or by place that includes digitized images of the original census returns
  • only digitized images of census returns; or
  • a list sorted by locality that will provide you a microfilm reel number

For information about census returns for which you cannot click on the year, and for information about earlier census returns, consult Census Records Finding Aid 300 [PDF 1,670 KB]

(See: Downloadable Formats, PDF Reader)

Important note about microfilm reels listed in Finding Aid 300:

  • Some of our microfilm reels with the prefixes C, H and T are being digitized on our partner website Héritage. Digitized reels can be viewed free on that website. Enter the reel number in the search box, e.g. C-2574. If the reel is digitized, click on the reel title to see the images. (Note that some reel titles may be incorrect.) You can browse through the page images; the content (text) is not searchable. Also note that an image/page number is not the same as the archival document page number.
  • Some documents from the French Colonial period are digitized on our website in Archives Search. Sample keyword search: recensement 1695.
  • Reels with B, F and M prefixes must be viewed on site.

Census records available at Library and Archives Canada by year, location and type:

Year Location Type
1666 Quebec Nominal
1667 Quebec Nominal
1671, 1673 Newfoundland (Plaisance only) Nominal
1671–1753 Acadia Partly nominal
1681 Quebec Nominal
1691, 1693 Newfoundland Nominal
1698, 1706, 1711 Newfoundland (Plaisance only) Partly Nominal
1704 Newfoundland Partly Nominal
1770–1838 Nova Scotia Partly nominal
1825 Quebec Partly nominal
1831 Quebec Partly nominal
1831–1849 Manitoba (Red River only) Partly nominal
1841 Prince Edward Island Partly nominal
1842 Ontario Partly nominal
1842 Quebec Partly nominal
1848 Ontario Partly nominal
1850 Ontario Partly nominal
1851 Nova Scotia Partly nominal
1851 New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec Nominal
1861 Ontario, Quebec Nominal
1861 Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island Partly nominal
1870 Manitoba Nominal
1871 New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec Nominal
1881 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan Nominal
1891 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory Nominal
1901 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory Nominal
1906 Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan Nominal
1911 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory Nominal
1916 Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan Nominal
(Available from Ancestry.ca)
Canada Nominal
1921 Newfoundland Nominal
1935 Newfoundland Nominal
1945 Newfoundland Nominal

After 1921

Census returns after 1921 are in the custody of Statistics Canada. The Statistics Act and the Act to Amend the Statistics Act does not permit the disclosure of personal information from post-1921 census returns. The only exception is for people who require information about themselves, for pension or other legal purposes. Third parties cannot obtain information about another individual without the individual's written consent.

Under the legislation, the records will be opened for public use and transferred to Library and Archives Canada 92 calendar years after the taking of a census.

If you have questions about post-1921 census returns or the census legislation, contact the Access to Information office of Statistics Canada.

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