Even if you can't read French, tracing French-Canadian ancestors can be easier than many people expect due to the excellent record keeping of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada. Baptisms, marriages, and burials were all dutifully recorded in the parish registers, with copies also sent to civil authorities. This, along with the incredibly high rate of French-Canadian records preservation, offers a much greater, more complete record of people living in Quebec and other parts of New France than in most other areas of North America and the world. In most cases, French-Canadian ancestry should be fairly easily traceable back to the immigrant ancestors, and you may even be able to trace some lines further back in France.
Maiden Names & Dit Names
As in France, most French-Canadian church and civil records are recorded under a woman's maiden name, making it much easier to trace both sides of your family tree. Sometimes, but not always, a woman's married surname is included as well.
In many areas of French-speaking Canada, families sometimes adopted an alias, or second surname in order to distinguish between different branches of the same family, especially when the families remained in the same town for generations. These alias surnames, also known as dit names, can often be found preceded by the word "dit," as in Armand Hudon dit Beaulieu where Armand is the given name, Hudon is the original family surname, and Beaulieu is the dit name. Sometimes an individual even adopted the dit name as the family name and dropped the original surname. This practice was most common in France among soldiers and sailors. Dit names are important for anyone researching French-Canadian ancestors, as they necessitate searching the records under several various surname combinations.
French-Canadian Répertoires (Indexes)
Since the mid-nineteenth century, many French Canadians have worked to trace their families back to France and, in doing so, have created a large number of indexes to various parish records, known as répertoires or repertories. The vast majority of these published indexes or répertoires are of marriage (mariage) records, although a few exist which include baptisms (baptême) and burials (sépulture). Répertoires are generally arranged alphabetically by surname, while those that are organized chronologically usually include a surname index. By exploring all of the répertoires that include a particular parish (and following up in the original parish records), one can often take a French-Canadian family tree back through many generations.
The majority of published répertoires are not yet available online. They can, however, often be found in major libraries with a strong French-Canadian focus, or libraries local to the parish(s) of interest. Many have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and Family History Centers throughout the world.
Major online repertoires or databases of indexed French-Canadian marriage, baptism and burial records include:
BMS2000 - This cooperative project involving over twenty genealogical societies in Québec and Ontario is one of the largest online sources of indexed baptism, marriage, and burial (sépulture) records. It covers the period from the beginning of the French colony until the end of the XXth century.
The Drouin Collection - Available online as a subscription database from Ancestry.com, this amazing collection includes nearly 15 million French-Canadian parish and other records of interest from Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and many U.S states with a large French-Canadian population. Indexed too!
As in France, records of the Roman Catholic Church are the single best source for tracing French-Canadian families. Christening, marriage and burial records have been carefully recorded and preserved in the parish registers from 1621 to the present. Between 1679 and 1993 all parishes in Québec were required to send duplicate copies to the civil archives, which has ensured that the majority of Roman Catholic parish records in Québec still survive to this day. These baptismal, marriage and burial records are generally written in French (some earlier records may be in Latin), but often follow a standardized format which makes them easy to follow even if you know little or know French. Marriage records are an especially important source for immigrant ancestors to "New France," or French-Canadian Canada because they usually document the immigrant's parish and town of origin in France.
The Family History Library has microfilmed the majority of Québec Catholic registers from 1621-1877, as well as most civil copies of Catholic registers between 1878 and 1899. This collection of Québec Catholic Parish Registers, 1621-1900 has been digitized and is also available for viewing online for free through FamilySearch. There are a few indexed entries, but to access most records you'll need to use the "browse images" link and go through them manually.