Did your ancestors come to Canada from another country? Did they become Canadian citizens? Find out about citizenship and the records that might have information about them.
Historical background information
A person can be a Canadian citizen by birth or by naturalization. What is naturalization? It is the process that an immigrant goes through, from applying for citizenship to becoming a citizen.
Citizenship laws have changed over time. It can be helpful to know what legislation was in effect at the time that your ancestors applied to be naturalized. For example, until 1932, a married woman’s citizenship status was defined by her husband’s, so only the husband would apply to be naturalized.
What happened in 1947?
The Canadian Citizenship Act came into force on January 1, 1947. This legislation meant that people born or naturalized in Canada were officially considered Canadian citizens.
The Act outlined the provisions for each category, such as British subjects, aliens (non-British subjects), natural-born Canadians, minor children, foundlings, persons with disabilities, etc. It also covered many other details, such as length of residence, service in armed forces, knowledge of English or French, application procedures, and the loss of Canadian citizenship.
The first certificate of Canadian citizenship was issued to Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
For information about citizenship laws after 1947, see History of citizenship legislation.
Although people typically referred to themselves as Canadian citizens before 1947, people born in Canada were actually British subjects (citizens) at the time. Certificates of naturalization were granted under British legislation by provincial and territorial courts in Canada.
Non-British subjects (called “aliens”) could petition for naturalization. If successful, they would swear allegiance to the British monarch and would be granted the rights of someone born within the British Empire. The legislation changed over the years under the following acts:
More details can be found on the page about Types of citizenship certificates.
Useful things to know
- Before 1947: If your ancestors were born in countries such as England, Jamaica, Ireland, South Africa, India and Australia, you will not find their names in naturalization records. This is because immigrants born in Great Britain and other parts of the British Empire were already British subjects. They had no need to become naturalized in Canada.
- “Alien” was the term used for a person who was not a British subject (before January 1, 1947) or a Canadian citizen (after January 1, 1947).
- Until 1932, a married women was considered to have the same status as her husband, either a British subject or an alien. From 1932 until 1947, if a man became naturalized, his wife had to apply herself if she also wanted to become a British subject.
- A minor child was under the age of 18. Alien children who were minors at the time that their father (or widowed mother) was naturalized and who entered Canada before 1915 were considered to have been included in the local naturalization of their father (or widowed mother). Starting in 1915, it depended on the type of certificate. More details can be found on the page about Types of citizenship certificates.
- Even though Canadians were officially British subjects, the Immigration Act of 1910 used the term “Canadian citizen.” This referred to:
- a person born in Canada who had not become an alien
- a British subject who had Canadian domicile, which meant a permanent residence for three years (but none of it in a prison or asylum)
- a person naturalized under the laws of Canada who had not subsequently become an alien or lost Canadian domicile
- An immigrant could not apply for citizenship as soon as he or she arrived in Canada. The person had to live in Canada for a minimum number of years:
- before 1914: 3 years
- from 1914 to February 14, 1977: 5 years
- from February 15, 1977, to the present: 3 years
- starting in 1947, immigrants who had served in the First or Second World War: 1 year
- British subjects in the Dominion of Newfoundland gained Canadian citizenship when Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949.
Library and Archives Canada databases
Library and Archives Canada holds only a few collections relating to citizenship. These are indexed and digitized in the following databases:
Naturalization records held by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada holds records of naturalization and citizenship from 1854 to the present.
Records from 1854 to 1917
The records from 1854 to 1917 no longer exist. The certificate of naturalization was given to the new citizen. All that the government has kept is a card index arranged by name. It includes only basic details about the person, such as:
- present and former place of residence
- former country of nationality
- date of certificate
- name and location of the responsible court
The index rarely contains any other genealogical information.
Library and Archives Canada does not hold a copy of that card index.
Although records from before 1917 were later destroyed, there is one exception. If someone was naturalized before 1917 but had contact with the Department of the Secretary of State in later years, those records should still exist. An example would be someone who was a child when their father was naturalized in 1910, which automatically included the wife and minor children. As an adult, the person might apply for a naturalization certificate to prove their status. That application from after 1917 would likely include copies of documents from the father’s 1910 naturalization file.
Records from 1917 to the present
Records created after 1917 are more detailed. They include information such as:
- full name
- date and place of birth
- immigration details
- name of spouse and children
The file will usually include the petition for naturalization, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police report on the person, the oath of allegiance and any related documents.
Library and Archives Canada does not hold copies of those records.
How to request a search for another person’s records
For a search of naturalization/citizenship indexes and records from 1854 to the present, you have two options.
You can submit the Application for a Search of Citizenship Records. The fee is $75.00.
For a fee of $5.00, you can submit a formal Access to Information request by mail or online.
For all requests, please note the following conditions:
- The request must include a signed consent from the person concerned or proof that he or she has been deceased for at least 20 years.
- Proof of death can be a copy of a death record, a newspaper obituary or a photograph of the gravestone showing the name and date of death. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada requires proof of death regardless of how long ago the person was born.
- Your request should include as many of the following details as possible:
- the person’s full name, place of residence, date and place of birth, and approximate year of arrival in Canada
- the names of his or her parents and spouse, and their details
- if you know it, the Canadian citizenship number or naturalization certificate number. If the person was naturalized between 1915 and 1951, you can search our Naturalization Records, 1915–1951 database. If you find a reference to the person, it will give the certificate number.
- If you are doing genealogy research, we recommend specifying that you want a copy of the complete file.
- For ATIP requests sent by mail, your application should indicate that it is being requested under Access to Information. It must be submitted by a Canadian citizen or a person who lives in Canada. For non-citizens who do not live in Canada, you can hire a freelance researcher to make the request on your behalf.
How to request a search for your own records
For proof of your citizenship status, you can submit an Application for a Search of Citizenship Records to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
To obtain a citizenship certificate from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, you can submit an Application for a Citizenship Certificate.
Library and Archives Canada holds many immigration records.
Most provincial and territorial archives hold local and provincial or territorial court records, which sometimes include records relating to naturalization.
You can search the following collections on FamilySearch by signing up for a free account. Some can be searched by name. For others, you can browse through the images.