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Article Published Nov. 30, 2000
Vital Records in the Province of Quebec - Part III - How to Obtain Quebec Records For Vital Events After 1900
By: Xenia Stanford Biography & Archived Articles
Click here if you missed Part I
Click here if you missed Part II
The answer to the question of how and where to obtain vital records of the past one hundred years in North America is usually a fairly easy one. Most provinces and states have one central civil registry for all vital events for at least most of the twentieth century. From this registry you can obtain a form, then complete and send it to the central registry with your cheque or money order. In a few weeks your record will arrive in the mail.
Even if you don't know the exact details of the event, the civil registration office will likely conduct a brief search for no extra charge. Shouldn't one expect the same from the province of Quebec?
WHY QUEBEC IS DIFFERENT?
You may be able to just as easily obtain the form and send it to the proper jurisdiction in Quebec if you are entitled to access and can complete all the proper details. Ah there's the rub!
The first difficulty is records after 1899 have become more restricted. Only the office of the Registrar of Civil Status of Quebec (Le Directeur de l'état civil Québec) may issue the information on the record to an authorized applicant.
This would not be a problem if the records had been collected, filed and indexed centrally since 1900. If this were the case, one could just ask for the event with less detailed particulars.
However, Quebec did not form a centralized civil registry until January 1, 1994. For births, marriages and deaths since that date access is easy since all vital events must be registered with the office of the Registrar of Civil Status of Quebec and those records are indexed by date, name and type of event.
SO WHY DOES THAT MAKE IT COMPLICATED?
Prior to 1994 the records were recorded in churches or civil records offices in town halls. The registering body was allowed to keep one copy but also required by law to send one to the Prothonotarial office, which then forwarded the records to one of nine regional Archives Nationales.
In 1994 a new Quebec Civil Code came into effect and disallowed access to records from 1990 forward from any place but the office of the registrar. However, these records were dispersed among various regional offices, were not all indexed and were not necessarily organized in a fashion allowing for easy access by the registry office.
Therefore, in order for the office of the registrar to supply you the certificate or copy of the act of birth, marriage or death, you must supply them will all the primary information for the event so they know where to find it.
These necessary details involve knowing the full name of the person or parties named on the record, the location of the parish and municipality where the event was registered, whether it was a church or civil registration and the date of the event. Further if the church registered it, you must know the denomination and the parish location. If it was a civil registration, you must know in which municipality it was registered. If you don't know all these facts and expect a search to be conducted by the central registry, this is where you encounter the biggest stumbling block.
If you want to use the certificate or copy of the act to find out this information, then you cannot obtain a copy. What a Catch 22!
LANGUAGE IS NOT A FACTOR
The biggest fear I encounter among non-French speaking family researchers is that the language will be the biggest stumbling block preventing them from obtaining the certificate or the copy of the act.
However, language is simply not a problem. You can usually find someone able to handle your request in English. If the first person that answers the phone is not able to communicate in English (highly unlikely), you will be referred to someone else. I have called this office many times since its inception in 1994 and have never had a problem choosing whether to speak in all English or in French and be perfectly understood. Only on one occasion was I told the person's preference was French but if I cared to wait a few moments, I could be transferred to another agent. (The rest of the country should be as bilingual as the officials in Quebec).
I think we have all heard stories of the strictness of the language police. However, to my knowledge this has never impaired the obtaining of vital records from the office of the registrar.
In fact, the current Registrar of Civil Status of Quebec (Le Directeur de l'état civil Québec), Guy Lavigne, writes his guarantee in the English version of his statement on the Quebec civil registry website as follows: "Whether you wish to obtain information concerning a birth, marriage or death, or wish to obtain a certificate do not hesitate… We will make it a point to satisfy all your needs." (A Word from the Registrar at http://www.etatcivil.gouv.qc.ca/ENGLISH/EMessage.htm)
HOW TO OBTAIN MODERN RECORDS FROM QUEBEC EVEN IF YOU DO NOT SPEAK A WORD OF FRENCH
Nevertheless if you encounter or fear any difficulties communicating by phone, you have other options. You may obtain a copy of the appropriate application form in English from http://www.etatcivil.gouv.qc.ca/ENGLISH/Default.htm
You may complete this form in English and submit it with credit card payment while still online. If you don't trust the safety of this mode even though it is a secure site, you can print the form and complete it in English before faxing it to (418) 646-3255 with credit card details for payment.
