Métis Archival Project Lab celebrates 20 years of research and community service

Lab's applied research bolsters the litigation of Métis rights

Jordan Cook - 13 November 2019

For 20 years, Frank Tough has led the Métis Archival Project (MAP) Lab. The unit resides administratively in the Faculty of Native Studies, and physically in the Research Transition Facility, where they have the room necessary to hold 20 years of research, court cases, and database construction.

The work the MAP Lab does has always been community driven. It got its start at the U of A when the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan decided to fund a research project. Back then, the lab was known as the Métis Aboriginal Title Research Initiative (MatriX).

"Back in the early nineties, it was my view that Native Studies could offer things to the community by engaging in research methods, and that we could nurture some applied research experience through consultancy work," said Tough.

Now, in 2019, the MAP Lab continues to do applied archival research intended for the litigation of Métis rights.

"Basically what we do is take the crown's own historical records and we turn them around and use them against the crown today. This is all done within open ended objective inquiry: the facts take us where they do," explained Tough. "But the crown's legal reasoning is to deny all claims, but their own historical records deny any foundation to their legal arguments today."

The people who work with Tough in the MAP Lab are most often students or recent grads, and they spend a lot of time in archives: going through scrip, mission, Hudson's Bay Company and census records to collect information to support and test assertions that relate to judicial recognition of Métis Nation rights, said Tough.

"The main thing that is unique about the work done here is the accumulation of digitized scrip applications and the imagery associated with that."

The approach the lab takes to this research and the production of this particular form of knowledge is very labour intensive, requiring capital and people who know how to use technology like computers and databases, Tough explained.

"I could sit down and start entering data on the scrip applications alone, but there's 15,000 of them so I'd never finish. So this involved the division of labour, training, and so very much our approach was lab."

The lab has digitized thousands of scrip records, creating high res, high quality images with detailed information about each. All of these records they digitize through a multi-person, multi-step process that ensures their files are error-free.

"This has a high degree of validity, and is very time consuming. But our ethos is to do it right the first time," said Tough.

Unlike in social science, where research is often looking for larger patterns, genealogical work can require a higher level of detail, said Tough.

"If you draw a sample out of a census of a thousand names and you're looking for social patterns, it doesn't matter how the names are spelled. But in genealogical work certain things are more crucial. So we've always thought very hard about errors and mistakes in our process and in the process of archival work," Tough said.

Teaching and learning

After twenty years of meticulous archival research and digitization efforts, some of Tough's favourite memories from the Lab have to do with the people he works with: the students.

"I actually think one of the biggest outcomes has been training students. In my view research is a craft, and here it's a hands-on mentorship," said Tough.

Sandy Hoye, the manager of the Map Lab and a recent graduate of the U of A's School of Library and Information Studies, cites this mentorship as augmenting the lessons he learned during his graduate program.

"[This work] ticked a lot of boxes of things I liked in Library School," said Hoye. "There's data management, its administration, as well as the digital side of everything. Managing a relatively big digitization project, learning how to build these databases, and getting to create something useful."

Currently the MAP Lab has 14 employees, over 10 of them full time.

"It's not for everyone. For some people it's just a job. But for many students, the MAP Lab is sort of a halfway house: they're still on campus, but they're getting paid and they're doing research, they're doing intellectual work."

The MAP Lab gives students the opportunity to do what Tough, via Harold Innis, calls "dirt research." That is, research that requires the researcher to go out in the field, rather than sitting at their desk and reading about their subject matter.

A highlight of that dirt research is the trips, both Hoye and Tough said, including visits to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa, and the National Archives and British Library in London.

These are opportunities for research that MAP Lab employees like Hoye value highly.

"I think it's great getting to experience the different archives around Canada, doing applied research. It's rewarding rooting around and piecing together this significant aspect of Métis history," he said.

Database Project

With the Powley decision in 2003, there was a need for objectively verifiable connections between individuals and historic Métis communities, Tough explained, and the MAP Lab was uniquely positioned to provide that support.

In 2006, they created an online database that allowed Métis people to investigate their genealogy by searching for the names of their ancestors. The database was one of the first of its kind in Canada. Taken down in 2018 for security reasons, the MAP Lab is currently working on a new database that they launched in October 2019. The new database is be owned by the Métis National Council.

This database is being organized in a way that is much more user-friendly, allows for mapping, and will have exponentially more records uploaded than the old one, said Hoye.

"We'll be able to display results online in a way that makes sense to people. We've reorganized a lot of the data, and it's really interesting what it will allow users to do," said Hoye.

When users search by name in the database, their results will be the related scrip application and associated imagery. It's a level of searching that isn't currently available anywhere else.

"Most of the time you can't just search for a name in LAC and find a scrip application. But once the website is up and running it should be that easy," said Hoye.

"We're making these archival documents available and accessible to the average computer user: you won't need to have a master's degree to do this research about your family genealogy now."

In October, members of the MAP Lab team traveled to Winnipeg for a Métis National Council conference, and launched the database at the same time. Upon its launch, the Lab's detailed, high quality records and images of thousands of scrip applications will once again be available to the public.

While in Manitoba, Tough was awarded the Order of the Métis Nation for his dedicated work and volunteerism in the protection and promotion of Métis Nation rights.

The "Ordinary Individual"

Work in the MAP Lab involves working with difficult records and involves a certain amount of qualitative or descriptive statistics, to be able to say something about a social group that's been left out of history, Tough said.

"E.P. Thompson talked about rescuing the ordinary individual from the obscurity of history. A lot of the stuff done on the Métis is just top level stuff: what does Riel say, what does MacDonald say. Not, what do the applications say," Tough said.

"And with scrip we pull what the written record was on the average person."