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)

So many lockers, so little time

When visiting Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa at 395 Wellington to do research, you may be asked more than once if you need a locker. Let’s explore why and where this might be the case. First off, when you arrive, the Commissionaire at the security desk on the ground floor will ask you if you need a locker to store your personal items, such as your jacket or coat, hat, large bag, or umbrella. As you can understand, none of these items is allowed in the reference or consultation rooms in order to keep the collection safe from damage or loss. These personal storage lockers are located on the ground floor, and are for day use only. You must leave the key to your locker with the security desk when leaving the building, both at the end of the day and for any reason during the day, even if you plan to come back.

The next locker you might require is located on the third floor. Here there are three types of lockers for temporarily storing archival, published, or restricted items. They are loaned out for up to a month at a time and may be renewed as required. The first type of locker is the one most commonly used for open archival material. You must ask the consultation staff to assign you one of these lockers, and you can request up to a maximum of three at a time. You can either request the locker(s) when requesting your material in advance or if you are planning on coming in person to do your research during or outside of service hours. Keys for these lockers are also kept with the security desk on the ground floor and must be returned daily or when leaving the building. The same applies for the second type of locker, a smaller one for when you only require a small space to temporarily store published items you have requested.

The third type of locker is the restricted one, for those researchers who have access to restricted (code 32) material. The same procedures apply for requesting this type of locker, but please note that keys are not issued automatically. The Commissionaire stationed in the lobby of the third floor must verify the researcher’s access to the restricted locker(s) before access can be granted.

Lastly, here are the most important things to remember when you are assigned any of the lockers located on the third floor:

  • Use lockers for LAC material only—no personal items please
  • Do not keep self-serve/archival microfilm in the lockers
  • Be aware that the expiry dates of lockers and items often differ
  • Make sure to renew your locker and archival items to ensure that the items are not sent back before you have completed your work
  • Note that overdue items may be removed and returned to storage even if the locker is not expired
  • Renew lockers or items after hours by contacting Be sure to provide all the details

How to make the most of your reference appointment

Reference librarians and archivists at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are happy to assist you by:

• showing you how to make the best use of our research tools
• directing you toward suggested resources

You may wish to take a proactive approach to your research project before making a reference appointment. Being better prepared in the following ways will allow you to maximize your time with a LAC professional.

Have you laid the groundwork using sources near you?

Local municipal and university libraries provide a wealth of resources to researchers. These resources are an important first stop for anyone embarking on a historical research project.

Read everything you can about your subject. Books and journal articles provide important background and context for your research project. Verifying the bibliographies and source citations of such published items can often help identity additional research resources, which may or may not be held at LAC.

Take notes! When consulting any source, be sure to take well-organized notes and to fully transcribe all references. For published sources, you will need to have the complete title, the author’s name, and the place and date of publication. For archival sources, be sure to note the name of the archives that holds the records, the collection name, collection code, box or volume number, file titles and dates. Bring these references to your appointment at LAC along with the tools necessary for taking additional notes.

Have you done a preliminary search with our online tools?

Our Academic Researchers page can help you set the stage. If you are unfamiliar with what an archive is, we recommend our guide on Using Archives and our blog post Discover Finding Aids!

Remember that not everything we have is available online.

Do you have the right archive or library?

LAC holds a wealth of archival material of national and federal significance relating to Canadian history. However, we do not hold everything. Provinces, universities, counties, cities, corporations and social organizations all maintain their own unique archival and library collections. Depending on your topic, these may prove to be not only the most relevant but possibly the only resources available to you.

For example, information relating to land grants, local land titles and lot history is generally held at the provincial level. If you are interested in the history of a local arts festival or business, then the city archives or local historical society will likely be the best resource to consult. Please note that in the case of corporations and social organizations, their unique historical records may not be open for public research. In the case of some unique provincial resources, a fee for use may be required.

For the scientific research and innovation community, the Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information, which is the national science library at National Research Council Canada, represents a valuable online resource.

Did you know that not everything is available online?

In an age when more and more information is available on the Internet, it is easy to assume that if you can’t find what you’re looking for online, it probably doesn’t exist. But this may not always be the case. For instance, at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), we have a vast collection of historical material. Yet most of this collection predates the digital era, which means that it just doesn’t exist in digital format.

It also means that not everything at LAC is indexed or discoverable online, and that you may not find something described in our online tools even though we have it.

So, if, after starting your research, using our major online tools, you cannot find what you are looking for, but suspect it is in LAC’s collection, make sure to ask us about it. Our knowledgeable reference librarians and archivists can help identify tools and resources to guide you in your research.

Stay tuned for our upcoming blog post on preliminary research and preparing for your reference appointment.

Summary of comments received in French up to September 30th, 2013

  • A user asked how to obtain the recording of an interview done in 1975 at the University of Moncton. LAC suggested to consult the Film, Video and Sound database. LAC also has recordings that are not described at the item level. For those, research needs to be done on premises to consult finding aids.

The Top Five Things You Need to Know Before You Visit

Are you visiting Ottawa to do some research at Library and Archives Canada? Before you arrive, there are five things you need to know:

1. All researchers need a user card

You can register for a user card in two ways, either in person at the registration desk or online by submitting the User Card Registration Form. Present your photo ID at the registration desk to retrieve your user card.

You must read and agree to the terms and conditions in the User Agreement before you can obtain the user card.

2. There is a difference between service hours and opening hours

Our service points, including the registration desk, are only open during service hours when staff is on site and ready to help you. The building is accessible during opening hours, but staff is unavailable. These hours are posted on the Visit Us section of our website and in the building.

3. Order your research material in advance

At least five business days before your visit, order up to ten items of archival material by using our online Material Retrieval (Onsite Consultation) Form. You may order up to five items of published materials the same way as above, or place your order by telephone at 613-996-5115 or 1-866-578-7777 (toll-free in Canada and the US) by selecting option 8 in the automated menu.

4. Book your reference appointment, if necessary

We are applying a new approach to service delivery. This means that no appointment is necessary for basic orientation and genealogy services, which are available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Friday. However, you must book an appointment if you need to consult our reference experts or genealogy specialists.  See the Contact Us section of our website for more information.

5. Where to start your online search

There are a variety of databases to choose from, so we encourage you to watch this 90-second video tutorial to help you determine “How to Begin your Search Online.”

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

Summary of comments received in French up to September 30th, 2013

  • LAC added that there is no need to make an appointment for basic assistance for genealogical research. Staff is available from 10 AM to 3 PM, Monday to Friday. However, you must book an appointment if you want to consult with staff before or after those hours.