Hidden histories

On the left, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] is in his traditional First Nation regalia on a horse. In the centre, Iggi and a girl engage in a “kunik,” a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide, holds a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Ryan Courchene

The archival and published collections held at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are amazing, and so extensive that you will never be able to see them all. You can find hidden gems every single day just by looking, either online on LAC’s website, or in one of the several buildings with archival holdings across Canada.

I work in the Winnipeg office, which alone holds over 30,000 linear feet (nearly 9,150 metres) of archival records. On a business trip to Ottawa in 2016, I had the opportunity to shadow the reference service employees at 395 Wellington Street. While there, I noticed three catalogue drawers near the desk and inquired about what they contained.

Colour photograph from a hallway, through a glass wall with two doors, of a reference room.

The reference room at LAC in Ottawa, seen from the hallway. The catalogue drawers containing research cards with copies of photographs can be seen on the left of the room. Photo Credit: Tom Thompson

Colour photograph of four metal shelving units with eight pull-out drawers containing cards with copies of photographs and associated reference information.

Reference room catalogue drawers, organized by subject headings and geographical locations, containing research cards with copies of photographs held in the collections at LAC in Ottawa. Photo Credit: Tom Thompson

I was told that they held small cards with images in the collection that were copied from microfilm and microfiche. Intrigued, I decided to look at some of the cards on my lunch break. I soon discovered the “Birth of the West” collection, which contains hundreds of incredible photographs of Western Canada, with many focusing on Indigenous images by Ernest Brown. I learned that the images contained in the drawers were only card copies of the originals; the images themselves are small and of poor quality. From a researcher’s perspective, this can be both frustrating and helpful when conducting on-site research. As with this image of the moose, many photographs indexed in the card catalogues have never been digitized. In these situations, the cards provide immediate access to images without having to order the original material in off-site storage.

The photographs in this noteworthy collection are not only visually stunning but also remarkable for the wealth of historical information on Canada and the First Nations peoples of the West. Even though there are hundreds of images in the collection, one image really caught my eye. It tells a fascinating story that evolves every time I examine it.

Colour photograph of a cream-coloured catalogue card. The left half contains typed information in black organized into different categories. A copy of a black-and-white photograph turned sideways on the right side depicts a moose with a harness hitched to a travois. The moose stands in front of a teepee.

Catalogue card of a copy of a photograph of a young moose with a harness hitched to a travois and standing in front of a teepee, unknown location, ca. 1870–1910. Photo Credit: Tom Thompson

This photograph depicts a small home, which could belong to a Métis or First Nation family, blankets hung to dry, some cleared tree brush, a pot of food by the fire pit, a beautiful teepee, and of course a domesticated young moose with a harness hitched to a travois. The one item that I did not notice immediately, which is probably the most important part of the image, is the hand holding the rope attached to the moose. My grandfather used to tell me about how he cleared his own land so he could farm and raise cattle. Is this what was happening here? Or was something else going on? Each time I look at the image, a new story emerges that raises more questions.

Detail from a black-and-white photograph showing a person’s hand holding onto a rope.

Detail of the photograph of a young moose with a harness hitched to a travois and standing in front of a teepee, unknown location, ca. 1870–1910. Photo Credit: Tom Thompson

After seeing this image of the young moose, I wanted a copy for myself. Since I was working backwards, I had to find the image in the collection to see if it was already digitized, and if not, verify any restrictions on getting a copy. To my disappointment, I found that it was not digitized, and I decided not to push the request any further.

It was not until 2019 that I learned the Ernest Brown collection was being digitized by the We Are Here: Sharing Stories (WAHSS) initiative. The moose photograph is one of 126 images in an album entitled “Birth of the West.” Dating from ca. 1870–1910, the album consists of photographs taken in the Northwest Territories (now Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nunavut) and British Columbia. In addition to fully digitizing and describing this album, the WAHSS team has digitized over 450,000 images, including photographic records, textual documents and maps, with the goal of providing free online access to primary sources, no travel required!

In October 2019, I was finally able to order a copy. It fills me with great joy to know that I have the first print from the digitized copy of this amazing image, which hangs in my office today.

Photograph of a black-and-white photograph with a thick white border mounted on a dark grey page in an album. The image depicts a moose with a harness hitched to a travois standing in front of a teepee.

Young moose with a harness hitched to a travois, unknown location, ca. 1870–1910. This photograph is on page 28 of the “Birth of the West” album. (e011303100-028)


Ryan Courchene is an archivist in the Indigenous Initiatives division at Library and Archives Canada.

Exploring Indigenous peoples’ histories in a multilingual e-book—Part 2

On the left, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] is in his traditional First Nation regalia on a horse. In the centre, Iggi and a girl engage in a “kunik,” a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide, holds a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Beth Greenhorn in collaboration with Tom Thompson

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) launched Nations to Nations: Indigenous Voices at Library and Archives Canada to coincide with the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, 2021. The essays in this first edition of the interactive multilingual e-book featured a wide selection of archival and published material ranging from journals, maps, newspapers, artwork, photographs, sound and film recordings, and publications. Also included are biographies for each of the authors. Many recorded a personalized audio greeting for their biography page, some of which are spoken in their ancestral language. The essays are diverse and, in some cases, quite personal. Their stories challenge the dominant narrative. In addition to authors’ biographies, we included biographical statements by the translators in recognition of their expertise and contributions.

