Reindeer in Canada

In the early 1900s, the introduction of reindeer to Canada was seen as a possible way of supplying food and bringing an economic boost to remote northern areas of the country. This animal had been domesticated in many other northern nations and had played an important role in sustaining the population. While reindeer meat, milk and other bi-products such as hides and horns can provide resources vital to life, these animals are also strong—packing or pulling heavy loads great distances. As well, they are naturally adapted to the northern climate and environment.

Black-and-white photograph of a photo album collage. There are five photographs showing reindeer pulling sleds of various kinds, with people in the background. The pictures are labelled and some of the people are identified.

Reindeer have been used as draught animals for hundreds of years. Here we see herders with reindeer harnessed to sleds possibly on Richards Islands, N.W.T., circa 1942 (MIKAN 4326743)

Several efforts to introduce reindeer to Newfoundland and Baffin Island had early success but the most successful example was the Alaskan experiment. The American government, urged on by missionary groups, purchased 1,200 Siberian reindeer from Russia between 1892 and 1902. Another small herd was bought in Norway and shipped to Alaska, along with a group of Lapp herders and their families, hired to manage the animals and train the local indigenous population to become herders.

Canada’s government began to study the results of the American experiment. A Royal Commission on reindeer and musk-ox was appointed in 1919. The dramatic growth of the Alaskan herd was impressive, several hundred thousand deer, spread across a hundred herds, with several hundred local indigenous owners and herders engaged in the enterprise. Fresh meat was now available for local consumption, and sold to the southern states for profit.

Black-and-white photograph of a photo album collage. Four photographs showing reindeer carcasses and skins drying.

Reindeer meat drying on racks and being lifted on a hoist (possibly Elephant Point, Alaska and Richards Island, N.W.T., 1938 (MIKAN 4326727)

Many groups pressed the Canadian government for action, resulting in plans to purchase an Alaskan herd and move it to a suitable site in the Northwest Territories. Two Interior Department botanists searched for a location with good grazing, recommending a headquarters be established (to become known as Reindeer Station) east of the Mackenzie River delta. A contract was signed with the Loman Bros. Company for purchase and delivery of 3,515 animals at a price of $150 a head. The reindeer drive was expected to take 18 months and cover 1,500 miles but incredibly it took five years and travelled twice the distance. In March 1935, Andy Bahr and his crew delivered 2,370 reindeer. Shortly afterwards, 811 fawns were born, bringing the final total close to the initial target number.

Black-and-white photograph of a photo album collage. Four photographs showing reindeer herds. Some photographs are taken from afar, others are close-ups of the herd.

Reindeer herds on a summer range and in a corral, probably in Kidluit Bay, Richards Island, N.W.T., 1941(MIKAN 4326736)

The early success was followed by a series of setbacks, culminating in the death of four Inuit owners and a Lapp trainer in a boating accident in 1944. It became more difficult to interest traditional Inuit hunters to abandon their customary lifestyle for the often lonely and monotonous life of a herder. Months of effort could be overturned in a moment as storms or predators could cause a stampede resulting in the loss of many animals.

Black-and-white photograph of a group of men standing around a small reindeer chute and pen.

Inuit were original owners and employees of the first reindeer enterprises in Kidluit Bay, N.W.T. (MIKAN 3406119)

As with the other Canadian experiments, the Reindeer Project did not achieve the success of Alaska’s venture. The herds under Inuit control were passed back to government control and the Canadian Wildlife Service administered the operation until 1974, at which time it was sold to a private owner, Canadian Reindeer Ltd., and remains a private operation today. Although the ambitions of early advocates have not been achieved, the efforts form an interesting piece of Canada’s northern history.

Related resources

There are hundreds of documents and photographs held in the Library and Archives Canada collections which reveal much more detail about the reindeer experiment in Canada. You can have a look at some of them by searching the following sources:

Government sources

Prime Ministers’ papers

Private papers

The North-West Rebellion (North-West Resistance)

There are few historical events in our national story that solicit stronger opinions and create more debate than the disputes of 1870 and 1885 between the Métis in Western Canada and the Government of Canada. Various names refer to these two series of events, and their usage often reflects the loyalties, opinions and even biases of the user. Today, we see the application of such terms as rebellion, resistance, insurgency and disputes.

A cartoon drawing of Louis Riel with an angel’s wings, a devil’s tail, and a halo overhead but off to the side. He has the stem of a maple leaf in his mouth, as if it were a blade of grass.

Louis Riel portrayed as a devil with angel wings, by Dale Cummings (MIKAN 3018796)

Arguably, the debate on the events of 1870 and 1885, Louis Riel, and the place of the Métis in our history and contemporary Canadian society has had an enduring effect on our national psyche. In March, 1885, an article published in The Globe of Toronto stated: “It is not given to every man to have caused two rebellions. In the history of the Dominion, Sir John Macdonald and his friend Riel alone have won that distinction.”

