By Nick Barnsdale
As provincial registry offices go all-digital, genealogists in Ontario are trying to preserve land ownership documents – and maintain important pieces of history.
“We’re really working to preserve the documents and make sure that they are available in as many localities as possible to ensure that there’s free public access to them,” said Heather McTavish Taylor, the president of the Ontario Genealogical Society (OGS).
The Ontario government announced in July 2020 that all of Ontario’s Land Registry offices will halt their in-person services on Oct. 9, 2020 and move to a digital version with scanned documents. The Central Production & Verification Services Branch, overseeing all land registry offices, cited that “the vast majority of customers complete their transactions online” as the main reason for the closure. Land registry documents will be scanned and uploaded online to OnLand, which charges a fee to access records. In contrast, showing up to an office and poring through papers has always been free.
McTavish Taylor said the OGS is working to find new homes for the documents to maintain free access for researchers curious about their family history.
“We are trying now to negotiate those local placement agreements for this latest round of documents,” she said. “It’s a very lengthy process.”
Land records are important to genealogists, as they are sometimes the only way to track distant ancestors. Some archives held by the Land Registry Offices go back to confederation, allowing people to find their first relatives who purchased acreage in Ontario. Wills also sometimes appear with the documents, which can help to identify a person’s family and children — information that often can’t be found on other records.
McTavish Taylor worries that the shift to digital could mean a great experience in genealogical research becomes impossible.
“It takes away the feeling of actually being in the place,” she said. “Sometimes it’s really interesting for a genealogist to go to the place where their ancestors were and look up the documents when they were there and then actually be able to go and see the property. It just changes the game. The treasure hunt that we all enjoy is kind of taken away.”
OnLand has nearly digitized all of the records in Ontario. The digitization process started around 30 years ago, according to McTavish Taylor. The government reportedly scanned documents and subsequently destroyed them in the original process. Older technology and a high workload for scanners caused some documents to become illegible and some of the information within them to be lost to history. However, McTavish Taylor said that the process and modern technology should eliminate concerns about bad scans.
Praveen Senthinathan, a spokesperson for the Central Production & Verification Services Branch, said that the goal is the best system possible.
“Ninety-nine per cent of documents requested are available online,” he said in an email. “The one per cent of records not available online are uploaded within 24 to 48 hours of a customer request. The Ministry is currently focused on digitizing the remaining records and is committed to continuously improving the land registration system.”
About 20 years ago, people formed an advocacy group for preserving land records called the Association for the Preservation of Ontario Land Registry Office Documents (APOLROD). They continue to be involved with the digitization process, sharing documents, information, and advice with the OGS, which is cooperating with the government of Ontario and OnLand to preserve the land records and improve the online experience.
“The ministry meets with the OGS on a monthly basis to discuss various topics related to land records, including digitization, accessibility, and preservation,” Senthinathan said.
While both parties are working together, the manner in which the ministry began the closure rubbed some the wrong way. The announcement came during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the offices were closed, and with little warning.
McTavish Taylor said the government didn’t properly consider the possible effects of the closure.
“It’s unfortunate that they decided to close the Land Registry Offices without, I think, proper consultation of all the stakeholders,” she said. “I think genealogists were mortified that they weren’t going to have access to this. I don’t think the ministry had any idea that we might be. We were never really considered a stakeholder. And [it] happening in the middle of the pandemic was just very quick. Anything the government does without consulting … is concerning.”
Regardless, she said she and the OGS are committed to working to ensure land records are rehomed and available to access for no additional cost.
“We’re really working to preserve the documents and make sure that they are available in as many localities as possible to ensure that there’s free public access to them,” she said. “If we don’t care about it, and we let them go, and then in 20 years we say ‘oh, we used to have land registries, that was a lot of great information, and now it’s gone,’ it cannot be brought back.”