The Nations to Nations e-book was created as part of two Indigenous initiatives at LAC: We Are Here: Sharing Stories (WAHSS) and Listen, Hear Our Voices (LHOV). The essays were written by Heather Campbell (Inuk), Anna Heffernan (Nishnaabe), Karyne Holmes (Anishinaabekwe), Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour (Kanien’kehá:ka), William Benoit (Métis Nation) and Jennelle Doyle (Inuk) in LAC’s National Capital Region office. They were joined by Ryan Courchene (Métis-Anichinabe), from LAC’s regional office in Winnipeg, and Delia Chartrand (Métis Nation), Angela Code (Dene) and Samara mîkiwin Harp (nêhiyawak), archivists from the LHOV initiative.

This edition features the following First Nations languages and/or dialects: Anishinaabemowin, Anishinabemowin, Denesųłiné, Kanien’kéha, Mi’kmaq, nêhiyawêwin and Nishnaabemowin. Essays related to Inuit heritage are presented in Inuttut and Inuktitut. Additionally, the Inuit heritage content is presented in Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait (Roman orthography) and Inuktut Qaniujaaqpait (Inuktitut syllabics). The e-book presents audio recordings in Heritage Michif of select images in essays pertaining to the Métis Nation.

The development of this type of publication was complex. It presented technical and linguistic challenges that required creativity and flexibility. But the benefits of the Indigenous-led content outshine any of the complications. Given the space and time, the authors reclaimed records of relevance to their histories, offering fresh insights through their interpretations. The translators brought new meanings to the records, describing most, if not all, of them for the first time in First Nations languages, Inuktut and Michif.

Describing her experience while researching and writing her essay regarding manoominikewin (the wild rice harvest) of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg (Mississauga Ojibwe), archivist Anna Heffernan wrote: “I hope that people from Hiawatha, Curve Lake, and the other Michi Saagiig communities will be happy and proud to see their ancestors in these photos, and to see them represented as Michi Saagiig and not just ‘Indians’.”

A page from the e-book with three black-and-white images of people demonstrating different stages of wild rice harvesting.

Page from “Manoominikewin: The Wild Rice Harvest, a Nishnaabe Tradition” by Anna Heffernan, translated into Nishnaabemowin by Maanii Taylor. Left image: Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg man tramping manoomin, Pimadashkodeyong (Rice Lake), Ontario, 1921 (e011303090); upper-right image: Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg woman winnowing manoomin, Pimadashkodeyong (Rice Lake), Ontario, 1921 (e011303089); lower-right image: silent film clips featuring Ojibway men and women from an unidentified community harvesting manoomin, Manitoba, 1920–1929 (MIKAN 192664)

Reflecting on her experience, archivist Heather Campbell described the positive impact of the process:

“So often when we see something written about our communities, it is not written from the perspective of someone who is from that community. To be asked to write about Inuit culture for the e-book was an honour. I was able to choose the theme of my article and was trusted to do the appropriate research. As someone from Nunatsiavut, to be given the opportunity to write about my own region, knowing other Nunatsiavummiut would see themselves reflected back, was so important to me.”

A page from the e-book that shows pages from a picture book, text written in Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait and English.

Page from “Inuktut Publications” by Heather Campbell, translated into Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait by Eileen Kilabuk-Weber, showing selected pages from Angutiup ânguanga / Anguti’s Amulet, 2010, written by the Central Coast of Labrador Archaeology Partnership, illustrated by Cynthia Colosimo and translated by Sophie Tuglavina (OCLC 651119106)

William Benoit, Internal Indigenous Advisor at LAC, wrote a number of shorter essays about Métis Nation language and heritage. While each text can be read on its own, collectively they provide insights into various aspects of Métis culture. In his words: “Although the Métis Nation represents the largest single Indigenous group in Canada, we are misunderstood or misrepresented in the broader national narrative. I appreciate the opportunity to share a few stories about my heritage.”

A page from the e-book with text in English on the left side and a lithograph of a snowy landscape with a man seated in a cariole (sled) pulled by three dogs in colourful coats. A man wearing a blanket and snowshoes is on the left in front of the dogs. A man holding a whip and wearing clothing associated with Métis culture (a long blue jacket, red leggings and an embellished hat) walks on the right-hand side of the sled.

Page from “Métis Carioles and Tuppies” by William Benoit, with a Michif audio recording by Métis Elder Verna De Montigny. Image depicting Hudson’s Bay Company governor travelling by dog cariole with a First Nations guide and a Métis Nation musher, Red River, 1825 (c001940k)

The creation of the Nations to Nations e-book has been a meaningful undertaking and positive learning experience. Two and a half years in development, the e-book has truly been a group effort involving the expertise and collaboration of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation authors, Indigenous language translators, and Indigenous advisors.

I am grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with so many amazing and dedicated individuals. A special “thank you” goes to the members of the Indigenous Advisory Circle, who offered their knowledge and guidance throughout the development of this publication.

As part of ongoing work to support Indigenous initiatives at LAC, we will feature the essays from Nations to Nations as blog posts. We are excited to introduce Ryan Courchene’s essay “Hidden Histories” as the first feature in this series.

Nations to Nations: Indigenous Voices at Library and Archives Canada is free of charge and can be downloaded from Apple Books (iBooks format) or from LAC’s website (EPUB format). An online version can be viewed on a desktop, tablet or mobile web browser without requiring a plug-in.


Beth Greenhorn is a senior project manager in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Tom Thompson is a multimedia production specialist in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.