General census guide

Find instructions on using census records to do genealogical research. These records contain detailed information about individuals and their families, such as:

  • marital status
  • occupation
  • residence
  • gender
  • ethnicity

The specific questions asked on the census varied from year to year. The records vary in levels of completeness. Some information might be missing.

By law, the census returns are transferred to LAC and opened for public use after 92 years.

In your research, you may encounter historical language that is considered offensive today. Please read the notice about historical language in LAC’s collection.

On this page

Before you start

Gather information such as:

  • name(s)
  • approximate year of birth
  • country of birth
  • approximate year of arrival
  • place of residence in Canada

Places to look

Early census and related documents, 1640-1945 (formerly Finding Aid 300)

LAC holds early census records, including, for example, military census, lists of property owners, population totals, and tax assessment rolls. These are generally local and provincial census (and related) records. Many are small or incomplete. The specific location and date ranges available through LAC are:

  • Acadia, 1671 to 1763
  • British Columbia, 1870 to 1891
  • New Brunswick, 1773 to 1848
  • Newfoundland and Labrador, 1671 to 1945
  • Nova Scotia, 1767 to 1838
  • Ontario, 1719 to 1907
  • Prince Edward Island, 1787 to 1871
  • Quebec, 1640 to 1880

For more information on these records and how to access them, please consult our page on early census records.

Pre-Confederation censuses (1825-1861)

Before 1867, census-taking (enumeration) took place in different areas in various years. Many of those early returns have not survived, so the records are incomplete. These censuses (except for 1851 and 1861) only counted heads of households. This meant usually the senior male inhabitant, and not all people living in the house.

LAC holds the records from the six main pre-Confederation censuses, specifically:

Census year and area Provinces and territories included Type of census
Census of 1825, Lower Canada Quebec Heads of households
Census of 1831, Lower Canada Quebec Heads of households
Census of 1842, Canada West Ontario Heads of households
Census of 1842, Canada East Quebec Heads of households
Census of 1851 Nova Scotia Heads of households
New Brunswick, Ontario (Canada West) Nominal
Quebec (Canada East)
Census of 1861 Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island Heads of households
New Brunswick, Ontario (Canada West), Quebec (Canada East) Nominal

Find out more about specific censuses on the Pre-Confederation census page.

Dominion of Canada Census

One of the first acts of Canada after confederation was the creation of a national census. The government took the first national census in 1871, and afterwards, they took national censuses every ten years. At present, the following national censuses are available to the public:

Census year and area Provinces and territories included Type of census
Census of Canada, 1871 New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec Nominal
Census of Canada, 1881 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan Nominal
Census of Canada, 1891 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory Nominal
Census of Canada, 1901 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory Nominal
Census of Canada, 1911 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory Nominal
Census of Canada, 1921 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory Nominal
Census of Canada, 1931 Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory Nominal

Find out more about specific censuses on the Dominion of Canada census page.

Censuses of the Prairie Provinces

Upon joining Confederation, a separate census for Manitoba was taken in 1870.

At the beginning of the 1900s, the population of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta was growing so quickly that a census every ten years was insufficient. A census specific to the Prairie Provinces was taken in 1906, and then every 10 years thereafter, alternating with the national censuses.

Census year and area Provinces and territories included Type of census
Census of Manitoba, 1870 Manitoba Nominal
Census of the Northwest Provinces, 1906 Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan Nominal
Census of the Prairie Provinces, 1916 Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan Nominal
Census of the Prairie Provinces, 1926 Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan Nominal

Read more on our page on Prairie census records.

Newfoundland and Labrador censuses

As Newfoundland did not become a province of Canada until 1949, it was not included in the Canadian census returns of 1851 to 1931. Only a few local census returns have survived for some areas of the province.

Labrador was counted in:

  • the Census of Canada, 1871 (Quebec, Labrador District)
  • the Census of Canada, 1911 (Northwest Territories, Labrador Sub-district)

A census was taken in Newfoundland in 1921, 1935 and 1945. Please check the lists of places and microfilm reel numbers (A to F), (G to K), (L to R) and (S to Z).

Volunteers are indexing the returns for 1921, 1935 and 1945. Completed indexes are searchable online on the Newfoundland Grand Banks Genealogy Site. That Web site also includes indexes to the few early census records that include names.

Published records

Many provincial, county and local genealogical societies publish lists of the individuals in the census (known as indexes) for their areas. The accuracy of the indexing can vary between databases and indexes due to the level of familiarity with local names.

You can search for these books in our Aurora catalogue. Many cover larger areas, such as provinces and counties. There are also some for smaller areas, such as townships in Ontario. Many of the books are online and searchable.

