There was a collective sigh of relief among many of us at Statistics Canada when Bill S-18, A Bill to Amend the Statistics Act, passed in the House of Commons and received Royal Assent in late June 2005. Many of you will already know that this bill cleared up the legal ambiguities that put into question whether the Chief Statistician could hand over control of census records to Library and Archives Canada 92 years after a census was held. With the passing of this bill, such a transfer was possible.
In the case of the 1911 Census of Population, more than 92 years have already passed, so the records for this census were formally turned over to Library and Archives Canada a few days after legislation. Library and Archives Canada were in turn responsible for making these records publicly available.
Somewhat surprisingly, it took less than a month for Library and Archives Canada to post the records on its website (http://www.collectionscanada.ca/archivianet/1911/index-e.html).
This was no small feat considering there were an estimated 7 million records.
Image of a census record. Photo: Library and Archives Canada.
Searching the record database is relatively easy. Interestingly, the search results you receive onscreen are PDF copies of the enumerator's ledgers with handwritten entries. Deciphering names and other information can sometimes be challenging, but the images can be rescaled to allow you to zoom in and see the records more clearly. Also, the screens are printable, which can help users make out the handwriting.
Checking out these historical census records is fascinating. No doubt many of you have a keen interest in history, be it at a personal or family level or even just looking back at a time when the country was so radically changing and expanding. Even if you don't have ancestors who lived in Canada at the time of the 1911 Census, taking a look at these historical records makes for a unique peek into Canada's past.
For my own part, I attempted to locate the records of some of my grandparents. Unfortunately, you can't search the records by name, you must search by geography. So, I started with the set of grandparents who I figured would be easier to search.
For my first attempt, I searched for records of my mother's parents who, at the time of the 1911 Census, lived in Hay Township (about 50 kilometres north of London, Ontario). My efforts were rewarded as I was able to quickly locate their records. Since I already had a fair of bit of knowledge on the history of my mother's family thanks to the historical research of a cousin, it came as no surprise to find out that my grandparents, William and Agnes Alexander, were living on her father's farm along with her younger sister, Elizabeth. But seeing their names on these census records added an 'official' dimension to memories of a farmhouse that I had visited so many times growing up as a child (an uncle had subsequently taken over the farm when my grandfather got to the age where he was unable to continue farming).
The one thing that initially baffled me was the listing of a two-month-old baby called Robert. Who was this child? Had I an uncle who had died as an infant and somehow had been forgotten in my family's history? The detective in me quickly realized that the infant in question was an uncle known to me as Norman, but whose full name was Robert Norman Alexander. And so he had been simply listed as Robert at the time of the census.
After such luck in discovering my mother's parents, I thought I would try to locate the records of my father's mother who lived in Scarborough (which was a township at that time). While 1911 Scarborough is certainly not the Scarborough of today, I knew that my search would present more of a challenge—but the genealogical gods were with me because I located her family's records after just three screens.
My grandmother, Louella, is pictured here (centre, back row) with her family.
Once again, it was fascinating to view the names and demographic details of my grandmother, Louella, her parents, brothers and younger sister laid out before my eyes. What made this discovery so unique is that at the time of the 1911 Census, my grandmother's age was given as 17, and we keep a family photo of a young Louella in an old ornate frame hanging on a wall at home. It is a strange coincidence that this photo dates from the same era.
I hope that my own experiences will encourage many of you to visit the Library and Archives Canada website to try to locate records of your own ancestors. Even from a historical perspective, I found it intriguing to view the census records of strangers as they provide details of lives that were lived so long ago—lives that helped shape the country into the nation it is today.