Digging Into the Past: Family History in Canada

Photograph depicting Galician (Ukrainian) immigrants.020: Digging Into the Past: Family History in Canada
March 26, 2015

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Many Canadians have a growing interest in discovering their family heritage. Their quest can be simple in the beginning, but often it becomes the work of a lifetime. In this episode, genealogy consultants Sara Chatfield and Richard Lelièvre from Library and Archives Canada join us to discuss genealogy research. We explore what genealogy is, what is involved, how to start, suggest resources to use and how Library and Archives Canada can help you with your genealogy research.

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Podcast Transcript

Digging Into the Past: Family History in Canada

Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

Many Canadians have a growing interest in discovering their family heritage for different reasons. Their quest can be very simple at the beginning but very often, it becomes the work of a lifetime. To trace their ancestors, they will rely on historical documents such as church records, census [returns], passenger lists, military service files, land records, etc. that are held in various provincial and territorial archives, museums, libraries and also at Library and Archives Canada.

In this episode, genealogy consultants Sara Chatfield and Richard Lelièvre, from Library and Archives Canada, join us to discuss genealogy research. We explore what genealogy is, what is involved, how to start; suggest resources to use and how Library and Archives Canada can help you with your genealogy research.

If you are interested in viewing images associated with this podcast, you can follow along by viewing our Flickr gallery. You can access a direct link at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

Hi Sara.

Sara Chatfield: Hi Jessica, how are you doing?

JO: Good. Thanks for being with us today.

SC: Oh! My pleasure.

JO: Can you briefly describe what is genealogy or family history research and what it entails?

SC: Genealogy, or researching your family history, is going back generations. Some people have different goals: trying to find when they came to Canada; or some people just do one line, your mother or father but going back each generation. Some people are happy to get back to the furthest generation as quickly as possible; some people want to research using original documents like birth certificates or census records, military records, baptismal records, things like that to try and piece together the family.

JO: The family history like oh, she was born or he was born at this time and they died at this time in this village…

SC: and they had that many kids.

JO: Yep, or they remarried and they took on this name so you can see the different…

SC: And using the traditional family tree chart I think would be what people think of when they think of genealogy. Some people want to go all out and they want to collect military medals and family bibles and personal diaries, maybe their goal is to publish a book. It’s up to the individual researcher and I try to respect the researcher’s goals, I can’t tell them what they should be doing or not.

JO: Okay. Why is Library and Archives Canada an institution that can help with genealogy research?

SC: LAC is doing a great job of getting the collection online in easily searchable databases and that’s the most important thing to get the records out to the public.

JO: Hello Richard.

Richard Lelièvre: Hello.

JO: Thank you for being here with us today.

RL: My pleasure.

JO: If people would like to research their genealogy, where should they start?

RL: At home! They must go see their parents, they must go see their grandparents, their family. Those people are their main source of information. As a result of privacy laws, a great deal of recent information is not available. They must go see people who are still living and get information from them. This will give us a link to the records that are available, to the archival records that are available.

JO: Ok.

RL: After that, I suggest that people visit their local genealogical society. Again, local sources of information are ideal. Often genealogical societies give workshops to get you started, on how to present yourself. Certainly on our website we have advice on how to get started. If you ask us the question, we will answer you. We will tell you: “Here, start this way or that way.” But local sources are the best.

JO: Ok. Start at home first.

RL: That’s right.

JO: Ok. How can people determine which genealogical resources are the most useful for finding their ancestors?

RL: It depends on the history of their family in particular. Most Quebecers have been here since 1650‑1750. We have resources for them that are not the same as the resources for Ukrainians who have been here since 1914. It depends on the particular history of their family. If their family immigrated to the United States over the course of two generations, we would not look in the Canadian censuses. It depends on the particular history of their family.

JO: Ok.

