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Exploring Military Ancestors

The greatest single component of Library and Archives Canada's archival collection is military records. Most of us have ancestors or relatives who served in the First or Second World Wars, sometimes both, so these records are popular with researchers of all kinds.

About 8% of Canada's population, more than 619,000 Canadian officers and men, Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve personnel, nurses and chaplains, served during the First World War. There were more than 66,000 fatalities. LAC has a large collection of individual attestation papers digitized and free online, more than 600,000 of them. They each contain basic vital information and a physical description. Individual service files with much additional information are openly available in Ottawa, in which case you get to handle the original documents, or by written request for a copy.

1.1 million Canadians served in the three armed forces during the Second World War, nearly 10% of the population. More that 45,000 were killed in action and their vital information is on the LAC website. It complements that found through the Commonwealth War Graves Commision at Their full personal service files are openly available. Restrictions still apply for other WWII records.  See for how to access those records.

Once you've identified the unit your person served with, your next step should be the war diary for the unit. Information on availability is at First World War diaries are digitized and available online. Also look for books and other publications, including web sites identifiable through a general web search.

Complete files for 200 personnel, 100 for each of the World Wars, have been digitized and placed online as part of the Lest We Forget educational project at

LAC's military collection is much broader than the World Wars, starting with limited information from the French Colonial period. Be it the War of 1812, the rebellions of 1837-8, 1870 and 1885, the South African War, or militia and other service. Most of these records are available on microfilm.  For clients outside of the National Capital Region, microfilms can be borrowed through inter-library loan.

Records for military service after the Second World War are still with the Department of National Defence.

The Canadian Genealogy Centre has a useful starting point for exploring the whole military collection, including links to resources elsewhere, at

John D Reid
April 2010




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