Column: How to explore your family history

(NC) Many of us are curious about our family history. We want to know who our relatives were, where they came from and what their lives were like. You might think this information has been lost to time, but with some perseverance and a little luck, you find lots to uncover.

Historical documents such as birth and marriage certificates, military personnel files, city directories, and immigration records can hold a wealth of information. Many are stored in publicly accessible archives like Library and Archives Canada (LAC). One of the most useful tools for family research at LAC is the Canadian census.

Today, most of the population completes a short-form census questionnaire with only a few basic questions, while a small percentage will complete a more detailed long-form census questionnaire. But before 1941, everyone had to answer every question on the census. This means there’s detailed information about every person living in Canada contained in the original census papers. After 92 years, the original, completed census forms are sent to LAC and made available to the public.

As long as you have some basic information, like a person’s name and where they lived, you can learn much more about them. Depending on the census you’re working with, you can determine:

  • whether a person was married or had children
  • their level of education
  • their occupation
  • even specific details like the number of rooms in their house
  • the people your ancestor lived with, such as multigenerational family or if they lived in a boarding house.

You can also find out about their neighbourhood by looking at census entries for surrounding households. Once you have this information, you can compare your findings with other historical documents.

While it may seem intimidating, we can all learn a great deal about our ancestors by using historical documents. The census is a great place to start. The 2021 Census starts on May 3.

Find more information or complete your census at census.gc.ca.

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