Project Naming and Canada's North

Photograph of an Inuit girl carrying an infant in a baby-pouch, Taloyoak (formerly Spence Bay), Nunavut, circa 1961

Have you ever wondered about the unknown people in your old family photographs? What if an entire community of people was photographed and never identified? This is what happened in Canada's North in the last century. Today we'll introduce you to Project Naming, a community-engagement and photo-identification project launched by Library and Archives Canada in 2004.

Duration: 24:26

File size: 19.6 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: February 9, 2012

  • Transcript of podcast episode 1
    Angèle Alain: Welcome to Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage. I'm your host, Angèle Alain. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.

    Have you ever wondered about the unknown people in your old family photographs? Often you can find out who they are pretty easily. But what if an entire community of people was photographed and never identified? This is what happened in Canada's North in the last century. Today we'll introduce you to Project Naming, a community-engagement and photo-identification project launched by Library and Archives Canada in 2004.

    Today we are talking to project manager Beth Greenhorn. She has been leading this ongoing initiative, heading the team behind Project Naming, and collaborating closely with its various partners. Beth will talk to us about the project, its plans for expansion and how we Canadians can get involved.

    Hi Beth. Thanks so much for being here. How about you tell us a little bit about how Project Naming started.

    Beth Greenhorn: Project Naming began in 2001; it's really the conception of Murray Angus who is an instructor at the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Training Program, a Nunavut-based college in Ottawa. For the last 20 years, Murray and other instructors from the college have been bringing their students to Library and Archives Canada to do research in the card catalogues in our reference area to look for photos of their community and sometimes family pictures that they could take home at Christmas time.

    AA: Even before Project Naming started.

    BG: The project was proposed by Murray largely because most of the photographs of Inuit in our collection were never identified. A lot of these photographs date from the early 1900s to the 1920s and even as late as the 1960s and 1970s. This was a way, as Murray saw it, to reunite and bring together two generations within Inuit communities. A large majority of Inuit youth today do not speak Inuktitut, which is the first language of Inuit; whereas the older generation doesn't speak English, so there really has been this generational gap. Another reason for suggesting this project is that, besides a loss of language, many youth don't have knowledge or an understanding of their past; it's not taught in their curriculum. By looking at these historical photographs, not only is the younger generation able to talk to the older generation, but it is also a way for the younger generations of Inuit to learn about their past. So really, it has been a way to bridge together these two generations.

    AA: Here is Frank Tester from the University of British Columbia speaking to us about how relevant archives and historical documents can be in our everyday life.

    Frank Tester: You have to understand that this is a generation of young people who don't know their own history. They don't know what happened in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, even in the 70s. I'm involved in changing this at the moment-it's another spin off of the work I've been doing with archival resources here. I'm an advisor to a committee within the Nunavut Department of Education, which is rewriting the school curriculum, grades 7 to 12. Our goal and objective is to make it Inuit-centred. For example, an incident in Arviat, the community I am working in with these young people, in the winter of 1962-63 where 35% roughly of the community was evacuated to the south as a result of a re-emergence or outbreak of tuberculosis. It is far more important for Inuit young people to know about, understand and appreciate in detail why, how and when it happened, how it was dealt with, what happened, etc., than the American Revolution. What I am trying to say is that the school curriculum-which has been adopted from the Province of Alberta and used to teach social studies in Nunavut-just doesn't touch on Inuit young people. It is one of the reasons-certainly not the only reason-but one of the reasons why Inuit youth drop out. There is nothing in there that they can relate to; there is nothing in there about them; and making the curriculum Inuit-centred is really important. Well again, the resources of Library and Archives Canada are absolutely essential to rewriting that curriculum. It is time to use this wealth of resources. That is a good example of the practical and very important use of archival materials for educational purposes. It is not just a matter of getting an education; it is a matter of creating something that interests Inuit young people, motivates them and in turn addresses a whole lot of very serious social problems we have in Nunavut, which has the highest rate of suicide for young Inuit men, ages 13 to 25, in the world. This is related to problems associated with what I would call academically "existential nature." Problems associated with meaning and purpose, being lost, not knowing who you are, not knowing your own culture and not having an identity make you vulnerable to every cheap message that comes along, including whatever nonsense is broadcast on television, for example, that you're not good looking enough because you're not using the right shaving lotion or dressing in the right clothing. If you do not have a strong sense of identity, you're vulnerable to all of these other messages, which can be really soul-destroying. I'm not stretching it when I say that the resources here, the historical record, and the importance of introducing that and giving Inuit youth a sense of their identity, their history, where they came from, what their elders went through, who they are is really important to addressing these kinds of social and psychological problems, these sorts of mental health concerns. People think archives are dusty places where people store things that might someday be of some use to somebody somewhere, well it's time to get over that; they have real practical application to really important and current social problems. It is this sort of relevance of archival documents I'm interested in.

    AA: Project Naming is almost 10 years old now; can you tell us what has been accomplished in the project since its beginning?