SC: When I get a beginner at the genealogy desk the first thing I tell them is to talk to their family about past generations and to start writing it down, to try and create a timeline. That’s the most important thing, create a timeline. Even vague things are helpful. For example, if your mom remembers that she was in high school when her grandmother died, that gives you a five-year window of when someone died. A lot of times people come to the desk and they say they have no idea, but they remember being seven at the funeral, so that gives you a pretty good idea. Or maybe your family member remembers [that] at a funeral there was only one aunt left, the rest had died. It really helps you narrow down the generations. A lot of people get hung up on the fact they don’t have exact dates, but they don’t need exact dates, just general times. We can work with that.

JO: Okay. What kind of genealogy-related resources can be found at Library and Archives Canada and what collections are the most frequently searched?

SC: At LAC we have federal records, so we have immigration records and they run from 1865 to 1935. After 1935 [the records] are still at Citizenship and Immigration. Those are the passenger lists, which are the official immigration record for that period. We have census records and depending [on the year]… for the most part they start about 1841, [the year the census] was the first full one. Quebec had some early ones, there is even one from 1666 for Quebec City. The census goes from 1841 to 1921. So the census… they changed the legislation just recently and it [the census data] has to be 92 years old before they’ll open a new one [release the data]. So it’s about another ten years before they open the next one [the 1931 Census of Canada), maybe nine years we’re at now. We also have… we have military records as well, so we have militia records from pre-1914. There are no service files for those records, only muster lists and the CEF files. And then post-1919 [military files], those are still covered by ATIP. Online, the CEF collection is going to be huge when that’s online, that’s going to be amazing. The census and immigration records are really well used and they are easily searchable and we update our databases all the time for spelling errors and transcription errors. That’s going to be a great one though, the CEF one.

JO: You mentioned the CEF, which is the Canadian Expeditionary Force files. Can you explain what they are and what kind of information you can get from them?

SC: The CEF records that are online. Now all the soldiers are there and the nursing sisters and chaplains, so that’s 660,000 files, give or take, and it’s the attestation paper, so one page from the file. But there is now a project to digitize the entire file and I believe they are at 10% now, and over the next few years the entire collection will be digitized. They are really great quality and they’re in colour and easily downloaded, they’re great. There is so much information you can get from a CEF file. You can get where the person lives; who the family members [were] who were still living at [the] time; if they married, maybe you will see that in the file because the soldier will send the money to the wife, not the mother anymore; when they died; their will; things like that. It’s a great source of information.

JO: How can these resources be accessed?

SC: Well, they can be accessed through our website and if you click on the Genealogy and Family History section, under Ancestor Search, you can find all our databases. And we also do partner with Ancestry.ca so some of our records can be found there, and there are other websites like FamilySearch.org that have a lot of records.

JO: Okay. What is available only on site?

SC: Only on site, there are a lot of things. For example, the Second World War Killed in Action files. There are a few that are digitized on Ancestry.ca, but it’s a small percentage of the actual collection and they are only [available] on site. Some Home Children records like the Juvenile Inspection Reports, the Barnardo’s newsletter (Ups and Downs) would be another example of something that is only available on site. Most Canadian newspapers are not online. We have a great collection of newspapers on microfilm, so that’s only on site. And the published genealogy collection on the third floor. So the family histories and the published church indexes, parish indexes, census indexes that were published before they all went online, they are really still helpful.

JO: Okay. City directories?

SC: City directories, yes! We have those too. They are going online and quite a few... Montreal (the whole run is online) and Toronto (a fair percentage is online), but for the most part they are just on site.

JO: Okay. You mentioned newspapers. What can you find in a newspaper that is helpful for genealogy research?

SC: There are quite a few ways you can use newspapers. The most obvious is obituaries. Obituaries are great because they explain maybe where the person died, when they died, a little bit of biographical information, their parents’ names, surviving family members and where they lived. [That] is really what we use them for the most. Then there is also, say, in the odd case that a person was killed in an accident or murdered or something like that there would be a newspaper article about it which might give a bit of information. Or when soldiers came back, sometimes small towns would have a little note saying “so and so is back in town.” There’s really a lot of information in newspapers.

