By GLORIA GALLOWAY
Wednesday, October 23, 2002
Personal information about Canadians who lived a century ago -- from prime ministers to poets to paupers -- will be available via the Internet for the first time today when the Mormon Church puts the country's 1881 census on-line.
The electronic version of the census is expected to be an invaluable tool for Canada's estimated six million genealogists, most of them amateurs. But it will also put within easy reach the records that paint a vibrant picture of what life was like post-Confederation.
Prime ministers Sir John A. Macdonald, William Lyon MacKenzie King and Wilfrid Laurier were included in the 1881 census -- the second conducted after 1867 -- as were authors Lucy Maud Montgomery and Stephen Leacock, poet Pauline Johnson and newspaper founder Henri Bourassa.
The church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is to announce that its transcription of the Canadian census taken 123 years ago is accessible free on its Web site at http://www.familysearch.org. The U.S. census of 1880 will be made available at the same time.
The site will provide individual snapshots of people who were alive when Canada was in its infancy -- when the transcontinental railway was being built and the telephone was just being introduced. The information was obtained by enumerators who travelled by horse and on foot through crowded cities and dusty towns to record information about Canada's 4.3 million people.
As a tool for genealogists, the on-line version of the census "really is powerful," said Perry Spice, a church member who has traced his family tree back to the 1700s.
"The biggest step forward is the fact that it's indexed. You just put in the name" and all matching entries for people with the same name who took part in the census will appear on the computer screen.
Over the past four years, more than a thousand volunteers from the church -- which encourages its members to do genealogical research as a way of promoting family ties -- have transcribed the data from the enumerators' handwritten records. With the help of the Institute of Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa, they cross-referenced it to make it possible to search names and addresses, religions, ethnic origins, marital status, occupations, birthplaces -- and the name of the head of the household.
The information garnered in 1881 was actually made public in 1979, but it has not previously been available electronically -- nor are the data obtained in the first census of 1871. Those wishing to conduct searches had to request the books for the specific location in which they believed their ancestors lived then pour over the documents page by page.
"This is so exciting," said Darlene Wilson of Mississauga, a Mormon who was stalled in her efforts to trace her family by the impracticality of obtaining census information the old-fashioned way.
Four years ago, after hours of searching through pages of the census at a church library in Toronto, she struck gold.
Her paternal grandparents -- William and Bethia Hunter -- had lived near Toronto but, "I couldn't find out where they had gone. I searched through the 1881 census and found that they had moved to a county outside of Barrie, [Ont.], called Vespra County," she said. "I was just so excited. I remember phoning one of my aunts in Toronto and saying 'I found them, I found them, I found them.' "
Ms. Wilson's other ancestors that she couldn't locate were included in the census.
Ottawa had been releasing census data after 92 years but that stopped with the 1906 and 1911 censuses because the Laurier government promised that subsequent census data would be kept confidential.
A census, "is a wonderful way to find connections," Mr. Spice said. But the reliability of the data is sometimes questionable.
"My paternal great-grandmother refused to give her accurate age whenever asked," Mr. Spice said. "I found her birth and her death records [where she could not prevaricate], and they seemed to be accurate. But, on three censuses, and on her marriage records, she fibbed about her age. She overstated her age when young, but at midlife, began taking years off."