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Identity Files

by Myron Momryk, Library and Archives Canada

Identity files represent some of the most useful archival materials for research into immigration and family history. The Li-Ra-Ma collection (Russian Consulate Records) at Library and Archives Canada is one of the better examples of this type of resource. This rich collection contains historical material on immigrants from eastern Europe and the Tsarist Russian Empire during the period 1900 to 1922.

These records were stored in 1979 at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. After negotiations, they were borrowed on an indefinite loan and transferred to the National Archives of Canada in 1980.

Concerns about whether the Soviet embassy might have laid claim to these records led to the decision to identify the material as the personal records of Russian consular officials. With the collapse of the tsarist regime in 1917, the new revolutionary government dismissed the consular officials. The Canadian government valued the knowledge and experience of these officials in dealing with ever-increasing numbers of immigrants from eastern Europe; in June of 1918, therefore, Canada offered to pay their salaries if they continued their immigration work. The last tsarist consuls stationed in Canada were A.S. Likhachev, K. Ragosin and H.I. Mathers. Their surnames formed the acronym "Li-Ra-Ma," which became the formal name of this collection.

The Li-Ra-Ma collection remains incomplete. Although the records cover the period 1900 to 1922, the vast majority are from between 1914 and 1922, and pertain mostly to immigrants in Montréal and Vancouver. The Passport/Identity Papers series includes approximately 11,400 identity files on individuals from the Russian Empire. Researchers should be aware that the files' contents vary and that some files contain very few documents.

The collection includes all kinds of personal documents that the immigrants brought with them to Canada, including birth certificates, old passports, records of exemption from military service, school records, marriage certificates, affidavits, notarial records, wills, proofs of identity issued by Russian Orthodox priests in Canada or by notaries, Russian military service and discharge papers, photographs, and a massive amount of correspondence with relatives in the Russian Empire and eastern Europe. Immigrants surrendered these records to consular officials in return for the identity cards they required to work and live in Canada.

To prove they were Russian citizens, applicants for entry into Canada had to complete questionnaires and provide photographs. These questionnaires provide detailed biographical information on the applicants. In some cases, the questions are in a bilingual Russian-English format -- a benefit to researchers who do not read Russian. The information provided by each applicant includes name and surname; occupation; date and place of birth; marital status; military service; present address; names and residence of parents; religion, nationality and citizenship of both the applicant and their parents; and other information regarding travel to Russia.

The Li-Ra-Ma collection continues to be a rich source of family history information for researchers, many of whom have exhausted other sources and despair of locating any information in North America on their ancestors from the Russian Empire. This was especially true in the years prior to 1991 when it was practically impossible for Canadian family-history researchers to obtain access to archives in the Soviet Union.

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