Each catalogue entry includes the LAC call number.

If the call number includes the word ”Genealogy”, then that means the book is in the Genealogy Room at our Ottawa location (395 Wellington). Example of a call number: Genealogy Ref. - CS88 A2 A38 2003

Terminology and abbreviations


Aggregate returns
A type of census that only includes the number of individuals, rather than listing their names.
Agricultural returns
Agricultural returns provide information such as acreage, livestock and agricultural products. Only some names on the Canada West agricultural pages are indexed in this database. More will be added in the future.
Enumerators and enumeration
Enumerators were the individuals who collected information for the census. This collection of information is known as enumeration.
Military census
A census taken of military settlements that included discharged soldiers and civilian settlers. These can be aggregate or nominal.
Nominal census
A type of census that includes names of individuals.
An original archival document
Another term for a census record or a list of people.
Copies of the specific census questionnaires. Censuses had several different questionnaires, and therefore several different schedules. Not all schedules have survived.
A handwritten or typed copy of original records


You will see many abbreviations on census pages. Some pages are written in English and some are written in French. It is helpful to know what the abbreviations mean for both languages.

There are some abbreviations that were only used in one year. Those are explained on the individual census information pages.

Here are the most common ones found in most years.

Place of birth in Canada

Alb / Alta
Bas-Canada (Lower Canada, Quebec)
British Columbia
Canada East (Canada-Est, Quebec)
Canada West (Canada-Ouest, Ontario)
Haut-Canada (Upper Canada, Ontario)
Lower Canada (Bas-Canada, Quebec)
Mackenzie District
M / Man
New Brunswick
in some older records, this means North Britain (Scotland)
Territoires du Nord-Ouest
Nova Scotia
Northwest Territories
O / Ont
Prince Edward Island
Quebec (Note that the Q sometimes looks like an L or an O)
Upper Canada (Haut-Canada, Ontario)
YT / Yuk
Yukon Territory

Marital status

célibataire (single)
veuf / veuve (widower / widow)
legally separated


There are many religious denominations and abbreviations. For example, Anglican was often abbreviated as Ang., C of E (Church of England) or Eg. D’ang (Église d’ Angleterre). There are many genealogy websites that give information about religious denominations and abbreviations.

Bible Christian
C. (of) E.
Church of England
C. (of) S.
Church of Scotland
Episcopal Methodist Church
Free Church – Presbyterian
Methodist Episcopal Church
Presbyterian-Canada and Lower Provinces
Presbyterian Free Church
Roman Catholic
Reformed Presbyterian
United Presbyterian
Wesleyan Methodist

Other abbreviations

N / Na
alien, meaning not a British subject/Canadian citizen
papers: applied for citizenship but not yet received their naturalization papers
retired (in occupation column) or rural (in place column)
Residential dwellings were described using letters and numbers such as “S2/6” for a stone house, two stories, six rooms or “W ½” for a wooden house, one story, two rooms.
Training camps in Canada
Étranger / Overseas
White, Caucasian
Red, Indigenous
Black, African
Yellow, Asian
French breed
English breed
Scottish breed
Irish breed
other breed
Blanc, White, Caucasian
Rouge, Red, Indigenous
Noir, Black, African
Jaune, Yellow, Asian
métis français, French breed
métis anglais, English breed
métis écossais, Scottish breed
métis irlandais, Irish breed
autre race/métissage, other breed
B wheat
Cwts./ Quint

Dashes and other symbols

In some years, these were used:

  • Items to be counted as one were indicated by either a downward stroke “|” or the figure "1."
  • Items to be counted as zero were indicated by a dash “-“ or the space was left blank.
  • A dash was written when NO was the answer or there was nothing to be recorded.
  • The number “1” was written when YES was the answer.
  • Quotation marks “ ” or the word “ditto” were used when the information in one line it the same as the line before.

Search tips


  • The Census Search database is an index, meaning it shows information as it was recorded on the original census pages. For this reason, there are often variations in names and other details such as dates, places and ages.
  • The quality of the scanned images depends on the quality of the microfilm.
  • Start your search with a minimal amount of information (names) and then use the filters to narrow down the results. Sometimes if you put too much information, you won't get any results.

Databases are created by indexers who look at the census returns and try to interpret the information on each page. Mistakes can happen because of:

  • poor handwriting in the original documents
  • The standard use of cursive, which can be difficult to read
  • poor quality of the digitized microfilm
  • pages that are hard to read because of faded ink or very dark ink
  • letters that look similar can cause confusion for indexers, such as u and n, o and a, L and S, etc.
  • in some old handwriting styles, a double “s” resembled the letters fs or p
  • confusion over how names were presented on a page, for example, a first name might be entered incorrectly in a database as the last name and vice versa

Census records relating to Indigenous peoples are sometimes kept in other archival collections, most notably RG 10.