A black-and-white reproduction of a newspaper clipping from The Globe of Toronto in 1885. It is an article about the North-West Rebellion.

A newspaper clipping from The Globe of Toronto, 1885 (MIKAN 521291)

To put things into context, the 1870s saw the disappearance of the bison herds, pushing many First Nations peoples to near starvation. As for the Métis, the loss of the bison on which they also depended brought hardship that was further compounded by the end of the fur trade.

The Métis of the North-West Territories felt that the established North-West Council failed to represent their interests. They sought assurances from Ottawa that the titles to their river-lot homesteads and farms would be guaranteed in advance of any large-scale influx of settlers.

The Métis sent more than 70 petitions to Ottawa in an attempt to address these grievances, none of which were responded to. In the eyes of the Métis, the federal government was indifferent to any attempt to redress territorial grievances and protect occupant rights.

Frustrated white settlers newly arrived in the North-West Territories were also waiting for their property titles, as they were necessary for obtaining loans to improve their farms. At the same time, widespread dissatisfaction with the First Nations treaties and rampant poverty prompted Chief Big Bear, of the Plains Cree, to attempt to renegotiate the terms of the treaties. Hence, the First Nations issues and grievances were largely unrelated to those of the Métis and white settlers apart from their commonly held belief of a neglectful, distant and imperial Ottawa.

As a result, the Métis decided to resist any subsequent actions by the federal government. When Louis Riel organized an “illegal” provisional government, it incited Ottawa to assert its sovereignty in the North-West Territories.

A black-and-white print taken from The Illustrated London News, 1885. The sketch shows a column of soldiers marching through a winter landscape.

The Rebellion in the North-West Territories of Canada: Colonial troops marching over the ice of Nipigon Bay, Lake Superior, from The Illustrated London News, 1885 (MIKAN 2933970)

The North-West Rebellion (or North-West Resistance) was a violent, five-month uprising against the Canadian government, fought mainly by Métis militants and their First Nations allies.

A pen-and-ink drawing over pencil depicting a wooded battle scene with the Métis behind a barricade firing against the approaching British army. The Métis are greatly outnumbered.

Battle of Batoche, 1885, by Charles William Jefferys (MIKAN 2835223)

With the Métis defeat at the Battle of Batoche (in present-day Saskatchewan), the North-West Resistance had essentially ended. For many, including Louis Riel and Chief Big Bear, the consequences were swift and direct.

A black-and-white photograph of a man seated, wrapped in a blanket. He is looking directly at the viewer.

Chief Big Bear, 1886, by William Topley (MIKAN 3358338)

Métis and First Nations communities would suffer severe and lasting consequences from the events of 1885. In addition, relations between the French and the English and the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of Canada would be set back for years to come.

Objects used in Aboriginal communication

Long before European settlers came to America, Aboriginal peoples had developed communication systems that did not require writing or printing as was used in Europe or Asia. While it is generally acknowledged that Amerindians historically accessed their past primarily through oral traditions, we also know that they used physical means of communication for various purposes: for example, to communicate information; convey knowledge; commemorate events; identify certain titles, social positions and family ties; remember concepts, chants and ceremonies; and to situate past events in time and space.

Various modes of cultural transmission used drawings and symbols to express an idea or share information. Pictograms (stylized drawings used as symbols) were painted, drawn, traced, sculpted or woven using different materials. Themes often dealing with hunting, war and the supernatural world were represented in combinations of different colours, sizes and arrangements.

Written by a French Jesuit in 1666, “Mémoire au sujet des neuf familles qui composent la nation iroquoise [memoir of the nine families making up the Iroquois nation] (French only) includes drawings and explanations revealing how the Iroquois used pictograms to communicate information about family clans, military expeditions under way, the number of injured, etc.

These Aboriginal communication systems are found on bark rolls, animal skins, totem poles and rock faces (the images are known as petroglyphs). We also know that the Iroquois used—and still use today—special ceremonial canes covered in motifs representing the 50 chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederation, and that Amerindians sometimes made marks in sticks of different sizes to remember what they needed to discuss at meetings. They would also make notches in trees to indicate, for example, details of their travels through the land.


Black-and-white photograph showing five wooden totem poles. In the background are houses and mountains.

Totem in Kitwanga, British Columbia (MIKAN 3587914)

Because signs and symbols were used primarily as memory aids to illustrate concepts, they do not refer to specific words in spoken language; therefore they cannot be read in the same way as one would read a text. As valid and reliable as the written word, these mnemonic devices have the advantage of communicating information between people who speak different languages. Anyone able to recognize and decode the icons and symbols can decipher and understand the message, much like road signs today.

Métis Scrip

We are pleased to inform you that more than 24,000 references about money scrip (certificates) given to Métis family members were recently added online. These cancelled land scrip certificates were once issued to the Métis by the Department of the Interior in exchange for the relinquishment of certain land claims. A scrip would be issued “to the bearer” and could be applied to the purchase of, or as a down payment on, any Dominion lands open for entry in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. These scrip were awarded to Métis heads of families and their children in the amounts of $240, $160 and $80.

How to find references

  1. Go to the search screen for Archives Search—Advanced.
  2. In the drop-down menu, select “Finding aid number” and then in the box, enter 15-24.
  3. Screen capture of an advanced Archives Search with the first drop-down menu showing "Finding aid number" and the value of "15-24" and the second drop-down menu showing "Any Keyword and the value "Riel."

  4. In the next line, select “Any Keyword” and enter a family name, in this case “Riel.”
  5. Click on the “Submit” button.
  6. Screen capture of an Archives Search result screen of the previous search.

You can find more in-depth information about the Métis and the Métis Scrip records on the Library and Archives Canada website.

Arctic Images from the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Explorers and travellers have long been documenting their Arctic adventures in diaries, manuscripts, maps, sketches and watercolours. Their accounts portray the Arctic as a mystical land, whose inhabitants and way of life seem unspoiled, and this imagery was further disseminated to audiences abroad with the invention of the photograph.

The following photographs are part of the Arctic Images from the Turn of the Twentieth Century exhibition presented at the National Gallery of Canada. Featuring material from Library and Archives Canada’s collections, the exhibition showcases rarely seen images, which document photographers’ travels in the Canadian north. In many cases, these images present a romanticized view of the people and places.

One of the earliest images is this photograph of a hunter, taken by George Simpson McTavish while he was stationed at the Hudson’s Bay Company at Little Whale River, Quebec, in 1865.

Portrait of a hunter, a beluga, a seal skin “daw” (a buoy), and a kayak along the edge of the Little Whale River, Quebec. Photographer: George Simpson McTavish (MIKAN 3264747)

Portrait of a hunter, a beluga, a seal skin “daw” (a buoy), and a kayak along the edge of the Little Whale River, Quebec. Photographer: George Simpson McTavish (MIKAN 3264747)

The majority of photographers who ventured to the Arctic regions were men, and for the most part, were employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian government. Geraldine Moodie was one of the few female photographers. She had a successful photography studio prior to moving north with her husband when he was posted to the North West Mounted Police station in Fullerton (Qatiktalik in Inuktitut), Nunavut. Her portrait of an Inuit widow and her children, taken around 1904, is a good example of her beautifully composed images.

Widow and her children, Nunavut, by Geraldine Moodie (MIKAN 3376416)

Widow and her children, Nunavut, by Geraldine Moodie (MIKAN 3376416)

The vast majority of photographs of Inuit emphasized the ethnological attitudes of the era by presenting them as “types,” such as this 1926 image of an unidentified man.

Unidentified man, Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut, by Lachlan T. Burwash, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (MIKAN 3376543)

Unidentified man, Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut, by Lachlan T. Burwash, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (MIKAN 3376543)

In other cases, Canadian government staff took photographs to highlight federal government initiatives and policies, such as this 1948 image of four women looking at a family allowance poster. Below it, also from Health and Welfare Canada’s Medical Services Branch, is the portrait of Bella Lyall-Wilcox carrying her baby sister, Betty Lyall-Brewster. Taken in 1949, the lighting and composition of this portrait link it aesthetically to the pictorial tradition of the majority of photographs in this exhibition.

Women looking at a family allowance poster, Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq), Nunavut, by unknown photographer, Health and Welfare Canada (MIKAN 3613868)

Women looking at a family allowance poster, Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq), Nunavut, by unknown photographer, Health and Welfare Canada (MIKAN 3613868)

Bella Lyall-Wilcox (left) and Betty Lyall-Brewster, Taloyoak (formerly Spence Bay), Nunavut, by Studio Norman, Health and Welfare Canada (MIKAN 3613832)

Bella Lyall-Wilcox (left) and Betty Lyall-Brewster, Taloyoak (formerly Spence Bay), Nunavut, by Studio Norman, Health and Welfare Canada (MIKAN 3613832)

The Arctic Images from the Turn of the Twentieth Century exhibition opened on March 14, 2014, and will continue until September 1, 2014, at the National Gallery of Canada. For more information about LAC’s photographic collections portraying Inuit and the Arctic, visit our Project Naming web page.

Aboriginal Heritage Portal

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is pleased to announce updates to the Aboriginal Heritage portal. Representing Canada’s three Aboriginal groups: the First Nations, Métis and Inuit, the portal offers material organized by cultural group and subject, as well as resources for Indian residential school research.

Whether you are a first-time or experienced researcher, the portal will be the starting point for anyone interested in Aboriginal Heritage. It offers a wealth of resources held by LAC, ranging from archival and published materials, to research guides, tools and databases. These resources include existing material, such as the Indian Affairs Annual Reports, 1864-1990, as well as a new resource called the Guide to the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada “File History Cards, 1872-1984″.

Over the coming months, new research tools will be added to the portal as they become available.