    BG: The project has really evolved over the last decade. As I mentioned, the project was first conceptualized in 2001. In the winter of 2002, we digitized 500 photographs from the Richard Harrington collection. He was a Toronto-based photographer who made four trips to the Arctic and present-day Nunavut in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was a portrait photographer for the most part and the pictures we have in this collection were a good starting point. They were taken about 50 years ago and are close-up shots of individuals, so the likelihood of people today being able to remember and recognize people in the pictures was quite high. In fact, it was high-75% of those pictures were identified during the first meetings between the youth and elders who looked through them.

    AA: Yeah, I would say that is a success.

    BG: Totally a success. When the project first began, I think there was an expectation people would be able to identify a number of people in the pictures, but I don't think it was expected that the number would be quite as high.

    AA: So, you were saying that 500 were digitized in the beginning. Now in 2011, how many photographs do you think have been digitized for Project Naming?

    BG: In fact, I should backtrack. The Web exhibition was launched in October 2004, and features a database. What we've been able to accomplish over the last decade has been to add to this database. We started with the 500 Richard Harrington photos and today we have approximately 6,000 images that are available to the public.

    AA: So Library and Archives Canada has a much greater photo collection, but we've been able to digitize approximately 60,000, and 10% of those are part of Project Naming?

    BG: Yes.
    AA: Out of those 6,000 photographs, how many people do you think have been identified?

    BG: I would say around 1,700 individuals have been identified because of this project.

    AA: Okay, these people can be in groups?

    BG: That's right.

    AA: Sometimes one person can appear in different photographs, and you can identify that person in more than one photograph?
    BG: Yes. As much as possible, we've attempted to make cross-links between photographs, when it is an individual that appears in more than one photo. When we can, we will add an extra link in a different field to link the two photographs together, or members of the Inuit community have been able to identify a person, but also provide other anecdotal information or family relationships. For example, a parent might appear in one picture and his or her child might be in another, or their half-brother, or whatever. With those links, we rely mostly on the knowledge of Inuit to be able to make these broader links and to make this information accessible.

    AA: I'm thinking this project had a really big impact on the Inuit community. Have you seen any evidence of that yourself?

    BG: Over the years, I've had a number of conversations and other dialogue with Inuit-some of these have taken place via email, some by telephone conversations, and a number of them have been in person. The response from these communities has been overwhelmingly positive. Many of the people who are from these Arctic communities have not been aware that we have these photographic collections here. The photographers who went north, as far as I know, brought their film back and developed the material in Ottawa or whatever southern city they were living in.

    AA: So the Inuit never saw those photographs?

    BG: No.

    AA: They saw somebody show up, take a photo and then leave?

    BG: That's right. Or their grandparents or parents saw these people's pictures, but they just weren't aware that the pictures were taken. Making these pictures accessible to family members and descendants of those who are long gone has enabled Inuit to connect with these people from their past. So the response when people have been able to reconnect with these images has been really emotional.

    AA: Here is Curtis Konek, a member of the Nanisiniq Arviat History Project after discovering a photograph of his grandmother at a recent photo-identification session at Library and Archives Canada.

    Curtis Konek: I saw a couple of pictures of my grandma's family and a couple of pictures of my grandma that I never saw before. That was amazing. I felt excited that I saw my grandma really young.

    Frank Tester: There are also cultural differences here. We have lived with photographs, and so many of them, for so long that we kind of take them for granted. Everyone has their family plastered all over the fridge and that's wonderful and important; you have a picture of your parents sitting on your bureau in your bedroom and so forth and so on. The way in which Inuit, especially Inuit elders, react to photographs is very different. They themselves don't possess photographs of their grandparents that were taken maybe in the 40s or 50s because they didn't have cameras at the time; at least not many of them had cameras. So, when an elder comes to Library and Archives Canada and sees pictures of her or his grandparents or parents, it is very simple, but very important. In fact, it is ironic because a few minutes ago I asked Martha how she felt about seeing some of the slides that she was seeing and pictures of some of her relatives. She looked at me, beaming from ear to ear, and says: "It makes me feel happy," period. That is easily underrated because given the real problems that exist in Inuit communities now, such as housing and living conditions, employment. In some communities, there is a 60 to 70% unemployment rate among Inuit young people. There is the suicide problem I mentioned; and there are other mental health problems of varying severity. Making sure that people have experiences and access to resources that contribute to their mental well-being and make them feel happy should not be underestimated or underrated. In this particular context, it is extremely important; you have an awful lot of resources here that are very important to making people feel happy. That should not be underestimated in terms of its importance.

    BG: In November 2008, I had the opportunity to travel to the community of Rankin Inlet in Nunavut. It is located on the western coast of Hudson Bay. With the help of several community members, we organized two photo-identification gatherings and sessions. One was in the afternoon; it took place at the adult learning centre with a group of 16 or so elders who were specially invited to that meeting. Later that evening, a larger community event was held at the hotel. We broadcast notices on the local radio station and put up some posters within the community, the co-op and other public places inviting everyone to come join us to help identify the people in the pictures. It was one of the most emotional experiences. As I talk about it, I get goosebumps; I literally get goosebumps! The people who attended, about 80 to 90 individuals, were young kids, middle generation, elders who didn't speak any English. I had an awesome woman, Mary-Rose, who was my interpreter and she recorded the names of individuals for about seven hours that day.
    AA: Do you know how many people were identified while you were there?

