Project Naming: celebrating the past and looking to the future

By Julie Dobbin

Since its beginnings in 2002 as an Inuit-focused project, Project Naming has expanded to engage all Indigenous peoples to identify photographs in Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collection.

The majority of individuals in the images of the collection have never been identified; they are anonymous. Additionally, archival descriptions relating to events or activities are absent or have outdated information (e.g., place names, band names or terminology). The information is based on original inscriptions and captions found on the records, and hence it reflects the biases and attitudes of non-Indigenous society at the time. Since 2002, approximately 10,000 images have been digitized, and approximately 2,500 mainly Inuit individuals, activities and places have been identified.

In honour of the project’s 15-year anniversary, a celebratory event took place over the course of three days in March 2017. It was held at LAC and Carleton University in Ottawa and involved Inuit, First Nations and Métis peoples as well as the general public.

Project Naming’s 15th anniversary event was not only a celebration of all the individuals who have been identified and of partnerships with Inuit communities, but also a celebration of Indigenous cultures as well as a chance to look back at the past to build a better future. Throughout the three days, Inuit, First Nations and Métis Elders shared their knowledge and made important recommendations on the future direction of Project Naming, and on the future of a country where Indigenous peoples are no longer unidentified, silenced and forgotten.

A colour photograph of a man from the Métis Nation wearing a beaded vest standing at a podium.

Clément Chartier, President of the Métis National Council, at LAC for the 15th anniversary event of Project Naming, March 3, 2017.

Although Project Naming has taken some important strides in undoing past wrongs, much more work still needs to be done. To mark the 15th anniversary, new official Facebook and Twitter pages for Project Naming have been launched. This greater presence on social media provides a new platform for non-Indigenous Canadians and Indigenous peoples to recount their stories, share their histories and continue the significant work that Project Naming has begun.

A colour photograph of two Inuit women looking closely at a picture. The older one holds the picture while the younger one takes a photo on her iPhone of it. Behind them are people talking and tables covered with papers.

Manitok Thompson (left) and Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merrit (right) identifying photographs at the Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa, March 2, 2017.

“When you see those pictures, it’s like coming home,” Inuit Elder Piita Irniq declared during the event. His statement indicates just how much power a photograph can have. Project Naming is therefore not simply about identifying people, places and things; it is about regaining what has been lost, finding oneself and being able to return home. Sessions at the event became about more than just identifying names. These sessions were about sharing knowledge, whether about clothing, physical traits, hunting, fishing, trapping, families or traditional ways of life. Most importantly, every photograph in every session was a means of sharing a story or personal memory.

A colour photograph of an older Inuit man wearing a traditional Inuit jacket who is standing in front of a monitor pointing to an image on the screen. Two young Inuit are watching and listening closely.

Elder Piita Irniq (right) and Nunavut Sivuniksavut students Gabe Klengenberg (left) and Aislyn Gizelle (centre) during a session at LAC for the 15th anniversary event of Project Naming, March 1, 2017.

I cannot speak for others, but I had the sense that those who attended the event left with more awareness than when they arrived. It was truly three days of education, an education that every Canadian would benefit from, and one that Project Naming is intended to foster. Every time a face was identified during the event, it felt like a victory, like a difference was being made and an identity restored. Having the chance to watch the Elders identify people and places was remarkable. What was even more incredible was the energy in the air, the feeling of collaboration, respect and reconciliation. Project Naming will continue the meaningful work it has done over the past 15 years; with new partnerships with Inuit, First Nations and Métis peoples, a positive difference will continue to be made. To all those who may not know about Project Naming and how to help, visit the web page and social media accounts, “like” the page, share the photos and help make a better Canada, one where people’s identity will not be erased but will instead be celebrated and honoured.

Promote and learn more about Project Naming:

A colour photograph of a young Inuit man looking at several large photographs on easels.

Curtis Kuumuaq Konek at LAC during the 15th anniversary event of Project Naming.


Julie Dobbin is doing her MA in Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University. She wrote this article during a practicum in the Exhibition and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Inuit women and seals: a relationship like no other now on Flickr

Seals are a central part of life and an essential source of locally-harvested food for Inuit peoples. Many traditions, customs, beliefs and oral histories revolve around the seal. Inuit peoples were and still are in an important and direct relationship with this animal. Inuit hunters have great respect for the spirit of the seal, an animal that is so heavily relied upon. Every single part of the seal is used, as the harvesting must be sustainable, humane and respectful. Most importantly, cold and harsh arctic climates demand that people have the right shelter and clothing to keep warm and dry, and seals help meet this need through their skins, fur and oil.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman standing in front of a tent, hanging seal boots to dry on a clothesline.

