This is the second of two posts exploring military files at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). If you’d like to start with the first post, see Exploring First World War Files online at LAC: A Top 10 List. In this post, I’ll talk about what it’s like to apply for a Second World War soldier’s military file under these extraordinary circumstances when archives have been limiting access or closed altogether. Although I’ve been applying for files for years, 2021’s curveball means some things have changed.
What is a military service file request for genealogy?
There are a whole host of reasons why people request military service files in addition to genealogy: pensions, lawsuits, scholarships, jobs, and membership in veteran organizations. It might surprise you to know these requests are processed by LAC (unless the service was in a more recent war and the files are held by the Department of Defence). For this reason, military service file requests for family history are (rightly) prioritized after those for veterans.
It appears the most common reason for genealogists to apply for military files is for research into the Second World War (for soldiers who did not die in the war). I spoke with the Reference Desk and they said that military files are popular: about every third call they receive is in relation to these files. I bet they’re popular.
Did I mention they are free (if you don’t count the ATIP fee)?
What to know to apply for a WWII file
I’ve been applying for WWII military service files for years. The process has changed over time and I would like to share with you some updated information. Because your circumstances may be different from mine, I will summarize what you need to know to make the request.
Did your person die in WWII?
Good news! You don’t need to apply for the file because it will be digitized and online.
In this post I am writing about the process for requesting military service files for soldiers who survived the Second World War. If your person was a member of the War Dead, find their information at Ancestry. You do not need a subscription to see Canada, World War II Records and Service Files of War Dead, 1939-1947, or Canada, Selected Service Records of War Dead, 1939-1945, but you will need to sign up for a free account if you don’t already have one.
Is your person living or deceased? How long deceased?
Privacy laws in Canada dictate three different treatments for WWII files for soldiers depending on if they are living or deceased, and if deceased, how long ago.
- Military service files for living survivors of WWII are only available with written consent of the individual.
- If the individual has been deceased less than twenty years, the file will contain less info and is only available by request of a relative: spouse, parent, sibling, child or grandchild. In this case, both proof of death and proof of relationship are required.
- If the individual has been deceased more than twenty years, no relationship is required but proof of death is required.
Not every soldier’s file is at LAC
Quick story: when I began researching the early life of my father, I had a bare handful of clues: a Merchant Marine card, his medals, and a few photos. I was wracked with curiosity about his time in the Second World War, but did not have enough information to make a military service request. It wasn’t until I located his call up letter and his military service number that I had assembled enough information for my application because I knew in which branch he served, and when.
Here he is: the man in the middle. Location unknown.
People served in a near limitless capacity in the Second World War, but not every file was retained by the archives. See Other records not held by Library and Archives Canada.
- LAC holds files for regular members and reserve members of the military – these are two separate categories – plus the Newfoundland Militia.
- There are a number of categories of files LAC does not hold and it’s worth carefully reviewing these before putting together an application and waiting years to find out there are no files or you’ve applied to the wrong place for them. This includes the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, Merchant Marines, and the Newfoundland Overseas Service. I was saddened to see LAC did at one point have records for Rejected for active Canadian Armed Forces service on medical grounds and for Called up for Canadian Armed Forces service during the Second World War (1939-1945) but never enrolled but they were destroyed in 1964.
- If your person was a Merchant Marine, you must make a request to Veterans Affairs Canada. See LAC’s Merchant Marine info page. I did this for my father’s file, meaning I applied once to Veteran’s Affairs for the Merchant Marine portion of his service, and then LAC for the Second World War portion.
Apply online or other ways… but there’s a difference
Military service file requests are requests for restricted records. Such requests are made through an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request online for CAD$5.00 by a Canadian citizen, permanent resident of Canada, or a Canadian corporation in Canada. If you are not Canadian, you will need to contact a Canadian to file on your behalf.
LAC strongly recommends using the online method.
If you prefer to submit a paper package, military service file requests may be may in person, by mail, or by fax. See the details under Submit a request to LAC for restricted records / In person, by mail or fax. Note that showing up in person will not help you jump the queue.
The current wait times are long. LAC suggests they are in excess of eleven months (which may be for veterans, because I’m still waiting for a file request I made in Nov 2018). LAC will call you if they have questions about your application. Be sure to provide your phone number.
What to include in the application package
Aside from the documents proving death, or relation, or permission, for your person of interest, these details are a must:
- All given names, and if your person had names that were not English in origin, it would be good to also provide their aliases, name variations, English names, and nicknames. For example, my father enlisted as “Wing See Yip” which was a surprise to me because in his life he went by “Cecil.”
- Date and place of birth (or if you have conflicting information, dates of birth)
- Date and place of death (if applicable)
- Rank and Military Service Number or Social Insurance Number**
- Approximate dates of service in the military
- Full names of parents, again with all variations for each as listed above. For example, “Elisabeth Axelsson” (name chosen at random) might have been “Bet” to her friends and “Libby” to her family.