    BG: Actually, yes. That evening when I went back to my room, I did a count. I brought about 500 pictures with me on that trip, printouts. Approximately 225 to 230 people were identified in 130 pictures as a result of the two meetings that afternoon.

    AA: That is pretty impressive.

    BG: Yeah, it was incredible. What struck me too was particularly at the gathering that evening. At the hotel, there was a lot of laughter; there was animation; and there was a lot of talking and crying, but also laughing. It was just a really emotionally uplifting experience to see so many people reconnect with these pictures.

    AA: And each other!

    BG: Yes.

    AA: Beth, I know that you met with some youth and elders recently in May 2011. Can you tell us about the project they were working on and why they were at Library and Archives Canada?
    BG: Sure. In September 2009, the NansiniqArviat History Project was launched and Library and Archives Canada was one of its partners. So the folks who came to Ottawa in May 2011 were part of a research team from the community of Arviat in Nunavut. What I found particularly interesting was that they were doing research using our photographic collections primarily. The purpose of their research was to create a multimedia video and blog, and other material online. They wanted to recreate the history of their community, partly using archival material from our collection as well as contemporary documents and interviews with elders today to really re-examine and represent the history of their community from an Inuit point of view.

    AA: Let's listen to Amy Owingayak from the Nanisiniq Arviat History Project.

    Amy Owingayak: I'm Amy Owingayak. I'm a part of the Nanisiniq Arviat History Project and I started about a year ago. I've always wondered about what my family looks like and how important it is to know my family members; it was great to see a photo of him [Amy's great-grandfather]. It's always good to have respect when we know something about our history. So when I'm finding more about that, I have more respect and more pride about being an Inuk. I am more respectful towards elders than I was before because I didn't know anything about the history then. When you know your past, you pretty much know who you really are and where you come from.

    AA: Maybe you can tell us about the future of the project now and the next steps?

    BG: Up until now, the project and the way that we've been able to gather data has really been a one-way form of communication. We've had people contact us by email or in person and other ways, but they've sent us the information and the names of people in the pictures, which then we added to the database.

    AA: And posted online.

    BG: That's right. But what is really exciting is that in the next number of months we have plans to utilize new social media, which will enable people to add names and other information directly online. In addition to this, we are expanding beyond the territory of Nunavut. In the past, we focused exclusively on Nunavut because our initial partner was the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Training Program and they also worked fairly closely with the Government of Nunavut and the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth. In the next stages of the project, we've already digitized a collection that reaches into Nunavik, Northern Quebec, in the Ungava Bay region, also in Iqaluit and Baker Lake, which is in present-day Nunavut, and then also in the Northwest Territories in Iklavik. So we have this material that will be launching later in autumn 2011. With this we'll have an application where people will be able to directly add information that will then be shared. It is sort of like Facebook where people can tag pictures and then more pictures can be linked and people can be brought together.

    AA: So anyone can come and comment on photographs? Not just the Inuit, but anyone in Canada who has information about a certain photo, what's happening in the photo, the person in the photo? Just comment? I guess people will probably start discussions on photos. That is all possible with this?

    Exactly. And what is really exciting too is that this will give us more of a presence online within the virtual community. In addition to having Inuit identify and name the people in the pictures, we also have a whole community of scholars and researchers who have been studying and working in the North really closely with Inuit communities for decades. They themselves have a whole lot of information and knowledge they can share and add to these photos to make them richer for future generations of people who are interested in the North, people who are in the pictures, or whoever. So it is really an exciting turn the way that the project has evolved; it's very exciting.

    Frank Tester: It's a good example of a project which is out there in the community and has real relevance and importance to Inuit. It helps Inuit get in touch with their history, their culture, their families, their ancestors; it makes people feel happy. It's really important that people be named and that's what Project Naming is all about. To do this, Library and Archives Canada must get out into the community with the pictures and find elders and others who can identify people. This bridges the gap between a very important part of the Canadian community, i.e., Inuit of Nunavut and the Eastern Arctic and Library and Archives Canada. What more could you ask for? That is exactly the kind of thing that needs to happen more and more; in some ways Project Naming is kind of leading the way.

    AA: There you have it; Project Naming is really an example of a successful community-engagement project where the Library and Archives Canada collection plays a leading role. Thanks Beth for sharing some of your Project Naming knowledge and experience with us today.

    BG: Thanks. It has been fun chatting.

    AA: For more information about Project Naming, visit

    AA: Thank you for joining us. I'm your host, Angèle Alain, and you've been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada-where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Beth Greenhorn, Frank Tester, Amy Owingayak, and Curtis Konek.
    For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at


Subscribe to automatically receive new episodes.

Contact the podcast team

Send your feedback to: