2020: A year of Canadian genealogy in review

I think we can all agree that this year has been like no other.

A year ago, none of us was wearing a mask, we’d never heard of social distancing, lockdowns only took place in prisons, and the Corona we knew was a Mexican beer.

While the COVID-19 global pandemic has been horrible, causing more deaths than imaginable, it has been a good year to be a genealogist.

A year of online learning, old and new connections, and research
Being confined at home gave us more time to explore and research our family history, some of us for the first time. A number of people kept busy scanning photos that had been tucked away for years in a closet or drawer.

We connected with family and made new family connections via email, text, social media, phone, and perhaps even a letter or two.

The British Columbia Genealogical Society wrote on their home page a sentiment that genealogists can understand:

“This year COVID-19 has made it more difficult to spend time with our family and friends but it has also reminded everyone something that family historians already know. You do not need to see someone to experience them as family.”

Although we’ve been unable to travel to our ancestors’ homeland or anywhere else since mid-March, we quickly learned to embrace online learning. We travelled virtually to genealogy societies’ meetings, lectures and conferences via Zoom.

Societies met the challenge of not being able to hold in-person events — in many cases with a lot of work and a steep learning curve. They opened their virtual doors to members and non-members from around the world, offering excellent learning opportunities and giving us a chance to hear speakers we wouldn’t have heard otherwise.

Ancestry, MyHeritage and Findmypast jumped on the virtual bandwagon and held several free Facebook Live sessions during which they answered our questions.

During this past, we also received an unprecedented number of free-access days to conduct our research in online databases.

Public libraries provided free home access to Ancestry, and Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec unlocked access to the Parchemin index of early notary records to residents of Quebec.

Despite social distancing and lockdowns in archival centres and libraries, some newspapers, primarily from British Columbia and Ontario, were digitized and uploaded to free websites.

As for new record collections specific to Canada, it wasn’t a banner year.

The pandemic also appears to have further extended the delivery time for WWI service files from Library and Archives Canada. The wait is now more than two years.

Here are some of this year’s highlights.

January
The Provincial Archives of New Brunswick released civil birth records for 1924 and made them available online.

Prince Edward Island opened adoption records on January 31, but adult adoptees and birth parents still had a one-year time period to choose whether they wanted their information shared.

February
Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec kicked off its 100th anniversary with plans throughout the year. In the end, it was a low-key celebration.

For its 75th anniversary, the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan launched a new online catalogue.

The Saskatchewan Genealogical Society, concerned about the lack of access to updated indexes for birth, marriage and death records in the province and the cost for copies of those records, launched a letter-writing campaign to the Minister responsible for eHeath Saskatchewan and MLAs.

Nova Scotia Archives launched Looking Back, Moving Forward: Documenting the Heritage of African Nova Scotians, an online resource with a range of historical information, such as court records, maps, photos, and land records, relating to African Nova Scotians.

Findmypast added Prince Edward Island directories and almanacs, from 1880 to 1899, with the yet-to-be-filled promise of adding more from across the country over the coming months. The British-based genealogy company also added three Ontario newspapers, Hamilton Daily Times, Toronto Daily Mail, and Toronto Saturday Night.

March
The Provincial Archives of New Brunswick added death records for 1969 to its website.

The winner of the 2020 RBC Taylor Prize was Mark Bourrie for his book, Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson. Published by Biblioasis, the biography follows the swashbuckling escapades of fur trader Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who helped found what is now Canada’s oldest corporation, the Hudson’s Bay Company.

With funding from the National Heritage Digitization Strategy, the University of Prince Edward Island’s Robertson Library digitized the Examiner (1847–1900) and the Island’s first French-language newspaper, L’Impartial (1893-1915), which documented the development of Acadian identity in the province.

The Forgotten Home Child, written by Genevieve Graham, became a bestseller soon after its release. The book is based on the true story of the almost 130,000 British Home Children, between 1869 and 1948, who were taken from orphanages, streets and homes and shipped to Canada.

Pandemic
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Social distancing, self-isolation, and hoarding toilet paper became the new norm.

Within 24 hours of the WHO’s declaration and federal and provincial governments issuing directives, genealogy societies in Canada and the United States started announcing they had closed their libraries and cancelled or postponed meetings, open houses, and conferences “for at least the next four to six weeks.”

Regional FamilySearch centers and libraries were asked to consider the direction of their local and government leaders. Most closed soon after. 

The Nanaimo Family History Society in British Columbia postponed its all-day workshop, scheduled for March 28, “until a later date due to ongoing health concerns.”

Ontario Ancestors’ Toronto Branch was one of the first genealogy organizations to hold a virtual meeting.

The Ottawa Branch of Ontario Ancestors marked its 50th anniversary in 2020 and had planned to hold a special Gene-O-Rama on April 3 and 4, with well-known speakers from Canada and the United States. The event was to be held in a school, but schools in Ontario were closed until April 5, and all people travelling to Canada from another country were encouraged to self-isolate. The branch cancelled the event.

The Saskatchewan Genealogical Society postponed its biannual conference that was scheduled to be held in Prince Alberta in April.

Public libraries in Canada, the United States and elsewhere in the world provided free at-home access to Ancestry until April 30, courtesy of ProQuest. This was extended a couple of more times, and then in December it was extended to March 31, 2021.

In the midst of the news about lockdowns, Ancestry.ca launched a blog.

During the last week of March, when much of the world was in lockdown, MyHeritage made its new photo-colourizing tool, MyHeritage In Color, free for one month. The genealogy company also donated 66,000 medical swabs, made for MyHeritage DNA kits, to Israel to help test for and combat coronavirus.

April
Almost 800 Ontario Vernon Directories were made available for free on FamilySearch, in collaboration with Ontario Ancestors.

The Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario completed their three-year project to digitize 225,000 pages of the Tweedsmuir Community History Books, thanks to a grant from Library and Archives Canada’s Documentary Heritage Communities Program.

The Kelowna & District Genealogical Society in British Columbia announced its decision to cancel their two-day conference, originally scheduled for the end of September.

May
Ancestry added Ontario marriage registrations for 1938 and death registrations for 1948.

MyHeritage added 345 Canadian newspapers to its site.

Manitoba virtually celebrated its 150th anniversary as a province. To mark the anniversary, the University of Manitoba Libraries, in partnership with the Manitoba Library Consortium, digitized more than 800 Manitoba local history books. The Manitoba Genealogical Society, as well as numerous donors across the province, provided many of the books that were digitized. 

Ontario Ancestors opened part of its webinar library to the public for free for three months.

The University of Maine launched a bilingual portal to Franco American heritage records from archives in the United States and Canada.

June
The Provincial Archives of New Brunswick added marriage records for 1969.

Ontario Ancestors held a virtual conference June 1 to 7, replacing the in-person event that was cancelled because of the pandemic. The event provided 15 hours of presentations. 

A multi-year project, called Loyalist Migrations, was launched. It plots the journeys of thousands of migrants, exiles, and refugees, who were displaced by the American Revolution. The United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada’s directory of more than 9,000 families who left the United States provides the foundation for the interactive map. 

After six years of lobbying by the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association, the story of British Home Children, along with profiles of some of the children who eventually served in one of the World Wars, were added to Veterans Affairs Canada’s website.

Royal BC Museum released more than 16,000 digitized photos of British Columbia Indigenous communities to the public.

This photo, taken in 1902, of an Interior Salish woman and child with baskets, sitting along the Fraser River in British Columbia, is one of thousands of photos of Indigenous communities, scanned by the Royal BC Museum. Source: Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC.

The National Institute for Genealogical Studies celebrated its 20th anniversary with an all-day event that included free virtual presentations.

Several provincial archives reopened by appointment only. The Prince Edward Island Public Archives and Records Office reopened to the public on June 22, at its new location in the Atlantic Technology Centre in Charlottetown. 

July
BC Archives released digitized marriage records for 1944 and death records for 1999.

To celebrate its 40th anniversary as a branch of Ontario Ancestors, the Quinte Branch surpassed 1.5 million records in its online finding aid. More than 166,000 names were added from local histories, directories, and genealogies.

Many genetic genealogists complained when Ancestry announced it would remove DNA matches that were less than eight centimorgans. Ancestry said there were a lot of false matches at seven centimorgans and less. It later extended the deadline to remove those matches until the end of August.

August
Nova Scotia Archives added to its website births for 1919, marriages for 1944, and deaths for 1969. 

Ancestry added Ontario birth registrations for 1914.

Prince Edward Island Acadians celebrated the 300th anniversary of settlement with celebrations at Skmaqn–Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst.

MyHeritage redesigned and improved its search engine to make it simpler to browse different record types and to visit recently added record collections.

American investment firm Blackstone became a majority owner of Ancestry, taking over 75 percent. A few months later, Ancestry’s president and CEO Margo Georgiadis announced she would resign at the end of 2020. She had joined the company in 2018.

September
Ontario Ancestors and FamilySearch announced a book scanning project. FamilySearch agreed to provide a specialized book scanner and volunteers in exchange for access to Ontario Ancestors’ library of books. Digitized documents will be publicly available on both websites. Scanning was supposed to begin in December 2020, but was delayed because of the pandemic.

Library and Archives reopened its service points in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Halifax.

The University of British Columbia created an online guide to Chinese-Canadian materials.

The Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists launched MemorySask: the Saskatchewan Archival Information Network, which is a database of descriptions of archival material held in Saskatchewan archives. It also hosts descriptions from archival repositories in Nunavut.

Group photo of the 10th Platoon, 2nd Company at the Canadian Army Basic Training Centre, Regina, Saskatchewan, October 1941, Ref. 2013-23-1. Repository: Saskatchewan Military Museum. Source: MemorySask, www.memorysask.ca.

Genetic genealogy helped the Toronto police solve the 1984 murder of Christine Jessop.

November
Mid-month, Library and Archives Canada partially re-opened its Ottawa facility to the public on a limited basis and by appointment. Due to pandemic lockdown restrictions, it closed again in late December.

The archives and records of Red Deer, Alberta consolidated the archives department and the records and information management department and moved to a new downtown location.

The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan completed the consolidation of all five of its locations in Regina and Saskatoon into the CBC building in Regina.

Ancestry added a Canadian Newspapers.com obituary index.

Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec added several new databases, including two on divorce records and War of 1812 militiamen’s land requests.

Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec made remote access to the Parchemin database free to all of its cardholders, who must be residents in the province. Parchemin is a tool that helps researchers find notarial records of early Quebec, from the earliest days of France’s colonization of North America in the early 1600s until the end of 1801.

December
More than 160 genealogy societies in Canada and the United States scrambled to back up data on their website and look at creating a new site when word got out that their website developer was closing his business at the end of June 2021.

In its review of the year, the Drouin Institute said it had shifted its focus to Ontario and Acadia, as well as adding the Protestant baptisms and burials in Quebec. The institute made available more than 500,000 new records and images on the website, Genealogy Quebec. Its indexing efforts included parish records pertaining to Indigenous peoples of Quebec.

All the best to you in the new year. I wish you many exciting discoveries in 2021.

Watch for my blog post, What’s in store for Canadian genealogy in 2021, at the beginning of next week.

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Posted On: December 31, 2020 at 06:09AM