Inuit woman “Aasivak Evic” hangs kamiits (sealskin boots) to dry, Pangnirtuuq (Pangnirtung), Nunavut. George Hunter. Canada. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque (MIKAN 3198727)

Inuit women developed highly skilled techniques in order to treat and use seal in various ways throughout the seasons. They scraped the skins clean of blubber with an ulu (a traditional, women’s knife with a crescent-shaped blade).

Visit the Flickr album!

Inuit women and seals: a relationship like no other

By Julie Dobbin

Seals are a central part of life and an essential source of locally-harvested food for Inuit peoples. Many traditions, customs, beliefs and oral histories revolve around the seal. Inuit peoples were and still are in an important and direct relationship with this animal. Inuit hunters have great respect for the spirit of the seal, an animal that is so heavily relied upon. Every single part of the seal is used, as the harvesting must be sustainable, humane and respectful. Most importantly, cold and harsh arctic climates demand that people have the right shelter and clothing to keep warm and dry, and seals help meet this need through their skins, fur and oil.

Black-and-white photograph of an Inuit woman inside an igloo wearing a floral print parka and tending a seal oil lamp, with a young Inuit child wearing a fur parka.

Woman tending a seal-oil lamp inside an igloo, Western Arctic, probably Nunavut, 1949 (MIKAN 3202745)

Inuit women developed highly skilled techniques in order to treat and use seal in various ways throughout the seasons. They scraped the skins clean of blubber with an ulu (a traditional, women’s knife with a crescent-shaped blade) then stretched and dried them, as seen in this photograph of Taktu.

A colour photograph of an Inuit woman wearing a red cloth jacket, crouching on a rocky coastline and scraping fat from a seal skin with an ulu (a woman’s knife).

Taktu cleaning fat from a seal skin, Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut, summer 1960 (MIKAN 4324316)

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Transcribing the Coltman Report – Crowdsourcing at Library and Archives Canada

By Beth Greenhorn

In the spring of 2016, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) digitized A General Statement and Report relative to the Disturbances in the Indian Territories of British North America, more commonly known as “the Coltman Report.” Its digitization was in support of the 200th-anniversary events commemorating the Battle of Seven Oaks, organized by the Manitoba Métis Federation in June 2016.

Top half of Page 1 of William Batchelor Coltman’s report concerning the Battle of Seven Oaks. Handwriting in faded black ink on cream coloured paper. The writing begins before and crosses over the red vertical margin line on the left side of the page.

Screenshot of Page 1 of the Coltman Report, 1818 (MIKAN 114974)

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Library and Archives Canada to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples through a new digitization initiative

By Benjamin Ellis, Strategic Advisor, Public Services Branch, Library and Archives Canada.

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences is posting this guest blog in support of the Sharing the Land, Sharing a Future National Forum.

Established in 1991, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) travelled across Canada documenting the issues and challenges facing Indigenous Canadians and their communities. Over its six-year mandate, RCAP amassed thousands of hours of recorded testimony and hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, culminating in the publication of the 1996 RCAP final report complete with a series of recommendations for a renewed relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada.

Following the conclusion of the Commission, the entire RCAP archive was transferred to the National Archives of Canada, now Library and Archives Canada (LAC). The archive is a rich collection of scholarly studies, written submissions, oral transcripts, photographs, audio and video recordings, as well as duplicate digital files on floppy disks. To date, access to this collection has been facilitated through on-site consultation at LAC’s Ottawa location and through the submission of requests for reproductions.

In late 2015, organizers of the Sharing the Land, Sharing a Future National Forum, commemorating the 20th anniversary of RCAP in November 2016, approached LAC to propose the creation of a digital database of RCAP holdings.

LAC launched a searchable database of select RCAP records at the commemorative national forum. The database contains transcripts of more than 175 days of hearings; nearly 200 research reports; more than 100 submissions from tribal councils, organizations and interest groups; as well as RCAP publications and the final report.

The contents of the database were selected over the past year with LAC staff combing through the RCAP records, selecting documents for digitization, and conducting Access to Information reviews to ensure that the records could be made public. Several documents were recovered from the original floppy disks, which required LAC to use computers and software from the 1990s.

