Canadiana-ana-ana-ana! Finding pre-1867 materials

Page spread of nineteenth century written records about Upper Canada rebellion, downloaded from Canadiana website.

The Law Society of Ontario started building their library collection in 1827 [1], so the Great Library is home to various historical and pre-confederation materials. However, you can find even more historical Canadian documents online through a source called Canadiana.

What is Canadiana?

Canadiana by CKRN (Canadian Research Knowledge Network) is a free database service that contains digitized content relating to Canada’s heritage. Canadiana is the result of decades’ work of several organizations whose missions were to preserve and facilitate access to Canadian content [2].

Canadiana has 3 main collections, focusing on materials published up to the 1920s:

  1. Monographs (includes books and pamphlets written about Canada or by Canadian authors)
  2. Serials: Periodicals, Annuals and Newspapers
  3. Government Publications (includes historical legislative materials, reports, and more)

A few search tips

Canadiana’s homepage comes with a single search bar, which is intuitive to most modern researchers. This platform’s strength and weakness is the sheer volume of content housed in its collections. Researchers can be overwhelmed by thousands of search results after hitting ‘enter’. Here are our best tips to navigate this resource effectively.

Consider your time period and jurisdiction

When seeking historical Canadian materials, it helps to know a bit about your jurisdiction’s history before starting your research. The Canadian Encyclopedia is one of our favourite authoritative (and free!) places to look for general information about Canadian history. Having a sense of when key historical events occurred can help you narrow your search results by date range. Knowing the former names of jurisdictions can help you craft better keyword searches as well.

Here are a few key dates and jurisdiction names to remember:

1791: Upper Canada and Lower Canada was established

The old Province of Quebec was divided into Lower Canada and Upper Canada as part of the Constitutional Act, 1791 [3].

If you are looking for materials that would have been produced in what we know today as Ontario, they may be titled or tagged with “Upper Canada” between 1791 and 1841. For the same time period, items with “Lower Canada” in the name are most likely to refer to the region we know today as Quebec.

1841: Upper and Lower Canada was merged to form Province of Canada

Due to rebellions in 1837-1838, Upper Canada and Lower Canada were combined to form the Province of Canada in 1841. As a result of the British Parliament passing the Act of Union, Upper Canada became “Canada West”, while Lower Canada became “Canada East”; both regions were controlled by a single government and legislature [4].

If you are seeking materials from this time period, “Province of Canada” may be a useful search phrase to locate official government documents. As an example, check out the 1841 Journals of the Legislative Council of the Province of Canada.

References to “Canada West” refer to the predecessor of the Province of Ontario, whereas “Canada East” is a former name for the Province of Quebec.

1867: Province of Canada was dissolved. Confederation created Ontario and Quebec.

On July 1, 1867, the Province of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia united to form the Dominion of Canada. Due to political tensions, the Province of Canada dissolved as part of confederation. Canada West and Canada East became known as the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, respectively [5].

Seeking a specific item? Get an accurate citation before you search

What happens if you have an incorrect or partial footnote citation?

To save time, we suggest locating the correct citation before you search Canadiana. With over 1.7 million pages in the Government Publications collection alone [6], you can get fewer, more relevant results if you use the right search words in the first place.

By searching all or part of the title or author information in a resource like Voila, the National Union catalogue by Library and Archives Canada, you can verify the publication information or locate alternate names for the publication. Another trick is to locate another secondary source (like a journal article) that cites the same resource and compare the citation against the one you have.

Read the search tips page and use the side-filters

Like most research databases, Canadiana comes with search syntax tips and symbols (like *, ?, and | ) to run more targeted searches. However, if you’re seeking a specific item or if you’re simply not turning up the right results with your keywords, we recommend reading Canadiana’s Search Tips page to refine your search results.

Canadiana’s default setting is to run a full-text search for your keywords. This powerful feature is handy if you’re looking for a specific phrase or keywords in the body of the text; however, this can produce many irrelevant results if you already have title and author information.

If you already have citation information, you can run a targeted search using the side-filters. In the example below, “Titles” is selected in the “Search in” drop-down to ensure we only get 669 results that must include the phrase “Upper Canada” AND keyword “Journal” in the title. In contrast, conducting the same keyword search without filters or syntax produces over 88,000 results!

Screenshot of search results on Canadiana after using search syntax. Searching “upper Canada” and “Journal” using the title filters on the left side of the screen yields 669 results.
Canadiana’s search results using filters and search syntax.
Alt text: Screenshot of search results on Canadiana after searching for “upper Canada journal”. There are 88,128 results if search filters and syntax are not used.
Canadiana’s search results without using filters and search syntax.

Wrapping up

Canadiana by CKRN is a rich resource of digitized pre-confederation materials. Before diving in, keep your jurisdiction names and dates in mind. Locating materials on Canadiana is much easier with a correct and complete citation. To make the most of this powerful platform, use the side-filtering and search tips to trim down your results lists.


[1] Deidré Rowe Brown, “The Great Library” (last visited 17 August 2022), online: Law Society of Ontario.

[2]History of Canadiana” (last visited 17 August 2022), online: Canadian Knowledge Research Network.

[3] Roger Hall, “Upper Canada” in The Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Canada, 2019), online.

[4] James Maurice Stockford Careless, “Province of Canada (1841-67)” in The Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Canada, 2022), online.

[5] P.B. Waite, “Confederation” in The Canadian Encyclopedia. (Historica Canada, 2019), online.

[6]Government Publications” (last visited 17 August 2022), online: Canadiana by CKRN.

Featured image credit:

Upper Canada. Civil Secretary. Records relating to the Rebellions.
B 36 – London District magistrates, reports of treason trials (December 1837), Ottawa, Library and Archives Canada (RG 5, Upper Canada Records relating to the Rebellion of 1837-1838 – 15688), online: Canadiana Héritage at 8-9.