O Canada: How Her History Affects Recordkeeping

25 Apr 2013

Canada has had an interesting history. Parts of it have belonged at different times to France and to England. As a result, the kinds of records available vary from providen to province. It is critical to have a basic understanding of Canadian history before you undertake research there so you can understand what records are—and are not—available.

The area of Newfoundland and Labrador was founded as a England’s first territory in the New World in 1583. It was settled first by English, later joined by a large number of Irish. This area followed a British system of recordkeeping. It did not join Confederation until 1949.




The area that is today the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, was originally settled by the French. Knows as Acadia, this territory has a great deal of fertile farmland, as well as the large fishing industry. Acadia was ceded by France to Great Britain in 1710. After that, the legal system changed from the French system to English common law. If you are researching your French ancestors in the Maritimes, you will likely need to be familiar with both sets of records.

France continued to hold a large territory in North America even after ceding Acadia. The largest settled part of this territory was the area that is today the province of Quebec. In 1759 the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was fought near the city of Quebec, and the French forces lost to the British. Quebec was officially ceded to Britain by the terms of the Peace of Paris in 1763.

Britain was now faced with a problem. British North America now stretched from Hudson’s Bay down to Georgia. But it was not a settled and peaceful area. France and England had been at war for so long that each considered the other a mortal enemy. The Acadians who remained behind were still bitter over their loss to Britain. And the French-Canadians of Quebec were a recently conquered people.

On top of these problems the “southern colonies” stretching from New England to Georgia were experiencing widespread political unrest. Britain may have had the greatest army on the earth, but her leaders knew that if the entire continent broke out in rebellion, they would never be able to be victorious everywhere. Indeed, their forces could be stretched so thinly that they would face defeat everywhere.

Parliament decided to try to ameliorate some of these problem by pacifying the French-Canadians. In 1774, the Quebec Act was past. Among its terms, it allowed the French Canadians to pay their tithe to the Catholic curch instead of the Anglican church. It also implemented a dual legal system. Criminal law would henceforce be under the English system. But civil law, which impacted far more people on a day-to-day basis than criminal law, would continue to follow the “coutume de Paris” (the custom of Paris). These legal systems applied to all inhabitants in the colony, whether of French origin, English, or other.

The Quebec Act did achieve the desired result of pacifying the French Canadians who did not pick up arms against the British. Unfortunately, it was considered one of the Intolerable Acts by those southern colonies, and led directly to the start of the American Revolution two years later. The Coutume de Paris was followed in Quebec until 1866 when it was replaced by a version of the Napoleonic Code, still in French tradition and not English. When Confederation occurred in 1867, the other provinces (Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick) followed English law. This remained true for the other provinces as they joined Confederation.

Knowing just a small bit of Canadian history will benefit you greatly in your genealogical research. Knowing the timeline of the province in which your ancestor lived will alert you to different record sets that might be available. It may also alert you to the fact that you have to learn a foreign set of records (such as Quebec’s notarial records) in order to find more information about your people.