LAC hopes that the RCAP database will renew interest in this important inquiry which remains so relevant today.

Voices of the Past

By Harriett Mathews

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has roughly 30 million photographs from various collections in its possession, a large number of which have Aboriginal content. During my time here as part of the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP) working on Project Naming, I have been able to explore the database and discover breath-taking photographs from different Aboriginal communities all over Canada.

Correcting the Historical Record

Although the photographs themselves are quite wonderful to behold, the records often leave something to be desired. For many Aboriginal images, the titles contain antiquated and offensive language, or are simply vague. It is imperative that these records be updated with modern terminology and information gathered from members of the communities where these photographic records originated. The involvement of Aboriginal people in this process is crucial because these records depict their history, their culture, and their families; their voices are the ones that have been omitted and lost. As I myself belong to the First Nations, I have greatly enjoyed being able to share my culture and help restore the lost voices of photographs by helping to update the records.

One example is an image titled “Dirty Daisy and her baby.” The photograph depicts an Inuit woman and her child suffering from malnutrition. “Daisy” was not the name of this woman; it is more likely the name that was assigned to her by a government official. By calling this woman “Dirty Daisy”, the individual who wrote the caption effectively stripped her of both her dignity and her name. Hopefully, through Project Naming, the real name of this woman and her child will be uncovered. In the meantime, the record has been updated so that the title now reads “An Inuit woman (Daisy) feeding her baby while seated in a tent in Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut.”

Black and white photograph of a gaunt looking Inuit woman and child sitting in a small tent with cooking supplies in the background. The woman is feeding the baby with a rectangular bottle.

Inuit woman (Daisy) feeding her baby while seated in a tent in Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut (MIKAN 3855414)

Improving Access – Photo by Photo

Since Project Naming began in 2002, more than 2,000 photographs have been identified. Additionally, thousands of records have had inaccurate and insensitive terminology removed from their titles and moved into a general notes field in order to provide historical context and perspective. Identifying names, places, events, and cultural objects facilitates the sharing of Aboriginal culture and stories with all who are interested in searching the archives. These include stories about Aboriginal politicians, for example Inuit Senator Charlie Watt who represents Quebec. I had the pleasure of working on DIAND Album 38, which contains several photographs of young Charlie Watt and his parents, Daisy and Johnny Watt. The photographs take place at a party in Kuujjuaq (formerly Fort Chimo), Quebec, and even though the photographs are black and white, the vibrancy of that Inuit community shines through.

Photograph of a green album page with three black and white photographs (numbered 154, 156, and 157) with typed captions on white paper. The photograph in the top left corner is of an Inuit woman in a plain dress and plaid shawl standing on a porch with a little girl in a parka drinking glass of milk. The photograph in the top right corner is of two Inuit women in plaid shawls and flower headbands sitting in front of wooden crates, one holding an accordion, with a baby sitting in the foreground to the left and a little boy in dress clothes standing beside the woman with the accordion. The photograph at the bottom of the page is of a woman in a blazer and ribbon headband dancing with a man in a suit; the woman on the left is holding a man’s hand – the rest of the man is out of the shot – and there are three women and an oil lamp in the background.

Album page fifty-three with photographs of an Inuit woman and girl (Daisy Watt, possibly with Harriat Ruston), a group of Inuit women and children—Daisy Watt is playing the accordion, Christina Gordon is on the right, and Charlie Watt (Daisy’s son) is standing on the left—and S.J. Bailey and H. Lamberton dancing with two Inuit women—Daisy Watt is on the right with S.J. Bailey, the woman behind her is Susie, and Hannah (Susie’s sister) is on the left holding H. Lamberton’s hand—in Kuujjuaq (formerly Fort Chimo), Quebec (MIKAN 4326945)

Black and white photograph of five women, four of them seated and one on the far right standing with a baby wrapped in a plaid shawl. The woman in the centre of the photograph is playing an accordion, and the woman to her left has a young boy in her lap. Behind them are several wooden crates labeled “Marven’s Biscuits” and one marked “H.B.C. Wholesale Vancouver.”

