BALSAC was initially the project of a historian, Gérard Bouchard, who had just completed his doctorate in France where he had used a new methodology developed in social history: the reconstitution of families from parish registers. After becoming a professor at UQAC, he undertook the construction of a population file by computerizing the births, marriages and deaths of the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean (SLSJ) and by applying the family reconstruction method to reconstruct the population of the region over a period of almost 150 years, that is to say, from the beginning of the French-Canadian settlement in 1837 until 1971. This first stage, which involved more than 660,000 records, was completed in 1986 and has led to numerous works in social history and historical demography.
During the second phase, the work was progressively extended to all regions of Quebec and focused on marriage records to allow the construction of what can be called the Quebec family tree and thus promote the exploitation of the file in human genetics. The name "BALSAC" comes from the initial letters of the first regions and sub-regions targeted by the expansion work. The decision was also made to prioritize Catholic records because of the lower quality and completeness of Protestant records, which made it very difficult to match them, the key to building a population file. During this period, an agreement with the Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) made it possible to add to the file the marriages from the beginning of European settlement in the 17th century to 1800. In total, more than 2 million marriage records were added to the BALSAC file during this phase, which was completed in 2011. This work of enriching the file has allowed various studies on the regional populations of Quebec and the implementation of a vast research program on hereditary diseases and population genetics based on a genealogical approach.
For the past ten years, a third phase of development of the file has been underway, under the direction of Hélène Vézina, demographer and professor at UQAC, who succeeded Gérard Bouchard in 2010. The main objectives of this new phase are 1) to add births and deaths to marriages for a complete family reconstruction; 2) to adapt the matching program in order to facilitate the connection with data other than those of the civil registry; 3) to extend the network of collaborations to allow the connection to various types of data; 4) to facilitate access to the data of the file by the implementation of Web portals.
With this in mind, from 2013 to 2017, BALSAC piloted the project to build the Integrated Historical Population Microdata Infrastructure of Quebec (IMPQ) in partnership with the PRDH and the Centre interuniversitaire d'études québécoises (CIEQ). This project allowed the pooling of existing demohistorical microdata sets on the Quebec population (from the civil registry and the Canadian censuses) as well as the integration of new datasets. Through the BALSAC matching program, vital statistics and census data have been matched, opening up a range of new research possibilities. During this period, Quebec births and deaths for 1800-1849 were added to BALSAC through an agreement with the Drouin Genealogical Institute.
Finally, since 2019, BALSAC has been piloting a new project, i-BALSAC, aimed at integrating and linking genealogical, genetic, and geographic data as well as developing analytical, statistical, and cartographic tools to optimize the exploitation of these data.
BALSAC now contains nearly 5 million civil status records for the whole of Quebec. More than 6 million individuals in 2.6 million families are listed, which allows for the automatic reconstruction of individual histories, family histories and genealogical lines over almost 400 years. The i-BALSAC project will add to BALSAC around 6 million birth and death records for the period 1850-1916. The work is based on automatic handwritten document recognition (HTR) and is being done in collaboration with the French firm Teklia. The use of this technology opens up immense possibilities for the further development and enrichment of the BALSAC file.
The institutional structure of the BALSAC database has evolved over the years:
- In 1976, UQAC established the SOREP research group (Société de recherche sur les populations).
- In 1982, SOREP became an interuniversity research group through a collaborative arrangement between Université Laval and McGill University.
- In 1988, Université de Montréal joined SOREP via a collaborative arrangement with its Centre de recherche en droit public.
- In 1994, SOREP changed its name to IREP (Institut interuniversitaire de recherche sur les populations) and welcomed Université de Sherbrooke and Concordia University as integral partners, followed by Université du Québec à Montréal in 1996.
- In 1998, Gérard Bouchard retired as director of IREP. He will, however, continue as director of the BALSAC Project until 2010.
Since 2010, Hélène Vézina, professor in the Department of Human and Social sciences at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, has been managing the BALSAC Project.