Naming Indigenous Canadians

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

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 Indigenous 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-Indigenous 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)

Project Naming is Expanding!

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

In early 2002, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) teamed up with the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Training Program and the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, to create Project Naming. The goal was to digitize photographs of Inuit from present-day Nunavut in LAC’s photographic collections in order to identify the people depicted in the images. At the time of the launch, LAC expected that the project would be concluded the following year. We never imagined that this initiative would become such a successful and popular project with the public.

To mark the annual National Aboriginal History Month in June 2015, LAC is pleased to announce the launch of Project Naming. While the project still includes communities located in Nunavut, it will be expanded to Inuit living in Inuvialuit (Northwest Territories), Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (Labrador), as well as First Nations and Métis communities in the rest of Canada. Project Naming: 2002–2012 will still be available online, but new content will only be added to the new project site.

Project Naming: 2002–2012 began with the digitization of 500 photographs from the Richard Harrington fonds. Since then, LAC has digitized approximately 8,000 photographs from many different government departments and private collections. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support from Inuit and non-Inuit researchers, nearly one-quarter of the individuals, activities or events portrayed in the images have been identified, and this information along with the images is now available in the database.

Over the years, LAC has received many wonderful stories and photographs from members of the public who have reconnected with their family and friends through the photographs. Among these was a photograph shared by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society that organized several community slide shows during the winter of 2011. Mona Tigitkok, an Elder from Kugluktuk, discovered her photograph as a young woman during one of these gatherings.

Colour photograph of an elderly Inuit woman wearing a fur-trimmed floral parka posing in front of a screen with a slide projection of her photograph when she was a young woman, taken at a community hall.

Mona Tigitkok posing with a picture of herself taken more than 50 years ago, Kugluktuk, Nunavut, February 2011. Credit: Kitikmeot Heritage Society.

Author and historian, Deborah Kigjugalik Webster, has used Project Naming, both personally and professionally. In her words:

I was first introduced to Project Naming a few years ago through my work in the Inuit heritage field, but there is also a personal connection for me—the database allows people to search by communities in Nunavut so I’ve discovered photographs of relatives and community members.

It was not uncommon in the past for photographers not to name the subjects of images. Often photo captions were simply “group of Eskimos” or “native woman” and so on. One afternoon, over tea, I showed some of the photographs from the Project Naming database to my mother, Sally Qimmiu’naaq Webster, and we were able to add a few names to faces from our home community of Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq). I felt a sense of satisfaction in identifying unnamed individuals in photographs and providing names to replace nondescript captions provided by the photographer. In a sense, when we do this we are reclaiming our heritage.

Photograph of a young Inuit woman wearing a turtle neck sweater looking away from the camera.

Photograph of the late Betty Natsialuk Hughson (identified by her relative Sally Qimmiu’naaq Webster). Taken in Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq), Nunavut, 1969 (MIKAN 4203863)

Project Naming allows people to not only identify individuals in images, but to add information including corrections to the spelling of names in an online form. It is well worth checking out the database, especially with an Elder, because seeing the image opens up discussion.

As part of my work I manage a Facebook page Inuit RCMP Special Constables from Nunavut to acknowledge the contributions of our Inuit Specials and pay tribute to them. Last year I posted a portrait photograph that I found on the Project Naming database of Jimmy Gibbons, taken in Arviat in 1946. Special Constable Gibbons was a remarkable man who joined the RCMP in 1936 and retired to a pension in 1965. This post was met with many enthusiastic likes, shares and comments from S/Cst. Gibbons’ descendants saying that he was their father, uncle or great-grandfather. Some people also simply said “thank you.” Shelley Ann Voisey Atatsiaq proudly commented, “No wonder I wrote earlier that I highly respect the R.C.M.P. I’ve got some R.C.M.P-ness in my blood. Thank you for sharing!”

Black-and-white photograph of a close-up of an Inuit man wearing a knitted vest and tie standing outside.

Jimmy Gibbons, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Special Constable, Arviat, Nunavut, August 1, 1946 (MIKAN 4805042)

For more information about the history of the project, read the article Project Naming / Un visage, un nom, International Preservation News, No. 61, December 2013, pp. 20–24.

As with the first phase of the project, LAC wants to hear from you through The Naming Continues form.

Start your search for Aboriginal content

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 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of Canada would be set back for years to come.