Searching by name

You can search for an individual using only a last name or a first name in combination with some other search fields. When you are searching by name, keep the following in mind:

  • Try the * wildcard, for example Fran* for Frank, Francis, François, Franz, Francisco. The wildcard can be used at the beginning, end or in the middle of a name.
  • Some people went by their middle name or used a nickname, such as Lizzie for Elizabeth or Nellie for Helen.
  • Some first names were recorded only by the initial or an abbreviation, such as T. or Thos. instead of Thomas. Sometimes only a title was used, such as Mrs., Mr., Dr., Rev., Widow.
  • Some women were recorded by their husband’s name, for example, Mrs. Joe Chang. In Quebec, women were often recorded by maiden name instead of their married name.
  • Spelling variations of names are common in old records. Also, many names were written phonetically, as they sounded to the person recording them. For example, Thibault, Thibeau and Tibo are just three of many variations of that name.
  • Last names appear different ways depending on how they were recorded and how they were indexed. Example: McDonald, MacDonald, M’Donald, Mc Donald, Donald Mc
  • Some immigrants anglicized their names. Boisvert may have evolved into Greenwood. Johan Kuch may have called himself John Cook. Even the enumerator may have created his own variations. For example, an English enumerator might have written John Baptist instead of Jean-Baptiste.

Searching by place

If you can’t locate an individual when searching by name or if you want to search a specific area, there are several approaches to take.

The first step is to try to locate where the individual you are searching for lived. You can do this several ways.

If the person you are looking for lived in a city

You can try searching the annual city directory for that year. City directories list adult residents alphabetically and indicate occupation and address. Some digitized city directories are found at LAC in Canadian Directories Collection.

  • Find the person’s name in the alphabetical section to see their address.
  • Next, check the street section of the directory to see the names of their neighbours.
  • Now search for those names in the database.

If you know the name of a place, but not where it is located

Try our Post Offices and Postmasters database.

  • Search by the place name. If there was a post office there, it will indicate the electoral district and sometimes other location details. For example, the entry for Archville indicates that it was part of Nepean (Township) in Carleton District. So in this case, you would try searching for Nepean in the census database.

If you know where the place was located (after 1891)

You can try to search federal electoral districts maps. Not only were federal electoral districts redrawn after each census (after 1891), but the new electoral districts were used to draw the census districts for the next census.

Advanced technique: Searching by district or sub-district

Census returns from 1825 onwards are organized by province or territory.

  • Each province and territory is divided into districts, based on federal electoral districts, which usually correspond to counties and cities.
  • Districts are divided into sub-districts, generally corresponding to townships, civil parishes and larger towns.
  • Small towns and villages were usually enumerated within the surrounding township and not identified separately.

For some cities, some wards or suburban areas were enumerated in the surrounding county/district.

  • Check the list of Districts and Sub-districts for that year to find the relevant numbers (information is available on the web pages for that specific census).
  • In Census Search, click on Advanced Search in the top right corner.
  • In the When section, select the specific census year
  • In the Where section, click on more, then enter the District number and Sub-district number. In some census years, the Sub-district "number" is a letter.
  • In Locate in the archives, enter 1 in Page number.
  • From the results, click on any of the image thumbnails to view page 1. Note that some sub-districts have more than one part, so there may be more than one page 1
  • To move to the next image, simply use the arrows in the viewer.

Please note that not every census has page numbers.

Access the records

In 1955, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics was authorized by the Public Records Committee to microfilm and destroy the original paper census returns from 1881 onwards. That is why only microfilm copies exist. The original paper copies that still exist for census before 1881 are fragile and not available for consultation. The digitized microfilms are available.

Digitized records

All of the Canadian census records from 1825 onwards can be searched using the Census Search.

If you need information for pension or legal reasons, see Accessing my census information from Statistics Canada.

Other census records, including those early census records and related documents are available through Collection Search or the Héritage website.

Records that are not digitized

For census records that are not digitized, you will need to see them in person. If you cannot visit us in person, you may want to order copies or hire a researcher. Please note that microfilm copies of the census are available for on site consultation up to 1916.

Related resources

  • 1940 National Registration
    • The National Registration was a result of the National Resources Mobilization Act, 1940, which enabled the government to identify military and labour resources that could be mobilized for the war effort. It is an alternative to census records that are still restricted by privacy laws.
  • First Nations genealogy
  • Census related posts on LAC Blog

Our census returns are also indexed on other genealogy websites.