Upper Canada Genealogy, Tracing The Past Of Southern Ontario
I met Janice Nickerson at the Toronto Reference Library to discuss her unconventional career. A genealogist, she has decades of experience researching Upper Canada lineages. While she won’t trace your roots to Charlemagne, she’ll gladly look into your ancestors in the fur trade.
Upper Canada Genealogy specializes in a lesser-known timeframe of Canadian history. Upper Canada was the name of Southern Ontario from 1791 to 1841 — during that time, the colonized portion of Quebec was known as Lower Canada. Little else had been settled West of us. Records from this period are hard to trace. I wondered how and why Janice found herself specializing in such a niche (Upper Canada) within a niche (genealogy).
“Usually, you hear that a family transition triggers things and, in a way, that’s what happened in my family. My grandparents were in a car accident when I was eleven or twelve. My grandmother was in the hospital and my grandfather was staying with us.” Janice continues, “He was out of his mind with worry so my father kept coming up with ways to distract him.
“We used to have wall calendars that were about this big [poster-size], up on the wall. My father took an old one — the back side was blank — and got out a pen. He started asking my grandfather about his family history. My father wasn’t particularly interested,” she laughs, “but it did work at distracting my grandfather. I was watching, and my eyes just opened and I thought, ‘This is really cool!'”
Just like that, her interest was piqued. “Shortly after my grandmother died, when my father was sorting through her things, he found an envelope with his name on it. It was written in my grandmother’s handwriting. So, he opens the letter and finds a family tree — everything that she knew about her ancestors.
“That’s the family that really grabbed my attention, because they were fur traders with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The first four generations listed are men with no wives. She’s got the man’s name written, that he works for the Hudson’s Bay Company. She’s got a list of his children. No women. I looked at that and went, ‘Hmm.’ Of course, my immediate answer was, these were aboriginal women. My grandmother was probably omitting that, but she must have known.”
The realization that her family lineage may have been clouded by prudence sparked Janice’s intrigue even more. She wanted to learn about her aboriginal ancestors, and the ancestors before that. “So at the age of twelve, I’m writing letters to England,” she tells me. “I got one of these family history guidebooks about researching families in England and at the back it had county record office addresses.
“I didn’t know which county we were from, so I wrote to every single one.” Despite her over-zealous approach, Janice didn’t turn up empty-handed. “I got some lovely letters back from those record officers.” They put her on the right path. “That was my first introduction to how incredibly helpful people are in government offices and in libraries. You really just have to ask.”
Janice took her fascination with human history and put it toward an Anthropology degree. “As a child, I didn’t know how to research. I would come to the library and copy down everything I could find about a surname. I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t — I wrote letters to everyone I could find.
“I didn’t get critical about it until I was in university and started to get a sense of proper research methodology. At that point, I was curious about the idea of becoming a professional genealogist. There were two or three that I found — there were very few at the time — and when I asked them about it, they said, ‘Don’t! You can’t make a real living doing this. Forget about it.’ It was a good hobby, good retirement income for these women who were all in their seventies, but they’d all made a living doing something else or their husbands made a good living.”
So, Janice forgot about it. She went on to get a Masters degree in Anthropology, then studied five more years toward a PhD., but never lost her passion for family lineages. “All along, my theses were always genealogically related.”
She set her sights on a career as an Anthropology professor, “But somewhere along the line, I realized I didn’t want a career in the academic realm anymore. I started to re-explore the idea of making a living as a genealogist.”
She’s been working as a genealogist for twelve years now, but it wasn’t easy getting started. “There are more genealogists making a living now, but there are very few in Canada.” She got her start just before the internet sparked public interest in genealogy. “When I first started working professionally, all birth, marriage and death records were only available on microfilm at the Archives of Ontario.”
That’s all changed, which means that Janice’s research now includes online, library and archive sources. “From home, at three o’clock in the morning, I can now search [online] records and often find what I’m looking for.” While the indexing isn’t perfect for online sources, it’s still a great resource for both Janice and anyone looking to dig around in their own family history.
Janice was determined and, despite the odds, she made her career in genealogy. Today, she’s written two books of the subject and keeps busy as a full-time genealogical researcher. She brings closure to families and uncovers a little-known part of Canada’s past. She’s resourceful and persistent, and she’s created a business that she can stand behind.
Upper Canada Genealogy and Janice Nickerson specializes in tracing the family histories of Southern Ontario. She’s based in Toronto.
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