How to get started
This page is organized to help the new researcher: first with links explaining how to find historic laws, then with sections specific to immigration and the constitution in Canada.
Last updated 7 Aug 2021.
From the library of Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, comes this excellent breakdown on finding historic laws in Canada.
Archived on the web but still useful. Read the “How to search for historic laws” above if you’re not sure how to use this link and then the intro here.
Could be described as a century of legislation – fully digitized Acts of Parliament. Choose your year. When I looked, there was 1901-2000.
Provides links and resources, some of which are available to the public.
Voting and disenfranchisement
This is a summary page of the federal acts and amendments regarding elections in Canada from 1873-2018. Use this as a quick-reference to pinpoint when an act came into force and when it was subsequently amended, revised, replaced, or repealed. In other words, understanding an act requires tracing it from its original drafting through to all of its changes.
It took me quite a while to find a copy of the original text disenfranchising the Chinese. So far, this is the best copy I’ve found online. It was published a year after the Electoral Franchise Act, 1885, came into effect (assented 20 Jul 1885), and it attempts to analyze all the legal cases involving voting at the time. As a result, it’s 1 part Act and 9 parts analysis, with huge amounts of footnotes, all of which gives me much needed context.
If this is something that interests you, I suggest you download a copy for yourself. There are lots of goodies in this text, which J.A. MacDonald (yes, that one) called, “…the greatest triumph of my life,” and yes, he was referring to his vision of the future of Canada as an “Aryan race.” (In this Act, he also wipes out 50% of the human population – women – saying we have “…legal incapacity…” and grouping us with “infants, idiots, and lunatics.” Nice. His vision. Not mine.)
If you’re not familiar with how legal documents are written, the beginning section often includes definitions. In this case, the stinger is hidden in the definition of who qualifies as a “Person” able to vote.
From the Electoral Franchise Act, 1885, s.1 (2), a Person able to vote is defined as:
“Person” (c) means a male person, (d) including an Indian, (e) and excluding a person of Mongolian or Chinese race…” [emphasis added]Hodgins, T (1886). The Canadian Franchise Act, with notes on the Imperial Acts relating to registration, and on the provincial franchise and election acts, with an appendix containing the provincial franchises of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island, pages 40-43. Toronto: Rowsell & Hutchison, Law Publishers. Accessed 4 Nov 2020 on Canadiana.ca.
So, legally, a Person was not an Indian, Mongolian, or Chinese.
To emphasize the illegality of registering an excluded Person, we have this from the Electoral Franchise Act, 1885, s.11:
WHO SHALL NOT VOTE AT ELECTIONS.
11. The following persons shall be disqualified and incompetent to vote at any election to which this Act applies… (c) Indians in Manitoba, British Columbia, Keewatin and the North-West Territories, (c) and any Indian on any reserve (d) elsewhere in Canada who is not in possession and occupation of a separate and distinct tract of land in such reserve, (e) and whose improvements on such separate tract are not of the value of at least one hundred and fifty dollars, and who is not otherwise possessed of the qualifications entitling him to be registered on the list of voters under this Act (f)Hodgins, T (1886). The Canadian Franchise Act, with notes on the Imperial Acts relating to registration, and on the provincial franchise and election acts, with an appendix containing the provincial franchises of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island, pages 109-111. Toronto: Rowsell & Hutchison, Law Publishers. Accessed 4 Nov 2020 on Canadiana.ca.
The Act disqualifies all Indians [sic] living on reserve, as well as all who are not living on reserve but who have failed to make improvements of at least $150 ($4153 in 2020) on their land outside a reserve. (From my work on homestead files, I can tell you that improvements are: building houses and barns, erecting fences, digging wells, and breaking raw land into agricultural fields.)
Further, to reinforce the disenfranchisement of Excluded Persons, we have legislation from British Columbia (where the majority of the 11,400 Chinese in Canada lived in 1886): An Act relating to an Act to make Better Provision for the Qualification and Registration of Voters, 1875. 38 VIC. No. 2, B.C. Appendix.
No Chinaman or Indian shall have his name placed on the register of voters for any electoral district, or be entitled to vote at any election of a member to serve in the Legislative Assembly of this Province. Any collector of any electoral district or polling division thereof, who shall insert the name of any Chinaman or Indian in any such register, shall, upon conviction thereof before any Justice of the Peace, be liable to be punished by a fine not exceeding fifty dollars, or to be imprisoned for any period not exceeding one month.Hodgins, T (1886). The Canadian Franchise Act, with notes on the Imperial Acts relating to registration, and on the provincial franchise and election acts, with an appendix containing the provincial franchises of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island, page 200. Toronto: Rowsell & Hutchison, Law Publishers. Accessed 4 Nov 2020 on Canadiana.ca.
Anyone who committed the crime of registering an Excluded Person was subject to a $50 fine (about $1342 in 2020) and a month in prison.
These two pieces of legislation, the federal and provincial, continued to act in tandem, reinforcing and supporting each other until the vote was restored to Chinese in 1948.
Historians break down the series of laws regulating immigration to Canada with a focus on race-based policies.
Digital copy of the Chinese Regulation Act, 1884 of British Columbia.
Copy of the original text for historical research.
William Maton has built a website where you can find a few Aboriginal treaties, a collection of constitutional documents, and provides a clear set of descriptions.
Courts – find court cases
NOTE: wills, probates, and divorces are often found at the archives.
Search the Supreme Court of Canada for court judgements from 1877 to present day. Very easy to use search engine, or browsable by year. Note that the Supreme Court is Canada’s final court of appeal, meaning it hears cases that have already been heard by the lower courts, provincial or territorial, in matters that are of national importance.
Search The Courts of British Columbia for court judgements from ~1990s onward for the Court of Appeal and the BC Supreme Court. Does not have historic cases.
Search the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) for all databases for Canadian cases and legislation. Now with an easy, centralized search function that is a joy to genealogy. From the site: “The CanLII.org website provides access to court judgments from all Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, federal courts, and the courts in all Canada’s provinces and territories. CanLII.org also contains decisions from many tribunals nationally.” It doesn’t have everything, but it has a great deal to find.
If not available above, send requests to the BC Archives. You will need specific information for these types of requests. See information page from the BC Archives here.
Historic laws are tricky to find online. The trick is knowing the right search terms, then where to look, then understanding what you are reading because laws are not written for the public.