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By Sean Darcy
It was not until 1872, with the introduction of a straight numeric filing system, that it can be said that the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) adopted a central registry filing system. Other government departments, such as the Department of the Interior, adopted the same record-keeping system around the early 1870s. (6) The system at DIA, which applied exclusively to incoming and outgoing correspondence at headquarters, came to be known as the 'Red and Black Series.' These terms were based on the colour of the leather letter books used by the records office to distinguish between eastern and western Canadian correspondence.
Under this filing system, each letter received by the department was stamped with its date of receipt, after which any letter that referred to subjects about which there was no previous correspondence had a summary of its contents written on a file jacket (7), and the letter was placed into the file jacket. The entry was then copied into the register. The letter, file jacket, and the entry in the register were then all stamped with the same letter registration number. (8) The registers recorded the letter registration number, the sender, a synopsis of the letter, date of the letter and date of receipt, and the file number assigned to the letter. Later correspondence received by the department regarding the same issue were registered under a new number in the registry, but then placed in the file docket of the original file number.
These registers were the tools of the clerks attempting to locate files that were placed into early file dockets or migrated into later central registry filing systems employed by Indian Affairs. This filing system also used a 'Subject Extension Register' that grouped letters alphabetically by correspondent or subject. The earliest of these registers was simply arranged alphabetically by correspondent; however, by the 1880s the registers became more sophisticated, registering correspondence not only by individuals, but also by subjects such as treaties, timber licences and land grants, as well as by Indian agencies and government departments.
The Red Series registers run from 1872 until 1923 (from registration numbers 1 to 588,500). The series originally pertained to all central registry records generated by the department; however, in 1882 with the expanding activities of the department in western Canada, the department began a 'Black Series' register and index system for records relating to western Canada and the Maritimes. After 1907, Maritimes records were registered in the 'Red Series.' The Black Series indexes run from 1882 to 1919 (registration numbers 1 to 529,438); the Red Series indexes, oddly enough, run from 1881 until 1923 (registration numbers 1 to 580,000).
The earliest registers provide a powerful search tool that enables a researcher to link older departmental records, such as those generated by the civil secretary or the deputy superintendent's office, to records within the Red and Black Series. Examination of the earliest indexes, cross-references and early correspondence, has revealed that records from the previous filing systems used by the deputy superintendent general's office were physically migrated into the new Red Series, whereas the records from the older file systems employed by the civil secretary were only cross-referenced in the registers.
This filing system was introduced shortly before the Indian Act of 1876, which for the first time consolidated under one piece of legislation all legal matters pertaining to First Nations. The Department of Indian Affairs was mandated under the Indian Act to manage all aspects of the lives of those subject to it.
Historian John Milloy (9) asserts that through the introduction of this act the federal government obtained "the power to mould, unilaterally, every aspect of life on the reserve and to create whatever infrastructure it deemed necessary to achieve the desired assimilation, enfranchisement, and as a consequence, the eventual disappearance of First Nations." The 'subjects' gradually introduced into the Subject Extension Registers mirrored the introduction of new legislation such as the Enfranchisement Act. It reflects a world cosmology, an attempt to create a taxonomy of all activities relating to First Nations people, from government policy to personal issues such as community membership, wills, estates and land surrenders, down to mundane issues such as sand and gravel and dog licences.
The Red and Black Series were much more complicated than earlier research suggested: they did not use a simple sequential numeric system. Although it started out using a sequential numeric system, the DIA soon attempted to introduce an early classification system that used subject file blocks along with a superscript that indicated the agency responsibility codes. By 1902, the department realized the number of records it was generating related to common subject matters (ranging from office supplies and cash books to membership files) would soon make this system too cumbersome.
As a result, once the department reached letter registration number 254,000 in the Red Series, it adopted a 'General Subject System' that assigned subjects to file numbers running from 254,000 to 254,022. The department waited until 1913 to do the same in the Black Series. Once it reached letter registration number 269,980 in the Black Series, the DIA left several blank pages in the register, resumed at registration number 427,000 and assigned subjects under the 427,000s. G.M. Matheson referred to this as the 'Sub number Series.'
Schools were also assigned a subject number based usually on the first letter registered pertaining to a particular school. For example, correspondence pertaining to the Spanish River Day School was filed under file 151725, with a superscript number employed to indicate the type of correspondence. For example, number 151725-10 indicated an Admissions and Discharge record of the Spanish River School.
The addition of agency responsibility codes reflects both the expanding volume of correspondence generated and maintained by the DIA, and the increased presence of new DIA agencies across the country. Early Red and Black Series file numbers did not use agency responsibility codes until the early 1880s. With increased departmental activity, headquarters needed to incorporate into the existing system a tool for retrieving records generated by specific DIA agencies without reorganizing those records together physically by agency. Furthermore, by the mid-1880s the Subject Extension Registers were actually cross-referencing correspondence under agency headings. All headquarters Red Series records pertaining to the Manitowaning Agency, for example, were referenced under the heading 'Manitowaning Agency.'
The introduction of agency responsibility codes was characteristic of the manner in which the DIA's central registry system evolved. The department constantly re-adapted old systems to suit operational requirements up to the point that they became too cumbersome to maintain. The older system was then abandoned; however, certain elements were selected to be carried forward as the foundation for the successor system.