Mapping out your family tree

Creating your family story is a great opportunity to spend quality time and learn a little history, writes Dani-Elle Dubé. Here’s what you need to know to get started.


They say you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.

The old English proverb rings especially true for Canadians, considering a quarter of Canucks don’t know
where their ancestors came from, according to research commissioned by Ancestry.

Canada was a country built by immigrants — first the French and the British, followed by the Irish, Ukrainians, Germans, Greeks, Italians and every other nationality in between.

And ever since the first inhabitants called Canada home and welcomed European settlers, Canada has been a multicultural country.

While some may think it isn’t a big deal to know where their ancestors came from, knowing your bloodline could be helpful in ways you might not have even thought of.

That’s where the family tree comes in.

Sketching together your family tree takes time, patience and dedication, but it’s a great opportunity for families to spend time together and learn a little history.

“As a parent of young children, there’s nothing I’m more focused on as a project for my children because it really is a great thing to do with them and leave behind for them,” said Kevin James, professor at the University of Guelph’s department of history.

“The earlier parents start putting one together, the more parents can leave behind for their children to build upon and learn from.”

But putting it together can seem overwhelming. Where and how do you start? Who and what should you look for?

So here is everything you need to know about putting together your very own family tree.

Where to start and what to look for

Start with what you know and start young, James advises.

“When you’re young, you have access to the oral testimony of people who are maybe more knowledgeable than you and who have hopefully had discussions with their parents’ grandparents,” said James. “It’s a great launching point for Internet research.”

With names of important folks and perhaps dates in your back pocket, the next step is to scan government and other available documents that can be accessed through libraries, archives or online sources.

Now with the existence of online family tree builders (like Ancestry and Find My Past), many of those documents (like census records, birth and death certificates, etc.) can be accessed through one source, rather than making trips to various locations.

And there’s more help out there, if you’re a hands-on kind of researcher.

Local archives, like the City of Ottawa archives at 100 Tallwood Dr., have staff to help you. Just by calling ahead with a family name and/or the subject you’re researching, staff will pull all records related to your request and have them ready for you, free of charge. It’s treasure hunting at its finest.

The tools to use

Aside from online family tree builders, there’s a new trend emerging in genealogy: DNA testing.

DNA testing is a way to fast-track and find long-lost family connections, ethnic makeup and migration patterns of ancestors from as far back as 1,000 years ago, and can be done by purchasing kits online.

These kits are non-invasive and only require you to spit in a vial and mix it with a solution before sending it off.

“Sometimes there are gaps to what records are available to us through whatever circumstance,” said family historian Leslie Anderson. “This is where DNA comes in. It’s a new science and people are typically interested in it for health reasons.”

By knowing your DNA and through research of death certificates, you’re able to find out any health issues past family members dealt with, making it easier to understand what ailments your family may be prone to.

If you’re interested in making DNA a part of your research, Anderson suggests taking the test while an older relative is still living, so they can take it as well. That way, you can go even further back in your research.