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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.
For whatever reason your immigrant ancestors followed the call to Canada—and whether they considered Canada home or a means to get to the United States—we’ll help you learn how they got there.
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.
To offset the French fortress of Louisbourg in 1749, the British established Halifax. During and after the American Revolution, Loyalists (who’d taken Britain’s side) fled to Canada, where they could petition for land according to their rank. Many headed to Nova Scotia and Quebec.
In the early 1800s, while Britain was at war with France and the United States, arrivals to Canada slowed to a trickle. But that’s about when Scottish aristocrat Thomas Douglas (aka Lord Selkirk) sponsored settlements on Prince Edward Island, and on Hudson Bay Company land around the Red River in Manitoba. Once peace resumed, Britain encouraged immigration to protect its Canadian claims. Most British immigrants went to Upper Canada (now Ontario). Irish famine refugees flooded Saint John and Quebec between 1847 and 1852; it’s believed up to 5,000 died of typhus at a quarantine station on Grosse Île in the St. Lawrence River.
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.
In the 20th century, Canada’s population increased faster than that of any other industrialized country. Immigration peaked in 1913 and 1914, when Canada welcomed about 400,000, then World War I brought a sudden end to the movement of people. Immigration rose briefly in the mid-1920s, but the Great Depression curtailed it. The essay Forging Our Legacy details Canadian immigration from 1900 through 1977.
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 Website. 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.
Censuses may provide clues. Enumerations from 1901, 1906 and 1911 indicate an immigrant’s year of arrival. The subscription sites Ancestry.com and Ancestry.ca have the 1901, 1911 and several other censuses. Try city directories: If you first spot a name in a 1910 directory, the person may have arrived that year. Directories are available at LAC facilities; and, for many places, on Family History Library (FHL) microfilm. You can rent FHL film at a FamilySearch Family History Center.
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.
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.
- 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 Provincial Archives of New Brunswick 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).
Still can’t find your ancestor? Gather immigration data from documents such as church registers, local histories, tombstones and, especially for prominent individuals, newspapers in port cities.
Canadian Immigrant Passenger Lists
After 1865, passenger lists served as official records of immigration. The LAC holds surviving records from major ports on microfilm. You can view a list of ports covered, coverage dates and microfilm reel numbers. 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.
LAC has put record images from 1865 to 1935 online (they’re free). Image quality varies—if you can’t read one, the microfilm might be clearer. Search indexed passenger lists and other records in the LAC online Ancestors search.
But LAC’s name indexes cover only post-1925 records and city of Quebec records from 1865 to 1900 (Quebec lists include passengers who disembarked at Montreal between 1865 and 1921, because Montreal ports closed during winter when the St. Lawrence River froze). For other ports, you’ll have to search by the name of the ship, port of departure or arrival, or dates of departure or arrival.
Indexes to Quebec lists from 1865 to 1869 are on microfilm at LAC and the FHL (watch out for spelling variations). The free Nanaimo Family History Society Passenger Lists Indexing Project thus far covers Quebec ports (Montreal is included in the Port of Quebec) from Oct. 21, 1906, to Oct. 13, 1910. Scroll down to choose an alphabetical range and open each index page as a PDF.
If you can’t find your ancestor in an index, you can pore over the LAC’s online passenger lists by year. Search on your best guess of a year and a port, if you know it. Your results show passenger lists grouped by ship name. Click on a match, then View Image, and use the Page Navigation arrows to see all the pages in that list.
From 1919 to 1924, Form 30A replaced passenger lists except for those in transit to the United States. For each immigrant, the form reported such details as the ship name, departure date, arrival date and port, name, age, occupation, birthplace, race, citizenship, religion, destination and the name of the nearest relative in the country of origin. In a version of Form 30A used in 1919, children were typically included with the head of household, not on separate forms.
Until about 1922, officials were inconsistent in using the form: Some names may turn up on Form 30A and in passenger lists, and some may appear only on a list. These forms are on microfilm at LAC and the FHL, arranged in rough alphabetical order: Surnames starting with the same few letters are grouped. Some common names, such as Smith and Adams, are grouped separately. The LAC’s Form 30A Web page links to a list of microfilm reel numbers by surname. Note that most forms were microfilmed back to front.
Search for immigrants from 1925 to 1935 in the LAC’s online name index to more than 500,000 names. The original records aren’t online, but matches show a citation that’ll help you find the record on microfilm at the LAC and the FHL.
After 1935, passenger records are kept by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and you can request copies.
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.
- 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 can be found on the Library and Archives Canada website.
- 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.
Until 1895, border crossings in either direction weren’t recorded. Then the United States arranged with steamship and rail companies to track US-bound passengers. Most of these records have been compiled into the St. Albans Lists, named for the Vermont town where the US Immigration and Naturalization Service had its main office. The St. Albans lists, on microfilm at NARA and the FHL, cover all border crossings from 1895 to June 1917. From June 1917 until July 1927, they include crossings east of the North Dakota/Montana state line; and thereafter, they include crossings east of Lake Ontario. Border-crossing records are on the free FamilySearch website and part of the immigration collections in Ancestry.com and Ancestry.ca.
Plenty of people bucked this trend, traveling north from the United States to Canada. Between 1901 and 1914, more than 750,000 entered Canada over the US border. Many were returning Canadians, but about one-third were European immigrants who’d originally settled in the American West. If your immigrant ancestor arrived at a US port before going north, look for him in databases such as CastleGarden.org and Ellis Island covering the Port of New York. Ancestry.com’s Immigration Collection has surviving records of these and other US ports.
Before April 1908, Canada didn’t record arrivals across the US border. Even then, those who’d lived in Canada or had a Canadian parent weren’t recorded, nor were those who crossed where no port existed or when a port was closed. LAC has microfilmed border-crossing lists from 1908 to 1918. From 1919 through 1924, overland immigrants were recorded on Form 30A, similar to those who arrived on ships. LAC has indexes of crossings from 1925 until 1935, but since they also contain post-1935 data, they’re closed to the public. See the LAC’s information on records of Canadian border entries here.
Whether your ancestor was an early explorer, pioneer farmer, a fleeing Loyalist, or a determined immigrant passing through on his or her way to the United States, Canadian immigration records may hold the key to the “how they got here” mysteries in your family tree.