Don't want to pay by credit card? No problem. Just print the form, complete it in English and mail it to the following:
205, rue Montmagny
G1N 4T2 (latest postal code according to website)
Happen to be visiting in or near Montreal or know the event occurred in this jurisdiction? Just take the form over to the Montreal office at this address:
2050, rue de Bleury, 6e étage
(Place-des-Arts metro station)
If you want to receive a copy of the form quickly without printing it from the website, you request a copy be mailed to you. For a faster means than mailing your request, use voice: (418) 643-3900 or fax: (418) 646-3255 for the city of Quebec and area and if you are phoning from outside of the province of Quebec. If you are visiting in or near Montreal, you can request a copy of the form by phone (514) 864-3900 or fax (514) 864-4563.
If you are visiting or living elsewhere in the province of Quebec and wish to phone, there is a toll free number (800) 567-3900 for voice only. This number will not work from outside the province. Remember to use the Quebec City numbers (for voice: (418) 643-3900 or to fax: (418) 646-3255).
Visiting in the province of Quebec and want to pick up a form rather than printing it? No problem here either. Just stop in at one of the following where copies of the forms are available:
· Caisses populaires Desjardins (Banks or financial institutions)
· CLSC and Ambulance Services
· Members of the Quebec Parliament
· Passport Offices
· Employment and Immigration Canada
· Centres Jeunesse-Québec (Youth Centres)
· Centres Travail-Québec (Manpower Centres)
· School Board and CEGEPS
· Funeral Homes
· Court Houses
· Municipality offices (Not available from the one in Montreal)
Even if you receive your reply in French, it is relatively easy to pick out the correct details or find someone to translate it for you. The completed details on the certificate or form, such as names of months, may even be in English.
The reason is that the certificate or copy form is filled in using the language of the original record. If the record was documented in English, the information on the certificate will be in English. For example, many Anglican or other non-Catholic and even Catholic churches, if attended by predominately English-speaking people, recorded the acts in English. The agents at the registrar's office will fill in the certificate as they find the information on the original.
SO WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
Since you can obtain the appropriate application form in English, complete it in English and easily decipher the results, is there any problem?
The answer I give you is that the question is not "Do you know enough French to obtain the document?" It is "Do you know enough about the event to request the record?" It is impossible to obtain satisfactory results if you do not know the exact data for vital events recorded before January 1, 1994.
IT'S NOT THE LACK OF RECORDS
Again the reason is not that the vital records were not recorded at all or were haphazardly documented. French priests recorded vital events from the earliest time they set foot on the North American continent. They also followed the French rules and guidelines for documenting vital records. These rules were much more consistent and stringent than those of other European countries and began much earlier than the English record-keeping systems which have influenced the rest of North America.
Another reason that doesn't usually apply is the loss of the data because one record was burned or lost. From 1674 the French law required that all vital records under French jurisdiction were to be copied and sent to a second repository. Even after the English conquest of former French lands in North America, the Quebec jurisdictions continued to follow this rule of duplication.
Of course, not every record was copied and sent since the person responsible for doing this was only human so occasionally the second copy was not made or not sent. Also since this was to occur at the end of the calendar year, a fire, flood or other mishap could have destroyed the sole copy before the second was made and sent. Also the recorder again being human may not have copied every exact detail from the register, since this took extra time and care.
However, for the most part the lack of records due to a sole copy being lost or destroyed in much less than in most other jurisdictions for the period before photocopiers, microfilms and computer backup.
The reason we cannot obtain Quebec records created before 1994 was that until then there was no central jurisdiction for the recording of events and even though now the function is centralized, the past records still remain in the order they were stored in at the various repositories, are located in one of two different locations and are largely unindexed.
THEN WHERE ARE THESE RECORDS AND HOW ARE THEY ORGANIZED?
Prior to the new Civil Code of Quebec, which came into force on January 1, 1994, Catholic parish priests were the only registrars of vital events until 1760. After 1760 non-Catholic ministers or pastors were also allowed to record the vital events. Duplicate copies of the records were to be made of the parish register at the end of the year starting in 1674 and sent to the diocese (headed by a bishop). These diocese offices eventually became the Palais de Justice (prothonotarial offices).
Since the districts or regions a parish was in changed as the borders evolved, where the records for a parish were sent can vary. Certainly one cannot rely on the county system set up by the British after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 (which granted New France to Britain). Parishes often continued to send the records to their original prothonotarial office. This meant that parishes might have sent records to different offices than did their neighbouring parishes in the same county.
Once the records were 100 years old they were sent to one of the nine regional "Archives Nationale du Québec" (National Archives of Quebec). Again this meant a parish might end up in a different regional archive than its neighbour in the same county or area. Since there were more Palais de Justice than there were Archives Nationale, this again was cause for confusion of exactly which records were where.