JO: If researchers still have questions after consulting the genealogy Web page and resources available at Library and Archives Canada, who should they contact and how?

SC: Well, there are a lot of places. If they have a question, they can fill out the genealogy Ask Us a Question form. They can find it on the Genealogy and Family History page or under the green tabs entitled Forms. That’s where you can find that on our website. Or a researcher can also contact provincial archives because if they are interested in homestead records, we don’t have those. They’d have to go to provincial archives for that. Also, if a researcher is looking for local sources they can go to the genealogical society for that area. Most of Ontario, for example, is covered by a branch. I think they have 12 branches of the OGS [Ontario Genealogical Society] and all provinces are like that. So there will be a historical society or genealogical society for each region (if we can’t help them) and we can refer them to that. For birth, marriage and death records, we can help. They are a provincial jurisdiction, so we don’t have them in our collection, but we have copies of them (for example, the Drouin Collection) or we can refer you to the right place.

JO: The provincial archives.

SC: Yep.

JO: Do you have any interesting stories that you would like to share with us related to either your personal experience with genealogy research or a client you have had contact with?

SC: The thing that continues to amaze me each time I run across it, is how census records detail the evolution of First Nations names. I think that is the thing that is most interesting to me. It’s so interesting to see (for example, in early census records or reserves such as the Blood reserve in Saskatchewan... I was just doing a question on that) how their traditional aboriginal names were written phonetically in English. So I guess the enumerator just wrote exactly what he heard, then he put hyphens and spaces wherever he wanted. Then, in the next set of records, you see it evolve into direct English translation, so that’s where you get White Buffalo women or Walking Buffalo or names like that. Like Prairie Dog, things like that [are] a direct translation. Then, even later in the 1916 or 1921 census returns you can see the name evolve even further into the European pattern, so you’ll see Fred Red Dog or Cyril Old Woman at War, Misses Running Rabbit. It’s really the European tradition and I think it depicts the challenges of genealogy for non-UK names, for non-standard names. They just wrote what they wanted so anything from First Nations or Eastern European or even Italian communities, if it’s non-UK it is an extra set of challenges.

JO: Or names with a space, like Van Rossen for example?

SC: Yes, anything non-standard.

JO: Yeah!

SC: Even in the UK, the Mc’s and Mac’s, do they put a space between the Mc in Donald? It really throws us off every time…

JO: And Mac’s, yep.

SC: It’s not standard.

JO: Yeah, interesting. Richard what motivates people to start researching their family?

RL: People have different reasons for conducting genealogical research. Some would like to find out whether they have a link to a specific ethnic group, whether they are Aboriginal, Irish or Scottish. Some find it interesting to know. Others are just curious to know some history. Where were my ancestors? They are looking for a link to history and their family. Everyone has their particular reason for conducting genealogical research.

JO: Yeah.

RL: The feeling that we have when a client is in front of us and the emotion expressed by the client when he sees his father, grandfather, or ancestor in an archival record… for him, it’s someone he knows. He sees, we see. It’s a name jotted down in a record, but for that person it’s real, it’s someone who existed. Often people are moved by that. His father when he was 20 years old, when he arrived in the country, or his grandfather in a military uniform… the emotion, seeing the emotion in these people who are looking at these records, it’s beautiful.

JO: Yes, yes. It’s like a direct link to the past and to our personal history.

RL: Yes, that’s it. That’s it, yes.

JO: Thank you for being here with us today, Richard.

RL: No, thank you. It has been a pleasure, it has been an experience.

JO: To learn more about Genealogy and the related resources available at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On our homepage under the Popular Topics tab, select Genealogy and Family History. On this page you will find links to all of our Genealogy resources, including an entire section on how to begin. Also, don’t forget to check our blog, thediscoverblog.com, for more genealogy content. You can find the content quickly by selecting Genealogy and Family History from the categories list on the right side of the Web page.

Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Sara Chatfield and Richard Lelièvre.

For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

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