038: Healing Journey: Project Naming at 15
July 6, 2017
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Over the past fifteen years, Project Naming has provided a virtual space enabling First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit communities to access Canada's historic photo collections and engage in the identification of people and locations, thereby reconnecting with their history to share memories and stories rekindled by the photographs. Join us as we celebrate the project with stories from individuals who attended Project Naming’s 15th anniversary event held in March 2017.
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Healing Journey: Project Naming at 15
Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I'm your host, Geneviève Morin. 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.
Before Project Naming began in 2002, the Aboriginal peoples depicted in the majority of federal archival photographs were nameless. They were often completely omitted from the record or identified with derogatory descriptions like half-breed, squaw or native type. Project Naming provides a virtual space enabling First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit communities to access Canada's historic photo collections and engage in the identification of people and locations, thereby reconnecting with their history to share memories and stories, rekindled by the photographs. The project also aims to inspire and empower Aboriginal youth with a renewed understanding and access to their past. Since the project began, many individuals have reunited with their families and loved ones, and have sometimes found themselves in the photographs.
From March 1st to 3rd, 2017, Library and Archives Canada and Carleton University hosted a free event to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Project Naming. The event served as a platform for lively discussions about the impact Project Naming has had on Aboriginal communities, interspersed with traditional singing, dancing and food. There was an air of friendship and community throughout the three days, with no shortage of fun and laughter. Our master of ceremonies, Elder Manitok Thompson, kept things lively and didn't mince words.
We set up a speakers' corner where attendees could share their thoughts about the project and where they would like to see it go in the future. Our first speaker was Murray Angus, co-founder of Nunavut Sivuniksavut, also known as NS, an Inuit college program based in Ottawa. Murray started Project Naming back in 2002 with Morley Hanson, both of whom have been appointed to the Order of Canada for playing a vital role in empowering Inuit youth.
Murray gives us a brief description of how it all began.
Murray Angus (MA): My name's Murray Angus, and I'm one of the instructors at the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program that was involved in the start of Project Naming back in 2000–2001. In our program, which has been around in Ottawa for—since 1985, and it serves Inuit youth from Nunavut, primarily, for most of its history, Inuit youth who've come down to Ottawa for eight months and learn about their own history.
And one of the things we were doing in the 1990s was bringing our students down to the National Archives, as it was known at the time, and searching through their card catalogue for reproductions of photos from their home regions or communities. And students would take one picture home—an enlargement that we would pay for—take it home at Christmas and show their elders and their grandparents and others. And the response every time they came back—it was a universal response—was that the photographs invited conversations with their elders that would never have taken place, and conversations that were eye-opening in terms of family history, community history, traditional cultural practices, a whole range of things. And it broke the ice in many cases between those two generations: elders and youth.
So, in the late 90s, the idea occurred to us that with digitization it was now possible for the pictures—the thousands and thousands of pictures stored down here in Ottawa in the National Archives—for them to become accessible to people in the North without people in the North having to come to the South to see them. So we'd made a pitch—brought together the new Nunavut government. They had a department called Culture, Language, Elders and Youth. And we were the liaison between them and the National Archives, and we put forth a proposal to the Archives and to the Nunavut government to launch a project called Project Naming.
And a very simple concept: the Archives would scan a batch of photographs each year. We would take those photographs, and depending on where the communities were that the photographs were from, we would contract out with elders and youth groups in those communities, send them the photographs on CDs, and with some basic tools for recording the information, and they would send it back to us. The youth would work with elders in their communities, record the information from—first of all identifying the people in the photographs and any other information that it evoked—and send the information back to NS, the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program, and we would relay it over to the Archives.
It was an example of a project that was a win-win in almost every possible direction. From the Nunavut government's point of view, it fulfilled the mandate of their new Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth. From the point of view of elders, it allowed them to see photographs of themselves and family members of people they knew from 50–60 years ago. For the youth, it was a chance to learn about their family history, their community history, their traditional cultural practices. And also to initiate conversations with elders and bridge the generational gap there. And of course for the National Archives, it was a big advance for them in terms of enhancing their data in relation to their collection.
So as I say, it was a win-win project, and it's wonderful that it's carried on to this day and has expanded its scope.
GM: Graduates from the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program also shared their thoughts with us. Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt is an Inuit performer, poet and writer from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. She celebrates her Inuk–Cape Breton heritage in her music, which brings together traditional throat singing and Celtic folk music. Kathleen also collaborates with the National Arts Centre on projects related to the performing arts.
Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt (KM): [Speaks in Inuktitut] [Then continues in English] My name is Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt, and I am from Rankin Inlet. I'm an alumni of the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program here in Ottawa, and I went to school in 2008–10, did the two years there. And that's where I was introduced to Project Naming. We were sent home at Christmastime with some photographs from our communities to interview elders to see if they could identify who was in the photographs and hear stories about kind of that time frame.
I think at the time when I interviewed the elders, I didn't realize the significance of this project and how important it is, because to me it was just an assignment for school, right? [Laughs] But looking back, it's been almost 10 years since that time—about 8 years since that time—and looking back and listening to the conversations that are happening at this conference, you realize how important it is, because at one point, Inuit were identified with dog tag numbers, really, which is a really sad thing, I think. And now these photographs are coming back to life with people's names—their traditional names—being recognized, and not just that but their relation to other people in their camps or within their families. And stories are—like these pictures—are coming to life now.
I presented five pictures yesterday after I spoke about my experience with Project Naming, and right away the elders came up and they started telling stories about those photos, which was really, really cool. For me at first, these photos were like a window into the past, what things looked like. Because when I went to school at NS, you learn about the history of Canada and the colonial history—the different waves of changes that happened with our grandparents. So then having these images of real people from your community, you know, really brings those stories to life. So yeah, it was really cool.
But also, one thing that Elder Piita Irniq said today, I think really stuck out. He was talking about how he's been on a healing journey from the residential school era, and one of the things that was really important for him, to heal, is being out on the land because it's healing to the mind, body, soul. But he also said this Project Naming is just as healing because it's a process in decolonizing, learning about our history in general is very much empowering.
And I think a lot of young people grow up with an identity crisis because we're not taught our history. We don't understand why our communities are the way they are. And when you learn about your history and the resilience of your people, it's very much empowering. And it's just as important to continue to tell those stories.
GM: Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt is a writer, teacher and youth leader. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Concordia University in Montréal, and her book The Legend of Lightning and Thunder was shortlisted for the 2014 Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children Award.
Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt (PR): So, my name is Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt, from Baker Lake, Nunavut. I came to Ottawa for the 15-year anniversary of Project Naming to represent the youth perspective of our participation in the program. And it's been a good experience. I remember when I went and interviewed the elders at home, showing them these pictures. They were very happy to see these people again. It happened when I was showing the pictures yesterday. During my talk, the elder from Baker, she said she knows who all these people are, and she seemed really happy to see them again. That's exactly how it was when I was interviewing the elders at home.
And just how I feel, like seeing pictures of people that I've known personally that have passed away. It's a really good feeling to see these pictures of these people again. Just hearing these stories of the little things that happened in their lives helps to keep these stories going forward. Inuit are storytellers by nature, and everything we hear we like to tell other people. So, just hearing these stories helps us to keep going. So the stories that I heard from these elders, I'm going to be telling them to my children, my grandchildren, my nieces and nephews, and so on. And I think having these photographs gives the story a picture too, so that we can just look at the picture and remember the story that was told about that picture. You learn your family tree through pictures.
GM: Project Naming also benefits historians and researchers.
Deborah Kigjugalik Webster (DW): My name is Deborah Kigjugalik Webster. I'm named after my great grandmother Kigjugalik, and I come from Baker Lake. I'm a heritage researcher and an author, and I'm a friend of Project Naming. I found Project Naming very useful in my work. I'm currently researching and writing a book about Inuit RCMP special constables from Nunavut, and I found that in the literature, Inuit special constables were often not named. They were referred to simply as Eskimo guide or employed native. So I know firsthand how important it is to name individuals. And these individuals have made important contributions to our country.
GM: Robert Comeau works as an advocate of Inuit Nunangat, representing his homeland at environmental conferences and working with different organizations to improve the lives of Inuit.
Robert Comeau (RC): [Introduces himself in Inuktitut] [Speaks in French: “My grandfather is Donald Comeau. My grandmother is Gisèle Comeau.”] [Then continues in English] My name is Robert Comeau, and my grandmother is Anne on my one side, and my grandparents on the other side are Gisèle and Don. I'm from Iqaluit, and today we are participating in the Project Naming 15th anniversary celebratory event here with the photo exhibit at the Carleton University Art Gallery.
Project Naming has been something that's been around since I can physically remember, 15 years. I was about 7 years old back then. I don't remember it starting, but I do remember every time we'd get the paper, we'd flip over the Nunatsiaq or the News North—we'd flip over to the Project Naming page and see if it's one of our ancestors, because our grandparents and our great aunts would always be willing to answer those questions.
