Do you have Aboriginal ancestry? The census might tell you

Many individuals do genealogical research to determine whether they have an Aboriginal branch in their family tree. For some, this is simply to confirm or disprove a family story. For others, the research is connected to self-identity, empowerment, possible registration in Aboriginal organizations or funding connected to self-identification.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) cannot make any determination about whether you are Aboriginal, but our documents can assist in your research.

Sadly, sometimes, our family stories are just that—stories. Likewise, family photographs may lead us to make false assumptions. Are we seeing something that is not really there?

You might find the answer in census returns.

Identifying First Nation, Métis or Inuit in historical census returns

Seeking an understanding of Aboriginal identity through family histories and genealogical research can be a challenging task in Canada. Two systems of definitions exist—one based in law and legislation, the other in family tradition and community practice. Continue reading

Are we missing part of the historical record regarding Oronhyatekha?

By Richie Allen

Searching through archival records can sometimes lead to unexpected discoveries.

 In my work as a reference archivist at Library and Archives Canada, I regularly conduct research for researchers’ requests. While investigating if a certain individual had actually received formal military training in 1865 at the Toronto School of Military Instruction, I consulted Library and Archives Canada’s online database, Archives Search. A keyword search located the first Register of Candidates Admitted to the School of Military Instruction, Upper Canada (Toronto), 1865-1867, in the record group relating to the Department of Militia and Defense (RG9), Volume 7.  When I consulted the school ledger, the name I was looking for was not there, but another name instantly caught my attention.  Standing out clearly on the list, amid the old script of European first-middle-last name format, was the single Mohawk name Oronhyatekha.

A colour photo showing on the left side an opened book and on the right side a close-up showing a name on the page of the book.

Register of Candidates Admitted to the School of Military Instruction, Upper Canada, 1865-1867. The name “Oronhyatekha” has been highlighted with a blue circle (R180-124-1-E, MIKAN 195106)

The ledger contains many columns of information. In particular, on page 9, it indicates that Oronhyatekha was 23 years old, from Shannonvillle, but living in Toronto. In subsequent lists, he is indicated as being admitted to the school at Toronto on May 6, 1865. On July 29, 1865, he is noted as the “candidate permitted to remain in school for purpose of qualifying for 1st class certificate”—an honour accorded to few students.

A colour image showing a close-up of a page from a book.

Information from the ledger indicating that Oronhyatekha is permitted to remain in the school for the purpose of qualifying for a 1st class certificate (MIKAN 195106)

Information can also be found on Oronhyatekha, also known as Peter Martin, born in 1841, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, where select biographical entries on significant Canadians can be found. Upon reading this entry, you will note that there is no specific mention of Oronhyatekha attending the School of Military Instruction. Therefore, it appears that there are gaps in the historical record, and we are wondering if this is something new to add to his biography. Please contact us if you have any additional information on this important individual.

Richie Allen is a reference archivist in the Reference Services section at Library and Archives Canada.

Visit the new webpage dedicated to the Carignan-Salières Regiment

Hear ye! Hear ye! Interested in the history of New France? Visit our new webpage dedicated to the Carignan-Salières Regiment, where you can access all of our resources related to this important unit in the history of New France.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Jean-François Lozier, Curator of French North American history at the Canadian Museum of History, and ask him some questions about the regiment. You can listen to the audio recording of his responses.

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)

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

The Carignan-Salières Regiment

The colony of New France was in a precarious situation when France’s King Louis XIV acceded to the throne in 1661. The population and safety of the colony were a priority for him. In order to increase the population, the first contingent of the Filles du roi (“King’s daughters”) was sent there in 1663. Two years later, in 1665, the Carignan-Salières Regiment disembarked in New France to ensure the safety of the colony and, more specifically, to deal with the Iroquois threat.

A pen and watercolour sketch depicting an officer in the Carignan-Salières Regiment in profile. He is holding a lance in his right hand and wearing a sheathed sword on his left hip.

Officer of the Carignan-Salières Regiment, 1666 (MIKAN 2896020)

Continue reading

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.