Decolonizing our descriptions, unsettling our practice

The Rev. Herbert Girling gathering material for the translation of St. Mark’s Gospel with Inuit adults in his cabin in Bernard Harbour, ca. 1915. Photo: General Synod Archives
Published September 23, 2020

I recently had the opportunity to share with the Council of General Synod (CoGS) what the General Synod Archives department is doing to dismantle racism. General Synod’s archives hold the records of the national church and its antecedents, related organizations and people of national significance. These come in the form of archival files, publications, periodicals, photographs and microfilm.

Laurel Parson, General Synod archivist

Many of these records document the settlement of Canada and the relationship the Anglican Church of Canada had with the Indigenous peoples and non-white immigrants. The language and the imagery used in the records also document the racism embedded in society and in the church.

In March 2004, the Council of General Synod received A Charter for Racial Justice in the Anglican Church of Canada as a working document by the Anti-Racism Working Group. Recently, the church renewed its commitment to grapple with the truth about systemic and individual racism in the church and to dismantle racism by committing itself to the charter. General Synod Archives is committed to the charter as well. Specifically, the department is endeavouring to ensure that the policies, procedures and practices of the General Synod Archives reflect the principle of equity for all; to increase awareness of and appreciation for the diversity of race, colour and culture within the Anglican Church of Canada and in Canadian society; and to monitor our progress by listening to the evaluative comments of people oppressed by systemic and individual racism.

Our commitment

In the struggle to dismantle racism, General Synod Archives is committed to truth telling and reconciliation with all races and nationalities in Canada. We do this by preserving and making available records that document the mission and the struggles of Chinese, Japanese and other Asian and African peoples, both in their homelands and here in Canada. General Synod Archives is also committed to truth telling and reconciliation with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. We are committed to responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Our response

In response to this commitment, we continue to make available the records we found about the residential schools in our holdings in order to acknowledge the right for Indigenous people to know the whole truth about what happened and why, with regard to human rights violations committed against them in the residential schools.

In response to TRC Call to Action No. 70, General Synod Archives commits to reviewing our archival policies and best practices to comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. UNDRIP Article 13.1 states that Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons. We commit to describing all library and archival material so that Indigenous people can find their own histories and their own language and cultural materials by using their own names for communities, places and peoples.

The archives include an extensive collection of library materials that document the histories, languages, writing systems (dictionaries, grammars, etc.) and literatures of Indigenous peoples. They also hold records for the diocese of the Arctic and the diocese of Keewatin. These records document the people and communities in Northern Ontario, Northern Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Nunavik. We are endeavouring to describe these materials appropriately and to make the knowledge of these items more accessible by cataloguing more of them into the databases which are searchable online.

Decolonizing our descriptions means unsettling our practice

Library subject headings and archival descriptions were created by non-Indigenous people who were describing places and people with names and words that were ascribed by non-Indigenous settlers. We are working to rectify this by using the right names of places, the right names of Indigenous people groups, the right names of languages and the right words to describe Indigenous culture.

In practice, this means changing or adding subject headings, people and place names, and languages to include the terms Indigenous people use.

Subject headings are replaced or terms eliminated that are considered culturally insensitive to Indigenous people. Some key changes include replacing “Indians of North America” with “Indigenous peoples”; “Indian” with “Indigenous” (or a more specific name when the name of the people is known); and deleting mythology references such as Chipewyan “mythology”. This is done out of respect for the oral traditions of the Indigenous peoples.

In terms of people and place names, we endeavour to adopt terms that more accurately reflect the identity of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and their communities.

Examples of name changes include replacing “Eskimos” with “Inuit”, or the specific name for their people; “Cree Indians” with “Cree”; and “Blackfoot Indians” with “Siksika”, the name they use for their people.

Examples of place name changes include “Inukjuak” (Québec) for “Port Harrison” (Québec); “Arviat” (Nunavut) for “Eskimo Point” (N.W.T); and “Kugluktuk” (Nunavut) for “Coppermine” (N.W.T.).

Languages need to be identified correctly, as well. Examples include replacing Ojibwa language with Ojibwe (Anishinabe) language; Takudh language with Gwich’in language; Eskimo language with Inuktitut language, or a more specific dialect, such as Inuinakton language or Inuvialuktun language.

Resources and consultations

To ensure that the archival descriptions remain highly searchable and discoverable by using standardized subject terminology, we have been consulting resources made available by other librarians and archivists who are also responding to the Calls to Action and have already made changes in consultation with Indigenous peoples in their provinces. An example of this is the work done by the University of Alberta Libraries’ Decolonizing Descriptions Working Group and the Manitoba Archival Information Network’s Decolonizing Descriptions Working Group. Consulting resources such as these is beneficial, because the General Synod Archives holdings are national in scope.

Decolonizing our descriptions is a work in progress. There are eight databases searched in online queries that include library materials; official statements (resolutions and press releases); archival descriptions; articles; microforms; and graphic material (photos). This represents thousands of records with subject headings, people, places or languages that still need to be identified in a respectful way. By doing this, we are endeavouring to make Indigenous people seen and respected for who they are. As we proceed, we plan to include more consultation with Indigenous people. We encourage people to search our collections at and to send us feedback on our descriptions. We thank the Indigenous peoples for their grace and patience as we endeavour to dismantle racism by decolonizing our descriptions.

Laurel Parson is the archivist of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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