Family tree

Family tree

A unique population database is helping researchers trace the origins of Quebec society-with the click of a mouse
September 1, 2004
Do you know where your great-great-grandfather was born? What did he do for a living? Was his standard of living better than yours? And how many of his descendants—your relatives—still live in the area?
 

For curious Quebecers searching through the branches of their family tree, these are the types of questions that come to mind. But for Quebec genealogists who have turned the study of the average family tree into a lifelong passion, these questions can create pure and unbridled excitement.

The reason for the excitement? Properly compiled and organized, the information from the average family tree is helping Quebec genealogists get a clear picture of the province's population makeup, as well as its demographic, genetic, social, economic, and geographic development. It's also a valuable tool for analyzing the population's genetic background.

But how do researchers sift through the mountains of information? That's where BALSAC comes in. The new, state-of-the-art, computerized database at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi is being used to collect and classify demographic information about the Quebec population taken from public records. Considered the largest population database in the world, BALSAC was made possible with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which enabled the University to upgrade its powerful computer system to be able to store, categorize, and query information in the database according to standardized scientific criteria.

"The database is helpful for understanding Quebec's socio-economic development and for studying the geographic evolution of some forms of hereditary cancer," says historian and sociologist Gérard Bouchard, Director of the BALSAC project at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi. "BALSAC is extremely useful for both pure and applied research in a variety of scientific disciplines."

Although BALSAC has built its reputation on ease-of-use, some people are concerned that it may be a little too easy to access private information about Quebec's population. That's why a committee overseeing BALSAC is ensuring that database users comply with committee guidelines for ethical research and the protection of personal information.

"The database is particularly useful for studying a population's genetic background and the genetic mutations behind certain diseases," says Dr. Bernard Brais, a neurogeneticist at the Research Centre at the University of Montreal Hospital. "It used to take months to be able to track these mutations, but with BALSAC, we can see them in a few seconds."

Since 1989, the database has included information on the entire Quebec population. Eventually, BALSAC could be used to trace four centuries of demographic change among residents of New France in Quebec, and then to track migration to Ontario, Western Canada, and New England.

Benefits

It is said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Ignoring history also means losing an important source of information that helps us better understand the present and avoid repeating past mistakes. This is particularly true in the case of the settlement of Quebec and the history of its urbanization.

BALSAC had its humble beginnings back in 1971 when, interested in the origins of people living in the Saguenay region, Bouchard started digging through the birth, marriage, and death certificates of his fellow citizens. He was looking for socio-economic information that he could then classify and organize in the database. Since then, the database has become a valuable tool for a variety of researchers—sociologists, historians, geographers, and geneticists—because it quickly provides them with an accurate picture of the historical development and composition of Quebec society. This allows them to examine the social structure, economic conditions, cultural identity, urbanization, and prevalence of certain diseases in Quebec.

The information in BALSAC is helping researchers better understand how a people's socio-cultural needs are expressed through regional development. In particular, it's helping them understand the origins of our modern urban framework and how it affects the lives of today's city dwellers. Laval University geographer Marc St-Hilaire believes that BALSAC could also help us make better land-use decisions by using it to study the history of land development.

BALSAC's influence extends far beyond Canada's borders. Researchers in France, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand are using its data, and Swiss and French groups intend to model their own population registers on the database.

Partners

Supported by the public and private sectors, BALSAC has received financial assistance from the following organizations:

  • University of Quebec at Chicoutimi
  • Laval University
  • McGill University
  • University of Montréal
  • Fondation de l’Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
  • Fonds de recherche en santé du Québec/Réseau de médecine génétique appliquée
  • Valorisation-Recherche Québec
  • Hydro-Québec
  • Fonds NATEQ
  • Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada]
  • Quebec Department of Education
  • Succession J. A. DeSève
  • Fondation Jean-Louis Levesque

The computer infrastructure supported by the CFI is under the responsibility of four Quebec universities: the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, McGill University, Laval University, and the University of Montréal.

Learn More

Visit Le Centre de généalogie francophone d'Amérique and the Canadian genealogy Centre.