Canadian Genealogy · Genealogy How Tos

How to find a family that disappeared from 1916 to 1921 – using Canadian census records

Thank you very much to the members of the Facebook group Saskatchewan Genealogy Network for the inspiration for this post.

The problem

You’ve found your family in the 1916 census but can’t find them in the 1921 census. What can you do? It helps first of all to know where to find the census records (for free). Note that neither Family Search nor Ancestry has them all:

Step 1: First search by name

You might find it useful to note down what you’ve tried as you go:

  1. Go directly to the 1921 census on Ancestry and try searching for your people: i) with full names; ii) with partial names; iii) with wildcards in their names; iv) with only last names; v) with no names but using names of parents; and any other creative search; and
  2. Try searching for your people on Library and Archives Canada with all the above, plus with last name, age and province only, i.e., [last name] Rose, aged 25, Manitoba only.

If none of that works, see below.

Step 2: If they are rural

Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 2.01.23 PMScreen Shot 2019-03-09 at 2.01.36 PM

  1. Here’s where things really start to get interesting. Go to the 1916 census and note down the elements at the top of the census: province, district, district no., enumeration district no., and name of city / town/ village / township or parish. See the sample above: Saskatchewan, Swift Current, #2, Village of Gravelbourg.
  2. Go to the Canada Census, 1921, Districts and sub-districts at LAC and find the corresponding district by first choosing Districts and sub-districts, then choosing province of Saskatchewan, then searching (CTL-F on a PC; CMD-F on a Mac) for the keyword of Gravelbourg on the page.Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 2.11.52 PM In this case, Gravelbourg moved from District #2 in 1916 to District #11 in 1921. See below.Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 4.43.50 PM
  3. Go to Ancestry’s Browse this Collection feature, and use the dropdowns at right to select the province, district, and sub-district. Be careful now, because the design of the page is misleading – the sub-districts scroll down. Find the applicable sub-district – in this case, #11, and click on it.Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 2.20.36 PM
  4. This will bring up the sub-district of the census, page 1. You’ll also see the filmstrip and the index (the mini-icons centred low on the page), as well as the number of pages. This is the slow part, but I’d advise ignoring the index entirely and reading through the entire sub-district census. After all, if you’ve already tried name-based searches, chances are your people’s names were either transcribed incorrectly, or misspelled by the enumerator.Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 2.24.04 PM

Step 3: What if you can’t find your town, or it’s too small to be listed?

In the above example, the town of Gravelbourg was listed in the sub-districts at LAC in 1921, making it easy to find. What if your town is too small, was absorbed by a neighbouring entity or disappeared, or your address is a farm in the middle of the countryside? You may be able to find them using the legal land description. For this example, I’m going to choose a farm and family at random: Manitoba, District #5 Marquette, Sub-district #10, Township 16, Range 21, W1 – the Thomas Rose family. Here they are in the 1916 census:Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 2.43.08 PMScreen Shot 2019-03-09 at 2.43.20 PM

  1. Take note of the family members, address and neighbours: Thomas and Jennie Rose, children Leslie, Morley, Willema, Phillis; with neighbours Michael Elyteski Charles Barwise, and George Patterson.
  2. Their address is 16-21-W1. That means Township 16; Range 21, West of the first meridian. For more on legal land descriptions, see this link from ISC.Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 2.48.00 PM
  3. Go to the Districts and sub-districts at LAC. There’s no town, but you can find the sub-district by using the province, district, township and range: Manitoba, Marquette, Township 16, Range 21. In this case, Sub-district #10 is now sub-district #24. Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 4.49.29 PMScreen Shot 2019-03-09 at 2.57.17 PM
  4. Go to the 1921 Canada census at Ancestry. Use the three dropdown menus at the right for province, district, and sub-district: Manitoba, Marquette, #24. Click on Sub-District 24.Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 3.01.00 PM
  5. You’ll find the first page of the census for Township 16, Range 21. There are 21 pages. Go through it page by page, and you may just find your ancestors. Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 3.00.42 PM
  6. Here is the Rose family: Thomas, wife Janet, children Willema, Leslie, Morley, and Phillis.Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 3.04.57 PM

Step 4: If they lived in a city

If your family lived in a large town or city, where it’s impractical to go through all of the censuses, you’ll need one extra bit of data: their address. You can find addresses in city directories.

If they lived in the prairies, you can find city directories for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba at Peel’s Prairie Provinces here. If they lived in BC, find the city directories at the Vancouver Public Library here.

After that, you can use LAC’s handy street indexes for big cities here. Here’s the results for the 1921 census for Pender Street in Vancouver, BC. Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 3.29.59 PMScreen Shot 2019-03-09 at 3.28.45 PM

For a deeper dive into using Henderson’s City Directories, see my post here.

Step 4: Try going backwards

If none of that works, try going at it from the opposite direction: by going backwards from 1926, using the 1926 Census of the Prairies. In this case, we can find the Rose family, still living in Marquette, but the sub-district is now 32. Note too that the neighbours are still the Pattersons.1926 MarquetteScreen Shot 2019-03-09 at 4.04.20 PM

Step 5: Try looking on a map

I looked in vain for an easy-to-use map of the 1921 electoral districts – ideally something with hi-res images that would allow me to do a search for my district. Well, one out of two isn’t bad. Here are 310 hi-res maps of electoral districts from 1915 at LAC. Hopefully, someone adds a lookup table at some future point.

Farm. Photo credit: Richard BH, Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).


What do you think? What did I miss? Please leave a comment below.




10 thoughts on “How to find a family that disappeared from 1916 to 1921 – using Canadian census records

  1. My husband’s father’s family was in the 1926 census but I don’t know where to look after to find them.

    1. Haha, thank you Val. I think the trick is really knowing where to look. After that, it’s following the bread crumbs.

  2. Although my ancestors are on the East Coast, I found your suggestions in general to be very informative. The blog is well written and concise, with excellent examples throughout to illustrate each instruction.

    1. Many, many thanks for stopping in to comment! This post took much longer to put together than I originally thought (4+ hours) because I kept thinking of more “what if” examples. If you have a follow up how to blog idea, I’m all ears.

  3. I ordered my great grand parents marriage certificate from 1922. It shows that he lived in Bethune prior to the union and she lived in Rouleau prior to the union. I search the census records individually for all the sub districts one by one that could apply and did not find either of them. Why do you think that is?

    1. Hey there Ashley – I don’t think I have enough information to answer you yet. Which censuses did you search? I’m guessing the 1921 – did you try the 1916 and the 1911? Where have you found them?


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