Every visitor who enters the Scotiabank Family History Centre is greeted by a knowledgeable and experienced staff member ready to help them with their research.
But responses staff often hear run the gamut from “oh, I was just curious, but I don’t think I have enough information” to “they arrived through Quebec City so you wouldn’t have anything for me here."
However, while it helps to have a full name and birth year to get us started (more on this later), our visitors are often surprised by what we are able to find in a short amount of time based on limited information. Our research capabilities are global and we are constantly adding newly digitized resources to our arsenal.
Before giving you some helpful hints to prepare you for your visit, here is a quick rundown of some of the records we are currently able to access. We have access to records for all Canadian and most United States ports of arrival, as well as some European departure records. We often use census records alongside birth, marriage and death records to help us locate additional information. If you are unsure who your first immigrant ancestor was, we will use these sources to work our way back in time.
Our main focus is on locating immigration records that fall between 1865 and 1935. Prior to 1865 there was no systematic record keeping which kept track of the immigrants entering the country, though there are a few odd passenger lists that survive from this period. If your ancestors immigrated to Canada before 1865, we can provide tips on sources to consult, archives to visit, and genealogical societies that may be able to provide you with additional information.
After 1935, the immigration records are held in Ottawa by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada [IRCC] in accordance with the Privacy Act. These records are not publicly available and have to be formally requested by the immigrants themselves, or can be requested by someone else provided the person has been deceased at least 20 years. We will provide you with the required forms and explain the legalities involved in requesting these records. If you or your ancestor was a War Bride, or came from the UK or the Netherlands after 1935, you might be in luck! We have access to U.K. departure records up until 1960, and we also hold a small collection of donated passenger lists mainly from the Holland-America Line.
Regardless of where your ancestor came from, if you know the date of arrival or the name of the ship, we can provide you with a ship information package which typically includes ship facts, oral histories, and a list of crossings. We currently have information on approximately 90 per cent of the immigrant ships that stopped in Halifax. Most of these ships also called on other Canadian ports, and we are continuously expanding our resources to include any missing ships.
Every search is different and so the amount of information required will vary. If your ancestor came to Canada between 1865 and 1935, it is best to come prepared with a full name, birth year and approximate period of their arrival in Canada. If the person you are looking for has a common name (and even if they don’t), then knowledge of travelling family members’ names and birth years will also be helpful. For people travelling alone, knowledge of their occupation, birthplace and the place where they settled in Canada will help us distinguish between the potentially many people with that name who entered the country. There are millions of names in the databases that we use, so it is important to know some of the additional details that will help us determine whether or not we are looking at the right person.
We understand that it can sometimes be difficult to obtain information ahead of your visit. This is perfectly okay. You do not need to come armed with a binder full of family lore in order for us to help you. We will do our best and work with you based on the information you have.
One of the most common problems we encounter has less to do with the information that you bring to us but with how the information was entered in the database itself. While a visitor that I worked with a few summers ago knew that his grandfather was named Piotr Gaczynsky, the person who transcribed the information from the record into the searchable database seemed to think that his name was Piots Basmnsky. This visitor even had his grandfather’s passport and had previously tried to find the record himself but had given up. We are thankfully experienced in doing wildcard searches and figuring out where these mistakes may lurk! Due to the passport’s stamps, I was able to narrow down the arrival and then proceeded to look through the list until I found the transcription mistake. The ink on the record had been blurred and so it was difficult to see what the letters were meant to be. In cases like these, it becomes extremely important to have solid dates to anchor the search.
It is also important to note that immigrants very often changed the spelling of their names after they got to Canada and that the immigration record will contain their original names. Spelling variations are often key to finding the correct immigration record. Piotr Gaczynsky became Peter Gazinsky in Canada, but the name on the record reflected the name on his passport.
If you do not have access to a passport or documents with exact names and dates, certain major events that may seem unrelated can also help us establish a timeline. For instance, the year a first child was born in Canada, the year of a marriage, a death, or a family move between provinces.
Having a bit of information ahead of your visit will ensure that you receive the most efficient service possible. The summer months are extremely busy and we work hard to ensure that everyone who walks in the door is able to work with a researcher in a timely manner. While we delight in breaking down stubborn genealogical brick walls, these are projects that often require many hours of work and so it can be difficult to undertake them in person during the summer.
We will always take a crack at the more difficult research when you are onsite, but it is definitely not unusual for us to ask visitors to follow up with us via email if it is apparent that the research is going to take a long period of time or if we require more information in order to perform an effective search. If you would like to undertake some research via correspondence, you can send us an online research request anytime at the following link:
We look forward to working with you!
- Access the forms online here: /research/immigration-records/sailing-out-of-different-port
- Please note this does not include military records and we have access to very few UK civilian departure records between 1939 and 1945.
- Here is a great blog post about why names were NOT changed at the port of entry on the New York Public Library website: https://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/07/02/name-changes-ellis-island