Indexing Trauma: The Truth and Reconciliation Indexing Team

by Barbara Kamienski

Published at 2016-02-03

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established on June 1, 2008, issued its final report on December 15, 2015. In over two thousand pages of text (plus hundreds of pages of notes and references), it documents the horrors of Canada's residential school system. The report is, to put it mildly, a very tough read. To read even more than a few pages of it is a crushing experience.



Yet the three indexers who took on the task of creating the indexes for the second printing of the English-language print version and the online version had to do just that, and in the January meeting of the Toronto branch of the Indexing Society of Canada, two of them spoke about the experience. It turned out to be quite an emotional afternoon, as we reacted to and reflected on what our colleagues had to say. While the mechanical challenges of coordinating this team project were considerable, involving innumerable Skype sessions and emails, the emotional challenges presented by the content were also daunting.  

Indexing Names

The very first decisions an indexer grapples with when faced with a text relate to term selection—what to call things, concepts, people, and places. Obviously, what’s on the page dictates the terms used. But what if the same thing is called by various names? ­In Volume 4 (page 140), we read,



“The industrial school at Lebret [Saskatchewan], for example, was referred to as the ‘Lebret school,’ the ‘Qu’Appelle school,’ and the ‘St. Paul’s school’—all at the same time. It later became known as the ‘Whitecalf school.’ Th­ere is also duplication in names: there were three St. Marys, four St. Pauls, and at least eight St. Josephs.


So what’s an indexer to do? According to one team member,

“We decided to use the geographic notation of the school first and then in the entry the other names it was formally called. Hence, the reference to Lebret first. The rationale: there were often two schools in a community (Roman Catholic and Anglican usually), and this way the schools would be grouped together in the index. We cross-referenced all parts of the school names like the dickens!”

This means that readers searching for information on any school can find it, no matter which name they look up. The same applies to names of people, and the indexers had to decide, based on frequency, whether to list people under their anglicized or Aboriginal names, or both.

Indexing Content

But these are still fairly routine decisions.  Much more difficult were the problems around capturing the content of Survivors’ testimonies.  An excerpt from Volume 1.1 provides chilling insight:



corporal punishment, 517–557; armed with gun, 544–545; boarding schools (United States), 140, 244; chained to benches, 543–544; ears twisted, 524; guidelines, 203; hair cut short, 524–525, 537–538, 552; instructions, 520–522; locked up, 102; male versus female, 536; in presence of other students, 556; reformatories, 527–528; religious control, 519–524; runaways’ reasons, 594–595; school case studies, 532–557; sentences, 530; shackling, 542–543, 665; solitary confinement, 523; for swearing, 172; violated Aboriginal norms, 523. See also discipline; punishment; strappings


It is worth noting that strappings were so common that they merited their own entry. In another volume, "discipline, punishment and abuse" were combined in one term, expressing with heart-breaking clarity that these were frequently one and the same thing.

Indexing while Striking a Balance

How can one remain objective in the face of appalling narratives? And should one? Indexers are not called upon to express their opinions in the indexes they create; they need to strike a fine balance, avoiding both strongly pejorative terms and ones that are so neutral that they obscure the intent of the author or authors.  As one of the index authors described it, “In my first entries, my bias showed … when the content was fresh as it was read … During my editing process, I cleaned up and ‘sanitized’ the entries in order to remove ‘the voice of my heart’ [and] emotions subsided, as the focus was to build a cohesive index and address all indexing concerns. Once I completed my indexes, and reviewed the content again, the misery of it all arose.”



For more on the language around the residential school system, see Alanna’s blog of October 7, 2015, Wab Kinew: The Power and Politics of Language.”


2019 Update

You can view Volume 5 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission online, as well as its accompanying index.