How the Census Was Collected
The 1881 Census marked the second regularly scheduled collection of national statistics. It officially began April 4, 1881.
A total of 205 commissioners were appointed to coordinate the census. Reporting to the commissioners, 3,183 enumerators were then assigned to a clearly defined area.
Enumerators visited 192 census districts, divided into 2,139 sub-districts. These units were made up of cities, towns, groups of townships, Indian reserves, and other less well-defined areas. In 1881, it would have been almost impossible to conduct an enumeration of Aboriginal people over a great extent of the unorganized territory of Canada. For this reason, names of Aboriginals may not have been recorded for districts 187 (New Westminster, BC) and 192 (Northwest Territories).
Enumerators collected information for 4,278,327 individuals distributed as follows:
- British Columbia (48,886)
- Manitoba (64,824)
- New Brunswick (321,251)
- Northwest Territories (10,973)
- Nova Scotia (440,558)
- Ontario (1,924,271)
- Prince Edward Island (108,911)
- Quebec (1,358,653)
From Paper to Microfilm
In 1955, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics was authorized by the Public Records Committee to microfilm and destroy the original paper records of the 1881 Census. As a result, only a microfilm copy of the census exists as an archival holding. The microfilming of these records was not of consistent quality and not all images are readable.
The digitized images found on the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) website have been made by scanning the microfilms of the 1881 Census. As exact copies, a page that was unreadable on microfilm will also be unreadable on your computer screen. Title pages from the microfilm have not been scanned, and contained this information:
- Census year (i.e. 1881)
- Province or territory
- District number and name
- Sub-district number and name
- Number of pages in the sub-district. The pages are not always ordered consecutively and in some cases may not exist.
These records and those of previous censuses are described in the Statistics Canada fonds, formerly Record Group 31 (RG31).
Column Headings and Interpretation
Numbered in the Order of Visitation
Column 1. Vessels.
A count of the vessels. Numbered in the order visited by the enumerator.
Column 2. Shanties.
A count of the shanties. Numbered in the order visited by the enumerator.
Column 3. Houses in construction.
A count of the houses in construction. Numbered in the order visited by the enumerator.
Column 4. Houses uninhabited.
A count of the houses uninhabited. Numbered in the order visited by the enumerator.
Column 5. Houses inhabited.
A count of the houses inhabited. Numbered in the order visited by the enumerator.
Column 6. Families.
A count of the family or household. Two or more families that occupied the same house were to be numbered separately.
Column 7. Names.
Were to be entered with the surname (or last name) first.
Column 8. Sex.
Denoted by the letter “m” for male and “f” for female.
Column 9. Age
- At last birthday.
- For children under one year of age, fractions were used (for example, for 2 months, "2/12" was indicated).
Column 10. Born within last 12 months.
Month of birth for all infants born between April 4, 1880 and April 4, 1881.
Column 11. Country or province of birth
- For people born outside of Canada, the name of the country of origin (for example, England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, and so on).
- For people born in Canada, the name of the province or territory.
Column 12. Religion
- The religion to which an individual claimed to belong, written in full.
- Abbreviations were used if the name was too long.
Column 13. Origin
- Indicated by a country name which might be different from the country of birth.
- "Indian" refers to individuals descended from Aboriginal peoples of Canada.
Column 14. Profession, occupation or trade
- More than one profession, occupation, or trade can be listed.
- Individuals studying a profession or trade were to be noted as students of that profession or trade.
- Individuals in college were entered as students; however, school children were not entered as students.
- For those who had no occupation other than household work, the symbol (--) was entered (nothing to be recorded).
Column 15. Married or widowed.
A dash (-) indicates that the individual had never been married.
Column 16. Going to school.
A "1" indicates that the individual was attending school.
The degree of the infirmity needed to have reached the stage of incapacity to be noted.
Column 17. Deaf and dumb
Column 18. Blind
Column 19. Unsound mind
Column 20. Dates of operations and remarks.
Comments were made only in very special cases. The enumerator entered the day's date.
- S (Single)
- M (Married)
- W (Widowed)
- D (Divorced)
- L.S. (Legally separated)
Provinces and Territories
- Alb. (Alberta)
- B.C. (British Columbia)
- Man. (Manitoba)
- N.B. (New Brunswick)
- N.S. (Nova Scotia)
- N.W.T. (Northwest Territories)
- O. (Ontario)
- P.E.I. (Prince Edward Island)
- Q. (Quebec)
- Sask. (Saskatchewan)
- Yuk. (Yukon)
- More abbreviations for places of birth in Canada
- Jan. (January)
- Feb. (February)
- Mar. (March)
- Apr. (April)
- Aug. (August)
- Sept. (September)
- Oct. (October)
- Nov. (November)
- Dec. (December)
- B.C. (Bible Christian)
- C. (of) E. (Church of England)
- C. (of) S. (Church of Scotland)
- E.M.C. (Episcopal Methodist Church)
- F.C. (Free Church (Presbyterian))
- M.E.C. (Methodist Episcopal Church)
- P.C.L.P. (Presbyterian-Canada and Lower Provinces)
- P.F.C. (Presbyterian Free Church)
- R.P. (Reformed Presbyterian)
- U.P. (United Presbyterian)
- W.M. (Wesleyan Methodist)
- Items counted as one were indicated by either a downward stroke (|) or the figure "1."
- The number “1” was written whenever YES was the answer.
- Items counted as zero were indicated by a dash (-) or the space was left blank.
- A dash (-) was written whenever NO was the answer or there was nothing to be recorded.
- Ditto marks (" or do) were used except where prohibited in the instructions.
The enumeration data were collected using 8 documents, known as schedules, which included a total of 172 questions.
- Schedule 1, Nominal return of the living
- Schedule 2, Nominal return of the deaths
- Schedule 3, Real estate, public institutions and industrial establishments
- Schedule 4, Use and productivity of owned land
- Schedule 5, Livestock and animal products
- Schedule 6, The extraction of raw materials from forests
- Schedule 7, Production related to shipping and fishing
- Schedule 8, The extraction of raw materials from mines
Only Schedule 1 has been preserved.
Instructions to Enumerators
Instructions to enumerators were given on how to collect the names and other information in 1881. Those instructions can be found in Manual Containing the "Census Act" and the Instructions to Officers Employed in the Taking of the Second Census in Canada, 1881, Ottawa: Department of Agriculture, Census Branch, 1881 (AMICUS 7204103). You can also view those instructions at Programme de recherche en démographie historique.
Census of Canada, 1880-81 = Recensement du Canada, 1880-81
Issues about this Census and this Database
Some census records have not survived. Consult the list of 1881 Census Districts and Sub-districts to find out what sub-districts are missing.
No electoral maps were created for this census. However, you may consult the Electoral Atlas of Canada 1895 (archived).