There are a few basic things you should know about how Quebec deals with its vital records. This is just a quick overview, and I've suggested a great book at the end of these notes if you'd like to look deeper into some of the history behind this subject.
Prior to January 1, 1994, there was no full civil registration of births, marriages or burials in Quebec such as we see elsewhere in North America.
Instead, the churches were all required to keep two copies of their registers, one of which was to be kept at the church, the other depositted annually at the office of the District Protonotary (which was often at the regional courthouse). The copy depositted at the courthouse became the civil register of vital records.
In 1927 municipalities were given the right to record birth records, but the majority of people still used churches to record the births of their children.
Until the 1960's there was no civil marriage in Quebec, that is marriage outside a church.
All civil copies of vital records more than 100 years old were kept at regional offices of the Quebec National Archives and researchers could consult them there. The rest remained at the office of the the local Protonotary (basically, the regional court house) and until early 1994 could be consulted by any member of a genealogical society.
In 1994 the system changed radically. The government took responsibility for registering births and deaths out of the hands of the churches and the church records of these events now has no legal weight. However, a church record of a marriage is still a legal document.
After 1994 the post-1899 records were moved into government facilities in Quebec City and Montreal. There is a death index and a marriage index for all of Quebec covering the years 1926-1996 which can be consulted at Quebec National Archives Branches. However, that still leaves births closed and an enormous gap between the years 1900 and 1925 for marriages and burials.
Historical and genealogical societies are negotiating with the government to have some of the registers from the turn of the last century re-opened to researchers but so far no luck.
As older civil registers are microfilmed, they are withdrawn from circulation at the archives to help preserve these fragile documents from more wear and tear.
Most (but not all) of the pre-1880 Protestant civil registers and the pre-1900 Catholic civil registers for Quebec are now available on microfilm which can be consulted at branches of the Quebec National Archives and many historical societies.
If you'd like to buy any of this microfilm, or just have a catalogue of
what's out there (I think the catalogue cost me about $10), you can
Fed. des familles souches Quebecoises
Alert readers can already see how problems could arise with this system. Here's a few I have found, just to give you an idea of how to approach these records:
the civil and church registers are not always exact duplicates--the way some records are missing it appears that a page might have stuck together as the clergyman was copying from the church register to the civil register. Other times it almost seems that the clergyman used one register and then the other and never bothered to reconcile the two--this is very rare, but I have seen enormous differences in the records contained between the two registers.
occasionally there are discrepancies in dates in the two registers.
sometimes a record in one register contains information the other lacks. I have seen a child identified as illegitimate in one register and not in the other; sometimes one register identifies the father of an illegitimate child and the other leaves this information out.
occasionally there are civil registers for a church, but no counterpart at the church itself and vice versa. Not all Protestant clergy were aware of the two register rule, I suspect. Some church copies of registers have been lost to fire. Because we know that the registers were not always exact duplicates, this is worrisome indeed.
Because illegitimacy carried a stigma, some Protestant families simply didn't bother to baptize illegitimate children. The Catholic faith put a high premium on baptism, and so it allowed people to baptize illegitimate children as "Inconnu(e)" which literally means unknown.
In Montreal there are whole volumes of indexing "Inconnu" children, children of unknown parents, many of these children baptized simply Marie Inconnue or Joseph Inconnu. Sometimes you can identify the families of these children through the census--that is, if the family reported the child to the census taker.
Another interesting type of record you will only see within the registers of Catholic churches is the rehabilitation of marriages. The Catholic church, until fairly recently, only recognized marriages performed in a Catholic Church as legitimate marriages. All other marriages--marriages in a Protestant Church, marriage by a justice of the peace, for example--had to be rehabilitated in a special service to be recognized by the Catholic church.
One other unusual entry you will very rarely see in both Protestant and Catholic church records is a notation that someone was buried by coroner's warrant.
What this means is that the person in question died under circumstances where foul play was a possibility, and so a coroner was called in to ascertain cause of death and rule out or confirm foul play so further legal steps could be taken if necessary. The coroner would investigate the death, convene a coroner's jury, present his findings, and if the jury agreed with his assessment then a warrant was issued to permit burial.
Most church records mentioning a coroner's warrant specify cause of death (often work-related accidents, drownings or heart attacks). If the church record is mute on cause of death (a rape-murder in a Sutton church's records was simply identified as a burial by coroner's warrant without cause of death given), local newspapers are a good source for this information. They always reported the findings of coroner's juries because unusual deaths were of great interest to their readers.
Prior to reform of Canadian divorce laws in 1968, it took a bill of Parliament to receive a divorce in Quebec. Especially prior to World War II, this meant that divorce was only possible for wealthy people and so divorce was very rare. All these divorces were published annually in the Canada Gazette along with other legislation. More modern divorce records are only open to the people involved.
It was more common, in the event of marriage breakdown, for couples to separate. Some couples went to notaries and had legal separation papers drawn up; in other cases the husband would simply put an advertisement in the local newspaper to the effect "that my wife has left my bed and board for no good reason and I will no longer pay her debts".
I have also seen cases where there are no legal steps taken at all, one member of the couple just walks away from the marriage and starts over again, often across the border in the U.S.
There's a few more facts you should know. Between the time of the British conquest and the late 1820's the Anglicans were the only Protestant faith legally allowed to keep civil registers. (There were a few exceptions granted on the Island of Montreal, but not in the Townships).
That's one of the reasons you will see far more Anglican church records listed in my indexes. The other reason is that the Anglican Church's Society for the Preservation of the Gospel (based in England) underwrote the cost of missionaries serving isolated regions such as the Eastern Townships. Most early pioneer communities in the first days of settlement could not otherwise afford a church.
That doesn't mean that dissenting Protestant faiths (all Protestants who are not Anglicans) weren't active in the Townships prior to that time--they were--but they weren't granted the right to keep civil registers. Some of them did baptize, marry and bury despite the government's ruling and kept just a church copy of their registers. Some of these registers can be found in the churches themselves and/or church archives.
Because there was such a shortage of clergy in the Eastern Townships even through the 1830's, the government tacitly acknowledged some of the work of the dissident ministers. In 1804 it legalized all the marriages performed by dissident Protestant ministers up to that time. In 1825 it again legalized all past marriages performed by dissident Protestant clergy in the St. Francis district (the area east of Lake Memphremagog).
Several of these dissenting Protestant ministers, especially prior to the War of 1812, came into the Eastern Townships of Quebec as circuit riders from the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. These older communites were more affluent and could support the cost of underwriting missionary work.
Presumably, the circuit riders took their registers back into the U.S. with them because I have not been able to track down any of these records.
Catholic missionaries also ministered to the first French-Canadian settlers in the Townships, who were a small, relatively isolated minority until the 1840's. Not all the missionary priest records have been found.
Vermonters should be aware that Catholic missionaries based in Quebec often went down to Vermont to baptize, marry and bury the Vermont faithful and brought these vital records back into Quebec with them.
This is just a quick overview of a fairly complex subject. If you'd like to know more, I recommend this book:
Noël, Françoise. Competing
For Souls: Missionary Activity and Settlement in the Eastern Townships,
1784-1851. ISBN 2-920812-13-0.