Finding your Canadian family


Vintage photos

Whether you are a genealogical enthusiast or merely interested in your family tree, there is very little as exciting as hunting down a lead and unravelling the mystery of your ancestors. As Canada is one of the most diverse countries in the world, it is no surprise that so many people end up researching their family tree. The country has strong ties to the UK, as a former British Colony, there was a freedom of movement within the Empire. It also held the promise of new land when famine struck in Europe, increasing the immigration of people in search of a bright new start.

Subsequently Canada has a strong set of resources to help you track down your long-lost family. Whether your flights to Canada are set to take you on a journey through your history, or if you wish to dabble a little into your family’s past while visiting friends, there is sure to be a service at your disposal.


Pier 21

Pier 21

The Pier 21 terminal in Halifax, Nova Scotia is the Canadian Version of New York’s Ellis Island. Along with Quebec City and Victoria in British Columbia, it was the main point of entry into Canada for immigrants in the steamship era. Initially it was Pier 2 that was designated for immigrant arrivals, but as the port expanded, it moved to Pier 21.

Pier 21 was the point of entry for over one million immigrants and refugees from all over the globe. As a former British Colony, Canada attracted more immigrants from Britain to Pier 21 than from any other country. Many of these were children, from homes like Barnado Homes or WWII evacuees, while almost 50,000 were war brides who married Canadian servicemen during the war and moved their hearts to Canada afterwards.

Now Pier 21 is home to the Canadian Museum of Immigration. One of the permanent exhibits here is the Canadian Immigration hall which tracks the migration trends across Canada and its history over the last 400 years. They can also help with personal research, opening up to specific requests about ancestors with an easy to navigate page.


Nova Scotia

Hector Nova Scotia

Meaning ‘New Scotland’ in Latin, you would expect that vast swathes of Scottish immigrants descended upon this province. Indeed, a 2006 census showed that 31.9% of Nova Scotians are of Scottish descent, making them the largest ethnic group in the province.

The province was first named by the British in the 1621 Royal Charter which granted the rights to settle in the land to Sir William Alexander, the First Earl of Stirling. However, the Hector was the first ship famous for bringing Scottish immigrants to the area. 189 Highlanders set sail in 1773 and although 18 died en route, the rest arrived in the town of Pictou 11 weeks later.

The Nova Scotia Archives are regularly updated and are a great place to continue your search if you believe you have relatives in Canada. With many records digitalised, your family history search will be easier as most of the information is available online. The site contains records, newspaper articles and passenger lists, and it also details a wealth of secondary sources that you may have to contact directly.



Montreal, Canada

As the first Canadian state west of Nova Scotia, it would not be surprising if you found traces of family members in Quebec. It was also one of the main ports, so many immigrants would have settled close to what they knew. Whether you have only a trace of a family member, or know they settled in the area, checking out the Library and Archives Canada is probably the best place to start. With nearly 5 million references, the Library and Archives Canada holds all the immigration records from the years 1865 to 1935.

These records can tell you the name of the ship, the port they arrived from and where they were headed to, as well as gender, age and occupation. Whether you just want to confirm an ancestor or begin your search, these records are an incredible resource.

With an enormous influx of Irish settlers many major Canadian towns and cities developed Irish quarters. The language barrier with a French-speaking state may have kept the Irish ostracised, and there is limited record on their movements. The main movement of the Irish was due to the Great Irish Potato Famine and as passage to Canada was cheaper than the neighbouring United States, it saw an influx of the most impoverished citizens. The ships they arrived on were overcrowded and a hotbed for disease, and as the port of Quebec became overrun, many ships were left waiting weeks to dock. More information and specific resources on the Irish immigration to Canada can be found here.



Eloisa, Ontario

As immigrants would have moved further west, they would have come across the fertile plains of Ontario. According to the records left behind, Ontario was mainly home to English and Scottish immigrants. This is reflected in the names of towns and areas, such as Essex, Whitby and Lincoln, which nestle alongside more native town names like Petawawa. Another place to see Ontario’s heritage is in the architecture. As the Europeans spread across the state, so did their architecture styles. Whether Victorian frippery or Georgian elegance, it is easy to track the movement of the immigrants through the buildings.

Finding ancestors in this state can be tricky, as bordering the United States, many may have made their way overland or passed through other states before they settled. Ontario Genealogies is a site that allows you to search by town, if you have this information then you can often find, births, marriage and death records that can give you more insight to time periods that your ancestors lived there or the lives they led.

Often visiting the towns your family lived in can be a vastly rewarding experience. The town of Kettleby is a wonderful example of this. With its history of English immigrants proudly recorded and the old church iconic of the town, much can be learnt from visiting Canadian states that your family hail from.


British Columbia

British Colombia

Heading to the West Coast of Canada, you see a very different pattern of immigration, partly due to the geography. Dominated by various mountain ranges, British Columbia was not as welcoming to its new citizens as the Eastern provinces, however those looking to further exploit the fur trade and set up homesteads deep within the spectacular scenery were not put off by towering mountains and harsh climates.

As with Nova Scotia, British Columbia’s very name has a link to its European history. The name was chosen by Queen Victoria, the province was named for its addition to the Empire and the Columbia District which surrounds the Columbia River. Subsequently the Capital city is named Victoria after the monarch and Fort Moody is named after Richard Clement Moody, first lieutenant governor of British Columbia and hand-picked for the role in London.

Many outposts were established along the major route of the fur trade, acting as places to buy supplies, collect news and trade wares. Fort St John was such a town that still stands to this day. Though the location of the town has moved for multiple reasons, as the first permanent settlement in British Columbia, the town holds a lot of history. As the area relied heavily on the land, the styles of architecture differ greatly from the Eastern Provinces, choosing instead to build sensibly as opposed to ostentatiously.

The gold rush further increased the interest in this area. Though initially this was thought a provincial area, after the news of the Fraser Canyon Gold rush was heard in London, more infrastructure was put in place. By the time of the 1862 Cariboo Gold Rush, the population was more stable and British colonies well established.

Ancestry is a great resource while looking for Canadian family as it draws information from both the 1881 and 1891 Census, which includes British Columbia. Records more commonly found to the East can sometimes feel scarce in British Columbia, however the British Columbia Genealogical Society have become adept at ferreting out information. With members all over the globe, they hold meetings in Canada as well as Europe and are a great resource for beginning your search or fishing out more detail.

Image Credit: WladyslawAnna Webber ,NPS ,National Archives and Records Administration

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