**If you don’t have the service number or Social Insurance Number, LAC will need more information to make sure they locate the right file. I recommend if you do not have the service number to err on the side of providing more information rather than less. Imagine you are looking for George Brown, or Joseph Lee, or Jack Smith, and you can see why LAC is asking for secondary info.
The timeline for these applications is currently in excess of three years: if it takes you a little while to get the supporting information together, it’s worth the time to do so.
Do I request the “Genealogy Package”?
Well, that’s up to you. According to the website:
Please specify what document(s) you require. If you are doing family history research, we recommend that you request a “genealogy package,” which will include copies of selected documents from the file that highlight/summarize the individual’s service.Submit a request for restricted records at LAC
To find the definitive answer to this question, I spent a couple of mornings calling LAC.
I learned a “genealogy package” is a curated set of documents. The Reference Desk gave the following example: let’s say your soldier was injured during the war but recovered. The medical file could run many pages, and so a genealogy package would mean getting one page in the file to show the injury, but not every page because the information was repetitive.
If you want the full file, ask for the full file.
My step by step process for filing for an ATIP request in Oct 2021
First step: Online requests and forms to locate the link.
I read and agreed to the terms and conditions.
I filled in the form, and just in case, made sure to provide TWO phone numbers.
After completing the form, I got an email (email #1) with my request number and a link to pay the CAD$5.00 ATIP filing fee. I paid the fee and got a receipt (email #2) by email within a few minutes. The process was clear, but there was a big piece missing: I was unable to find a place to upload the supporting documents required for military service file requests. I picked up the phone and made another call to LAC.
Two days later, I received a confirmation email (email #3) for the ATIP request. It said,
Please be advised that LAC ATIP is operating at limited capacity and is prioritizing urgent requests related to medical benefits, social services, class actions, and legal proceedings. As such, we may not be able to undertake the necessary search of our records [emphasis added] and inform you of the status of your request within 30 days of its receipt.Response to ATIP Request
As well, I waited in vain for a call back from the ATIP Department about where to send my carefully assembled supporting documents in PDF. I responded to the confirmation email – the one with my ATIP File Number – with this message:
Thank you for the below email. In the ATIP filing process I was unable to find a place to upload the supporting documents requested by LAC for a formal military service file request. I know this is a general mailbox but in case it is efficient to do so, I am responding with the supporting documents for this ATIP request. Please confirm receipt of the files.Email to LAC
The next business day I received an answer (email #4):
Thank you for providing us with this additional information. This email is to confirm we received your documentation and that it has been added to your request.LAC Response
In the absence of further information I now consider my request complete. Now to diarize for (at least) three years hence, when I might see my files. Sigh.
Please write to your Member of Parliament
LAC needs your help. Let your MP know what you think about the current state of affairs at LAC. I paused from writing this post to write to my Member of Parliament. If you would also like to write to your MP, here is Find Members of Parliament, and here is what to call them: Styles of Address. [UPDATED 12 Nov 2021] The British Columbia Genealogical Society has put together a template if you’d like some ideas on what to say. I am sharing a link to their Remembrance Day newsletter with permission.
This entire process was eye-opening. I knew LAC had been mostly closed during covid, and that the requests for files had been piling up: if the staff can’t get into the building, there’s nobody who can fill file requests. In my many calls, I learned that LAC has laid off temporary and casual staff. The archives were running skinny before but now they’re ultra-skinny. Despite this, LAC staff were unfailingly polite and helpful, which is remarkable given how much frustration they must be hearing from Canadians, and how few of them there are to serve all of us.
If you are planning to call, you won’t be able to contact an archivist directly: you’ll get there by the main line and then be redirected. In my recent experience, the only folk returning calls were from the Reference Desk, even if I also wanted to talk to the ATIP department. Please relax and be patient: pour a coffee and read while you wait. Also, technology is not perfect. I will share with you that in one call, I was dropped on the way to the Reference Desk and had to start back at the beginning despite having waited a long time to get to that point. If you are enraged by things like this – and who isn’t – please take a deep breath before picking up the phone again. When you do connect to the Desk, you are unlikely to connect right away. Leave your name and phone number. They WILL call you back in a day, and they will answer all your questions. I learned so much I was inspired to write this blog post, to help get the word out on what’s been happening.
On another note, astute readers of this blog will notice I have used the terms “Second World War” and “WWII” interchangeably when the term for WWII is really “World War Two.” This is deliberate. “Second World War” is, so I understand, the Canadian phrasing, but the acronym, “SWW” is never used. Similarly, the Canadian term for “WWI” is “First World War” and not “FWW” – something to consider when you are researching Canadian history.
Thanks this week to the folks at LAC, who despite everything are still as friendly as ever, to CL for our long running conversations about military files, and to Margaret Dougherty and Shirley Johnson of the Facebook Group Canadian Genealogy.