What with the Mayflower story and the millions of people who set foot on Ellis Island, US arrivals seem to hog most of the attention when it comes to immigration. But not every family’s “how they got here” tale ends in the United States. Many start with Canadian immigrants.
Over the centuries, countless immigrants from the British Isles, Eastern Europe, Asia and, yes, even the United States, have answered the call to Canada. Some stayed to take jobs in cities or work on farms; others headed for Canada’s southern neighbor (maybe after sticking around awhile). It started with some 6,000 French immigrants who settled New France in the late the 17th century, and continues today as more than 200,000 arrive in Canada each year. Canada’s very character is defined by the successive waves of immigrants who settled its vast prairies and peopled its cities and towns.
Quick History of Immigration to Canada
Canada’s earliest arrivals came from Europe. In the early 1600s, Samuel de Champlain, known as the Father of New France, convinced French investors and officials to support his exploration efforts. He founded a settlement in Quebec in 1608.
In 1885, the completed Canadian Pacific Railway linked Ontario to the western prairies. Canada looked to Eastern Europe for settlers to populate its land. By 1914, 170,000 Ukrainians lived in Canada; the majority in the prairie provinces. Free land in western Canada also attracted American farmers in the early 1900s.
Preparing to Find Your Canadian Immigrant Ancestor
Researching in the world’s second-biggest country can be daunting. But here’s some good news: Canada has taken a leading role in putting key records online, many for free. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has an excellent guide to these records in the Immigration and Citizenship section of its Canadian Genealogy Centre Web site. Before you dive in, though, it’ll help to learn the approximate year and port of your ancestor’s arrival. The largest Atlantic Canadian ports were Quebec and Montreal in the summer, and St. John and Halifax in the winter. On the western coast, which saw a lower volume of immigration, the main ports were Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia.
Death records (kept by provincial governments) sometimes say how many years the deceased resided in Canada. Land records also are helpful because immigrants often applied for land shortly after arrival. The national registration of all Canadian adults in 1940 asked for the arrival year. LAC offers help with all these records, too—get the links here. And find more help researching Canadian ancestors in the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine.
Early Canadian Immigrant Records
Canada’s earliest official passenger lists date from 1865. But if your ancestors arrived earlier, you may find their immigration details in other documents: Ancestry.com and Ancestry.ca contains 193,000 names of immigrants between 1780 and 1906, taken from censuses, historical atlases, biographical extracts and other sources. Results don’t link to original records, but the citations will help you find originals.
- InGeneas has a free database of about 15,000 arrivals between 1801 and 1849 gleaned from various LAC resources. Matches include a citation and instructions for getting a copy of the record from LAC.
- Names of 33,026 immigrants held at the Grosse Île Quarantine Station starting in 1832 are on the LAC site. Click Search Help for instructions on obtaining copies of records.
- The New Brunswick Provincial Archives has a database of 23,318 Irish immigrants from 1845 to 1852.
- The Montreal Emigrant Society Passage Book lists 1,945 references to immigrants, most destined for Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario), who received aid from the society in 1832. You’ll get a citation for the original record on microfilm at the LAC.
- Olive Tree Genealogy links to various online resources for passengers to Canada (scroll down to see the links).
LAC’s Upper Canada and Canada West Naturalization Records database lets you search 3,344 names of those who applied for naturalization in Upper Canada (called Canada West for a time) between 1828 and 1850. The records are on microfilm at LAC and the FHL (keyword search the FHL’s online catalog for Canada naturalization returns).
Canadian Immigrant Passenger Lists
After 1865, passenger lists served as official records of immigration. The LAC holds surviving records from major ports on microfilm. View a list of ports covered, coverage dates and microfilm reel numbers here. The FHL has copies of records covering 1900 to 1935, as well as earlier lists for Halifax and Quebec. Other Canadian libraries also may have film for various ports; see if your library can borrow film through interlibrary loan.Ancestry.com and Ancestry.ca have a name index and record images in a database called Canadian Passenger Lists 1865-1935.
More Resources for Finding Immigrants to Canada
If your ancestor belonged to one of the following groups, additional resources may provide immigration information:
- Chinese: Thousands of Chinese moved to Canada—mainly British Columbia—to prospect for gold and work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1885, Canada imposed restrictions and a head tax on Chinese immigrants. An immigration ban replaced the tax in 1923, and Chinese immigrants already in the country had to register. The regulations were finally lifted in 1947. The LAC has a guide to researching Chinese immigrants to Canada here.
- Home children: Between 1869 and the early 1930s, Great Britain sent more than 100,000 orphans to Canada. Search names of these home children taken from passenger lists here. For more help, consult Researching Canada’s Home Children by John D. Reid (Heritage Productions, $9).
- Immigrants from the Russian Empire: From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, North American consulates for the imperial Russian government (which had control of eastern Poland, Finland, and most of the former USSR) kept records including passport applications and background questionnaires. Though many were lost, surviving records ended up with the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).The Canadian records, called the Likacheff-Ragosine-Mathers (LI-RA-MA) collection, has about 11,400 files dating from 1898 to 1922 on immigrants to Canada from the Russian Empire, including Jews, Ukrainians and Finns. You can download a PDF on this record series. Note that many of the records are in Cyrillic.
Records of Immigrants Crossing the US-Canadian Border
Can’t locate your US ancestors in that country’s passenger lists? You might want to look north. To this day, the world’s longest undefended border divides Canada and the United States. Migration across it was common; many folks went back and forth over decades. Immigrants often found it easier and less expensive to sail to Canada and journey overland to the United States. In fact, by the 1890s, steamship companies advertised passage to Canada as a way to avoid the US government’s rigorous immigrant inspections.