So just providing that channel for youth to be engaged with the elders is something of tremendous value. Because as Inuit, we have a social history that not many of us understand that we're still learning about: our shared experiences of colonialism, like with residential schools, relocations, day schools, and the continuing impacts of these events to our people, which may sometimes hinder young people's abilities to have these conversations with elders, you know.
Just getting into a room with an elder can sometimes be frightening because they are walking encyclopedias. They are our encyclopedias, and a lot of times—like for myself—there is that language barrier because I'm not a speaker of Inuktitut. But what Project Naming does is that even if there is a language barrier, there's still a tangible way to interact with each other through the photos.
And another thing that I think has been a really important piece of dialogue over the past couple of days has been the production of the photos themselves. So, learning more about how these photos were taken, why they were taken, by whom they were taken, with what purpose. So, conversations revolving around what the inside of an Inuit igloo really looked like at that time. Was it staged? So it's just being able to have a space for which critical analysis can happen is crucial so we're able to analyze the federal government's policies and attitudes towards Inuit through these photos.
For me at least, this isn't only about Project Naming. It's the catalyst. It's the underlying focus that has brought forward so many conversations and brought forward so many topics of conversations. So I think moving forward, I think as media evolve and with the introduction of social media, you throw anything on Facebook and you'll have elders—all your aunties and all your uncles—commenting on these archived photos. Oh, that's Jimmy. Or oh, that's your uncle John or whatever. So I think there's a lot of room for that. And I think there's a lot of will and a lot of knowledge to be tapped into.
GM: We sat down with Beth Greenhorn, who leads Project Naming at LAC, and had a discussion about the 15th anniversary event and the future of the project.
What would you say were some of the main themes to emerge from the discussions for those three days?
Beth Greenhorn (BG): Well, it was a wonderful event, and I think that what really came out of it was that the whole issue of reconciliation and understanding our colonial past is not just an Indigenous peoples' issue; it's a Canadian issue. And it's a past that we as Canadians and all peoples need to share and understand and take responsibility for.
GM: Uh-huh. Where do you see this project going after 15 years?
BG: Well, it certainly had a lot of twists and turns, and it's been so positive. When we first started it, it really was a one-off project. It started with the digitization of Richard Harrington's photographs from four communities. It involved the digitization of about 500 pictures, and that was going to be the end of it. We were going to put them online. We had about 75% of the people in those identified, and it was really because of the great success rate in identification that the project then received some more funding and we continued with the digitization. And it's grown from a small digitization project to a broader, community-based—and you said grassroots, and I would say definitely this is a grassroots project. That it really is about connecting with people in communities and engaging and having those conversations.
And so recently, we've really increased our presence on social media. In 2015, we launched a Project Naming album on Library and Archives Canada's Facebook page. And we were getting good traffic there, but on March 1st, on the first day of our 15th-year anniversary event, we officially launched our Project Naming Facebook page and Twitter account. And since launching just over two months ago, we've now at least had over 14,000 people—almost 15,000—
GM: Oh my goodness.
BG:—view the pages and it's certainly really popular. And people in remote communities are tapped into Facebook and social media. So we're going to continue to add weekly pictures. We're adding three pictures a week, and who knows what's going to happen with social media. Things are changing so rapidly that there are possibilities right now—I can't even think of how we might reach out to communities. But we still will continue to do our community outreach through our various channels, if it's through Facebook, Twitter, our blog, our podcast that we're doing today. So, yeah. We'll continue to grow, and as we digitize more material, we'll make that available through these different channels.
GM: What a wonderful project. It's a really good thing you're doing.
BG: Oh, thank you so much. I just would like to say it's a privilege and an honour to have been at the helm of this project, and I've had the support of so many amazing colleagues throughout Library and Archives Canada and the communities that the project wouldn't be what it is without the whole support. So it really is a community-based project.
GM: If you'd like to learn more about Project Naming, please visit the episode page for this podcast at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. Here you will find a number of links related to the project, including our Flickr album, which contains a number of photographs from the 15th anniversary event. And don't forget to follow Project Naming on Facebook and Twitter as it expands its reach into First Nations and Métis communities.
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Thank you for joining us. I'm your host Geneviève Morin. You've been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you”. A special thanks to our contributors, Manitok Thompson, Murray Angus, Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt, Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt, Deborah Kigjugalik Webster, Robert Comeau and Beth Greenhorn. We'd also like to thank the Nunavut Sivuniksavut performers for some of the music you heard in this episode.
This episode was produced and engineered by Tom Thompson with assistance from Paula Kielstra.
For more information about our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.