Following 1926 for births and 1960 for marriages civil registration in town or municipal halls was allowed. However, the churches could still continue to register these events. Thus locating records for the periods following from 1926 to 1993 inclusive for births and 1960 to 1993 inclusive for marriages became even more complicated. Now you had to know not just which denomination and which parish, but also whether it was a church record or a civil registration.
At least death records were not any more complicated than they had been before 1994 as there was no civil registration of these events until the new Quebec Civil Code came into effect.
So once you knew which type of registration and what jurisdiction had registered the act, prior to 1994 you had some hope of locating it within the prothonotarial for records over 100 years old and the archives offices for more current ones. The documents were sorted and kept in repositories in order of district, religion (Catholic or non-Catholic), town and parish (or sometimes district, parish and town).
Without knowing exactly when and where the event occurred before 1994 you could go into or write one of the prothonotarial offices and have a search performed for you. For records older than 100 years you could perform your own search at the appropriate archive office.
With the enactment of the new Quebec civil code, post 1899 records were gathered at one of two offices of the Registrar of Civil Status of Quebec: Quebec City or Montreal. The pre 1900 records still located in the prothonotarial offices were moved to one of the nine regional archives and the Palais de Justice were closed when the transfer of records was complete.
Now records since 1900 are only available through one of the two offices of the Registrar of Civil Status. Although they will, as Monsieur Lavigne promised, still make it a point to satisfy all our needs, they simply cannot produce the record if we do not know when, exactly where it was registered and by what body.
The records prior to 1900, now in one of the Archives Nationales, are still available from the appropriate office. However, it is now on a more limited basis. Due to staff reductions the records clerks are only allowed to spend up to 20 minutes per request.
Only since 1994, have new records been scanned, computerized and indexed so that it is possible to search even if you do not have the complete data. This will help us more easily find those born, married or deceased since the new act came into effect. However, for anything else we must know the vital statistics details so we can inform the registry office. Then in turn they can determine where to find the record and send us back the information we already know!
Thus it is easy to see that unless and until the central government of Quebec gathers and indexes the massive volume of records, they have the same problem as you, the searcher.
OTHER COMPLICATIONS OR NOT
Some believe the cost is too high to obtain Quebec vital statistics. However, it compares favourably to some other provinces in Canada.
A certificate for any of the three vital acts from Quebec is $15 for regular service with an additional charge of $20, if you wish to take advantage of their "emergency" service (completing and shipping the certificate the next working day following the date your request is received). If you wish a copy of the act, rather than the certificate, it is $20 for each copy and an additional $15 for the rush service. Thus any rush service for a certificate or an act is $35 total. (All prices are in Canadian funds at time of publication of this article.)
The larger problem is not the cost but the lack of data. The certificate, like those issued by other provinces, contains only the basic information. However, in many other provinces and on Quebec records available from other sources for events before 1900, the copy of the act includes full details. In Quebec the copy you are sent now is not a photocopy of the original or a print of the microfilmed original. This is a mixed blessing since the agents must decipher the writing for you but they may succumb to human error in transcription.
More importantly this is less desirable though because the agents simply complete boxes on a pre-printed form. These boxes do not include some information of interest to family historians, such as names of godparents and the priest or minister on birth records. Thus the copy of the act you are offered for $20 is not really a full copy of the act.
Another problem is still the naming of the event. For those recorded in French churches, the acts were BMS for "baptême", "mariage" (one r) and "sépulture" (baptism, marriage and burial). In civil registers in French, the abbreviations are NMD for "naissance", "mariage" (one r) and décès (birth, marriage and death). So those used to BMD must be cautious of the date of the event for those marked baptême" and "sépulture" since they are not the dates of birth and death but of baptism and burial (or at least date of the church recording of the burial, which to complicate matters more, is not necessarily the date the body was inhumed).
A further complication is that all records after 1900 moved from the Palais de Justice (prothonotarial districts) to either Quebec or Montreal. Thus they are still not in one location. However, if you do apply at the wrong one of the two, you or your request (if you already mailed or faxed it in) will be referred to the correct one. Although the plan is to combine the records into one location and hopefully to fully index them, currently this separation by the two offices can still lead to delays in locating the record and fulfilling your request
REQUESTING YOUR INPUT
In future issues I will explain in detail what is required on the forms for requesting certificates or copies of acts as well as what information they contain. I will also give alternative sources for finding the information you need on your application, if you don't have the exact details or of discovering some of the missing additional information not given on the copies of acts you receive from the Registrar of Civil Status in Quebec.
In the meantime, I would like to hear from any of you who have encountered any problems with obtaining 1900 or later records and from any who have success stories to tell. I will compile these without mentioning the submitters' names so that others may learn from those who have already ventured forth in trying to obtain a post 1899 vital record after the new Quebec Civil Code came into effect.
More Quebec/French Research Resources