How to find your ancestors at the Scotiabank Family History Centre, Pier 21 in Canada
Cara MacDonald presents an expert guide to finding ancestors at the Scotiabank Family History Centre in Canada, with a focus on locating Canadian immigration records from 1865-1935.
The Scotiabank Family History Centre at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is open year-round for visitors to come research their family history. Persons not able to visit the museum can submit a research request online via our website. A researcher is assigned to the request and will correspond via email to locate records or answer questions.
Since we are not a repository for genealogical archival holdings we utilise numerous online subscription based websites and our collection of genealogical reference books to aid in our research. Onsite patrons work side by side with an experienced staff member to uncover immigration records and family histories. Request are submitted from around the world concerning many different cultures, subject matter and geographic locations which means that staff have a thorough knowledge of genealogical sources on a global scale. Our researchers are very adept at searching databases, naming conventions, migration patterns and world history. We are often able to locate records for genealogists who have been searching for years.
Although we offer broad genealogical services, our specialty is locating Canadian immigration records from 1865 to 1935, covering all official Canadian ports of entry, most United States ports, as well departures from the UK and European ports. We will use these passenger lists in conjunction with census and birth, marriage & death records to help us find the information we need to move forward with our search.
Prior to 1865 there was no systematic record keeping which kept track of the settlers entering Canada, though there are a few odd passenger lists that survive from this period. If your ancestors immigrated to Canada before 1865, we use a variety of research techniques and sources to locate information and if unsuccessful, we will 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 by the Department of 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 any Canadian citizen 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.
Preparing for your visit to Pier 21
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. This is especially true of UK and Irish immigrants to Canada, who formed the largest group, by far, of newcomers to the country. There are millions of names of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish origin 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. We will work with you based on the information that you have. Our visitors are often surprised by what we are able to find in a short amount of time based on limited information. 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.
If you are unable to come visit us in person you can send us an online research request at any time.
Cara MacDonald is Reference Services Manager at the Scotia Bank Family History Centre.
(images: from top: Photograph of RMS Berengaria at Pier 21, 1928-1937. Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [DI2013.1606.3; interior photo © TMorash; Immigrant Children with Red Cross Port Workers, Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1948 © Canadian Register of Historic Places; Pier 21 sign © Taxiarchos228)