In addition to birthplace and religion, one of the most genealogically useful bits of information that the Canadian census might povide is that of the ethnic origin (“Origin” in 1871 and 1881; “Racial or tribal origin” in 1901 and 1911) of an ancestor.* As with all census categories, however, the data recorded on the census form is only as accurate as the information that was given to, and understood by, the enumerator.
I’ve noticed a tendency in some circles to emphasize that “the records can lie,” and that people “sometimes [or often] lied.” And in some cases, well, sure. But for most instances of inaccurate information, I really think that “lie” is rather too strong a term to use. Most errors were due to faulty assumptions and genuine misunderstandings rather than to outright falsehoods, I’m pretty sure.
Let’s say that an enumerator was visiting an orphanage that was associated with an Irish Catholic parish (St. Patrick’s Church, now Basilica, on Kent St. in Ottawa), that was founded in 1865 as “a House of Refuge for the Irish poor,” that was staffed by nuns (of the Grey Sisters of the Cross) of mostly Irish origin, and that was overwhelmingly Irish Catholic in terms of the ethno-religious background of its “inmates”… and if that enumerator listed an elderly Englishwoman as Irish in origin and assigned to her the birthplace of Ireland rather than England, well, I guess I’m more than willing to believe that this was an honest mistake on his part.
In the 1911 Canadian census, Sophia Scissons is found as an “inmate” at St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum (Ontario, Ottawa City, Wellington Ward, p. 9, line 17), age 87, birthplace Ireland, racial or tribal origin Irish, nationality Canadian, religion R. [Roman] Catholic. This information about her birthplace and origin was, as other records (her own, and that of her siblings) make clear, quite plainly wrong.
Sophia Scissons was born in Norfolk, England about 1826 (23 February 1826, according to the 1901 census), the daughter of Samuel Scissons and Mary Silvey (or perhaps Sylvain? on her Ontario civil death record, Sophia Scisson’s mother is given as Mary Sylvain, but siblings’ marriage records give the name as Silvey). She came to Canada in the 1840s (1848 according to the 1901 census, but these emigration dates tend to be a bit loose, in my experience), to settle at March township, Carleton Co., Ontario. At least three of her siblings also emigrated from Norfolk, England to March township: Samuel Scissons (1819-1915), who married first Honora Woods and then Sarah Ryan; John Scissons (abt. 1828-1882), who married Julia Lahey (daughter of Daniel Lahey and Catherine Lahey, of Ballymacegan, Lorrha, Co. Tipperary); and Emily or Emilia Scissons (abt. 1830-1875) who married John Tracey. A Letitia Scissons (abt. 1825-1900), who married John Kelly, widower of Mary Ann Shirley, may have also been a sibling.
Sophia Scissons never married; and she appears to have been a landholder and a head of a household in her right. In Belden’s Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Carleton
(1879), she is listed as the occupier (and perhaps owner?) of 50 acres at Concession II, Lot 21 in March township (with her brother John Scissons holding the other 50 acres of Concession II, Lot 21, along with 50 acres at Concession V, Lot 15 and 200 acres at Concession I, Lot 18 of the township of March). And in the 1881 Canadian census (Ontario, Carleton, March, p. 5, family no. 26), we find Sophia Scissons, female, age 45, born England, religion Catholic, Farmer, single, as head of her own household of one; while in the 1891 Canadian census (Ontario, Carleton, March, p. 9, family no. 39), Sophia Scissons, female, age 63, born England, father born England, mother born England, religion R.C. [Roman Catholic], Farmer, is listed as head of a household that now includes her nephew and godson William Tracey
(son of John Tracey and Emily Scissons). By 1901, however, nephew and godson William Tracey was now the head of a household which included himself and his aunt Sophia Scissons (Ontario, Carleton, March, p. 12, family no. 93).
And by 1911, of course, Sophia Scissons was living at St. Pat’s Home in Ottawa, and I have to wonder whether she knew Henrietta Moran
Sophia Scissons died at St. Patrick’s Orphanage and Asylum on 27 Dec 1915, and was buried two days later at St. Isidore, March township, with her nephews Thomas Scissons, Samuel Scissons, and S.J. Scissons serving as burial witnesses, and with the priest noting that her funeral had also been attended by “many others.” Both the church burial record and the Ontario civil registration list her age at death as 94.
For the most part, the “Origin/Racial or Tribal Origin” column of the Canadian census returns will provide important information that should lead outward and backward into a further exploration of relevant sources; but occasionally the information recorded in that column will turn out to be just wrong. In the case of the Scissons family, however, I think that the mistake over Sophia Scisson’s origins in the 1911 census was, when contextualized, pretty much understandable. The Scissons, who seem to have arrived in Upper Canada as a family of English Catholics (we’re not talking about one or two Anglicans who converted to Catholicism in order to marry RCs; these folks seem to have been Catholic from the get-go), very quickly established themselves as one of the leading family of the RC parish of St. Isidore, and at the same time married into the Irish Catholic families of March township to such an extent that, a generation of two later, their actual English origins may have been forgotten, except for, perhaps, their somewhat curious name.
*The 1891 census did not ask about origin, but did ask about birthplace of father and birthplace of mother, and also whether French Canadian. In addition to “racial or tribal origin,” the 1901 census also asked about “Colour.”