Interpreting our documents
All sources have limitations. Any time that we use a source, we should ask questions about:
- why the source exists
- who created the source
- why the source has survived
We explore these ideas in greater detail below. We should use the same types of questions to assess secondary (published) sources too.
We acknowledge that archives can be sites of trauma for Indigenous peoples. Working with historical records that document experiences of genocide, assimilation, and oppression, as well as the inherent anti-Indigenous bias and offensive language in these records, can create feelings of distress, grief, and pain for researchers.
We encourage researchers to be informed and to place their well-being first.
- National Indian Residential School Crisis Line 1-866-925-4419
- Hope for Wellness Hotline 1-855-242-3310
- Tsow-Tun Le Lum Society 1-888-403-3123
- Indian Residential School Survivor Society (IRSSS) 1-800-721-0066 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In your research, you may encounter historical language referring to Indigenous Canadians that is considered offensive today. Please read the notice about historical language in LAC’s collection.
About the authors
Government of Canada officials created many of the Indigenous history documents we have. Members of government, clergy, explorers and employees of private companies created others. Because of that, these documents only tell a partial story. Many records tell a story that supports the actions of the federal government and its official policy of colonialism. While they may contain valuable information, accounts are often one-sided.
The records don't tell us about Indigenous peoples’ experiences of the recorded events.
Much Indigenous history has been transmitted through oral traditions. This means cultural heritage, accounts and stories passed from generation to generation through:
- other forms
When possible, begin your research by talking with family and community members.
You may want to consider the following information when figuring out what's helpful.
How, when and why they created the record
When using any historical resource, it is always important to ask why the source was created. Its intended purpose can tell us a lot about the source. Knowing why, helps us interpret:
- its intended use
- other ways it may have been used
When you examine a source, look for evidence of the author or creator of the source. It's important to find out if First Nations, Métis Nation or Inuit, were involved in the creation and development of the resource.
For published histories, consider whether the author has asked these questions about the evidence they use. If they have or have not, think about how that might affect the history they have written.
Evidence of Indigenous knowledge and world views
As noted, oral traditions are important for Indigenous peoples. When assessing the value of a source, ask yourself whether the historical account includes sources like stories and songs? Were these sources treated as credible and as important as the written records?
Also consider whether the knowledge systems and world views are portrayed or written from an
Historical and contemporary portrayals of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation
When examining a source, think about whether it portrays negative outcomes for Indigenous people and positive outcomes for non-Indigenous people. Remember the importance of author here. All authors have an agenda. The stories they tell, positive or negative, affects the language choices they make and the evidence they choose to use.
Also look to see how the source portrays the land now known as Canada before the arrival of Europeans. Does the source acknowledge that Indigenous people treated the land with care and respect?
You might also consider whether the source represents the diversity of First Nations, Métis Nation and Inuit experiences without biases or value-judgments.
Interpreting language and imagery
When doing your research, you'll see words that are no longer used inside the historical documents and sometimes in the descriptions and titles of those documents.
Words we find offensive today often appear in the historical record. It is important to consider if the offensive language was used in certain historical contexts. If a source continues to use offensive language after it has been deemed offensive, we would question its interpretive value.
Another consideration is whether the source uses terms like “prehistory” or “pre-contact” to imply that history began with European historical documentation.
When looking at images, think about whether the image portrays a negative stereotype. If so, think again about the creator of the source and the source’s intended purpose.
Consider whether the image blends traditional clothing or regalia from a variety of nations, or misrepresents the nations within the context or period. You can see an example of this in one of the most well known images from Indian Residential Schools. It's an image of Thomas Moore Keesick (to see the photographs, click on “link to related source”) from Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation. The image supposedly shows him before and after attending a residential school. The “before” photograph claims Keesick is wearing traditional regalia. In reality, the clothing they put him in is typically used by First Nation women.