A group of women and children at a party in Kuujjuaq (formerly Fort Chimo), Quebec, the woman playing the accordion is Lizzie Suppa and to her immediate left are Daisy Watt and Charlie Watt (Daisy’s son) (MIKAN 3855585)

Photograph of a green album page with three black and white photographs (numbered 158, 159, and 160) with typed captions on white paper. The photograph in the top left corner is of women and children sitting in front of several wooden crates labeled “Marven’s Biscuits” and one marked “H.B.C. Wholesale Vancouver.” The photograph in the top right corner is of two couples dancing while a woman plays the accordion. The photograph at the bottom of the page is of an Arctic ground squirrel in a grassy field with a rock in the foreground.

Album page fifty-four with photographs of a group of women and children [Lizzie Suppa is playing the accordion, seated to her left are Daisy Watt and Charlie Watt], two Inuit couples dancing [Johnny and Daisy Watt are on the left, on the far right is Lizzie (with her accordion again)], and a Siksik (an Arctic ground squirrel) (MIKAN 4326946)

Restoring Aboriginal Voices

All of these photographs are essential to the telling of Canadian history. They demonstrate the narrative of the relationship between Aboriginal people and the Canadian government, and most significantly, they tell the stories of the individuals in the photographs and share their culture. For decades, First Nations, the Metis Nation, and Inuit voices have been lost in these records. Project Naming is vital because it provides Aboriginal people a forum through which they can reclaim their stories and identities. I am glad that I have been able to contribute my voice, as a First Nations woman, to these records. There are so many stories to be told, and I am sure that as LAC continues to move forward in partnership with Aboriginal peoples, we will be able to hear them.


Harriett Mathews was an FSWEP student who worked in the Exhibition and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada during the summer of 2016.

The Inuit: Disc Numbers and Project Surname

Today’s Inuit use a combination of Euro-Christian given names with Inuit surnames. This has not always been the practice. Prior to the first half of the 20th century, the Inuit did not use surnames. Traditional Inuit names reflected things of importance (family, spirits, animals, the environment) and were neither gender-specific nor recognized shared family names.

By the 1920s, there was a push by missionaries, fur trade employees and government officials to identify the Inuit in accordance with European norms and the patriarchal social model. These groups believed that the lack of surnames and consistent spelling made it difficult to identify each Inuk for trading, census information, and other records. The introduction of disc numbers was implemented not only to identify Inuit, but also to administer the distribution of family allowance, other benefits, and health care.

A black-and-white photograph taken inside an igloo of two men reading a disc number attached to a boy’s parka.

Taking the census and checking on family allowance matters, Windy River, [N.W.T. (Nunavut)], December 10, 1950 (MIKAN 3380264)

At the time, several suggestions were put forward to the federal government such as introducing a binomial naming system with family names, standardizing spelling, creating individual RCMP files and obtaining fingerprints of each Inuk. The RCMP started fingerprinting but it was not well-received, largely due to its association criminal activity.

Finally, in 1941, the federal government chose to register each Inuk with a unique numeric identifier, which was stamped on a disc or printed on a card. These identifiers were often called “Eskimo disc numbers” or ujamiit (ujamik) in Inuktitut. The Inuit were required to carry these numbers on their person, so they were often sewn onto clothing or hung from laces around the neck. These numbers were used until 1972 except in Quebec where the practice continued for a few more years.

Following are three photographs of a family taken sequentially holding their disc number that was written on a chalkboard.

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuit man holding a small chalkboard with the number 6008.

Portrait of a man [David Arnatsiaq] holding a small chalkboard with the number 6008, at Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik/Tununiq), Nunavut, August 1945 (MIKAN 3606623)

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuit woman holding a small chalkboard with the number 6009.

Portrait of a woman [Tuurnagaaluk] holding a small chalkboard with the number 6009, at Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik/Tununiq), Nunavut, August 1945 (MIKAN 3606624)

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuit woman holding a small chalkboard with the number 6010.

Portrait of a woman [either Juunaisi or Eunice Arreak] holding a small chalkboard with the number 6010, at Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik/Tununiq), Nunavut, August 1945 (MIKAN 3606625)

From 1968 to 1971, the federal government with the Northwest Territories Council undertook to change the identification system from disc numbers to the use of last names under Project Surname. This project was headed by Abraham “Abe” Okpik who toured the Northwest Territories and northern Quebec (Nunavik) with a linguist.

Library and Archives Canada holds evidence of the disc number system in photographs and documents, such as lists of individuals and their disc numbers, as well as lists showing the transition to surnames and social insurance numbers. Note that these records are restricted as they contain personal information.

Naming Aboriginal Canadians

When doing historical research of any kind, researchers have to choose a variety of search words. They hope that by using the correct word they can locate and use both primary and secondary sources. Choosing the right search terms is a challenge at the best of times, but the challenges involved in finding Aboriginal content are particularly significant. Many search words reflect historical biases and misunderstandings. Over time, names or terms change entirely while spellings are altered to suit the period, location and circumstances.

And the terms are still changing.

There is little evidence that, as knowledge keepers, First Nations, Métis or Inuit were involved in the historical creation and development of the documents found at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). However, the individuals or institutions that created the documents left a strong imprint on them that is coloured by the why, when and where of their creation.

The language and imagery used in the past, however problematic, remain in the database descriptions. Terms such as “squaw,” “half-breed,” “massacre,” “uncivilized” and “victory” should be used with careful consideration and in an appropriate context.

A watercolour showing a woman wearing a red dress with a blanket wrapped around her head and shoulders. She is wearing snowshoes and looking off to the left. Behind in the distance is the silhouette of a church with a mountain behind it.

Indian squaw in her Sunday best with Montréal in the distance painted by Francis George Coleridge, 1866 (MIKAN 2836790)

A lithographic print showing a group of nine people, likely a family, including a baby, and three children sitting in front a tepee. One person is standing up and holding a rifle and two Métis men are smoking pipes.

Indian tepee and rebel Half Breed [Métis], 1885 (MIKAN 2933963)

A watercolour showing three figures standing by a body of water. From left to right: a woman smoking a pipe with a baby on her back , a man wearing leggings, a long blue jacket and a Métis sash holding a rifle in his right hand, and another woman with a shawl wrapped around her head and body wearing a blue dress underneath.

A half-cast [Métis] and his two wives (MIKAN 2835810)

Equally problematic is material that has less than perfect descriptions. These are not always helpful. Little detail is forthcoming when terms such as “native type” and “peau rouge” (red skin) are used. At the same time, the majority of individuals depicted in the images in Library and Archive Canada’s collections were never identified. Many archival descriptions relating to events or activities are absent or have dated information (e.g. place names, band names or terminology). Alternatively, information is based on original inscriptions and captions found in the records, and hence reflects the biases and attitudes of non-Aboriginal society at the time.

The sheer number of these type of descriptions makes searching for a particular document or photograph a formidable task.

LAC does modify the descriptions in its collection. While ensuring the integrity of the original description, LAC strives to add clarity to incomplete data and modify inappropriate language when examples come to our attention. We never alter an original record or image, only the description that was created for it.

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuit man wearing a shirt and suspenders and looking directly at the photographer.

[Close-up portrait of a man wearing suspenders, Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut]. Original Title: Native type, Chesterfield Inlet, N.W.T., July, 1926 (MIKAN 3379826)

Is self-identification essential to being Métis?

Creating item level descriptions for materials entrusted to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is a serious task and staff work diligently to ensure such descriptions are useful. To assist researchers, descriptions must be as complete as possible.

There is a common belief among those researching LAC’s Aboriginal material that the institution can always clearly identify such material by group, place and date. Unfortunately, when an item is entrusted to LAC, this level of detail is often missing; whenever possible, however, LAC provides supplementary information.

The Métis pose an additional challenge. While we can easily identify Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont as Métis and describe related records accordingly, not all Métis individuals publicly self-identify as Métis. So, are they really Métis? Continue reading

Captain James Peters: War correspondent and photographer

Photography is now an integral part of our lives; our daily events are recorded whether they be monumental or mundane. From its beginnings in the 1830s, photography was used to chronicle the events of war. Early photographers struggled to capture the rapid action of combat as photographic equipment was unable to record movement. Consequently, early images of war were often staged recreations of the actual campaign. Generally, they depicted the less active aspects of war, such as portraits of soldiers, camp life, fortifications, artillery placements, and the battle sites before and after the action.

Captain James Peters recorded the dramatic events of the North-West Resistance as a photographer and a correspondent for the Quebec Morning Chronicle. The North-West Resistance was a five-month insurgency against the Canadian government, fought mainly by citizens of the Métis Nation and their First Nations allies. Peters was a pioneer in capturing the events on the battlefield.

Captain Peters and the “A” Battery of the Canadian Artillery left Quebec City on March 28, 1885 for the northwest. The “A” Battery was to provide artillery support for Major-General Frederick D. Middleton and the Canadian Militia. Peters would serve with Middleton at Fish Creek, Batoche and during the militia’s search for Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear). Continue reading