ARCHIVED - About the thesaurus

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About the Thesaurus

Welcome to the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada / Indigenous Services Canada Subject Thesaurus (CIST), which was developed to make retrieval of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada / Indigenous Services Canada (CIRNAC / ISC) information more efficient.  A subject thesaurus is a list of subject keywords that can be used to index or classify documents that are about a particular topic. These subject keywords can then be used by search engines to provide relevant results pertaining to a particular subject. The CIST includes relationships between keywords and phrases such as broader terms, narrower terms, preferred terms, non-preferred terms or related terms. The purpose of these relationships is to help indexers/classifiers to find the best subject keywords to describe the "aboutness" of documents. Also, these relationships can help searchers by providing preferred and related subject terms to use in a search.

The CIST is a bilingual thesaurus of subject terms describing the work of CIRNAC / ISC. It includes more than 2800 terms in English and more that 2900 terms in French, including almost 1300 preferred terms in each language. The CIST conforms to internationally accepted standards and conventions for thesaurus construction (i.e. Guidelines for the construction, format and management of monolingual controlled vocabularies (ANSI/NISO Z39.19-2005), Guidelines for the establishment and development of monolingual thesauri (ISO 2788-1986) and the Guidelines for the establishment and development of multilingual thesauri (ISO 5964-1985)).

Scope and purpose

The CIST covers specific subject areas identified during a review of manuals, policies, publications and other information resources from various departmental organizations.  As a result of this review, terms were extracted to be used for subject classification in various CIRNAC / ISC information systems such as CIRNAC / ISC's Internet and Intranet sites.

The following types of concepts have not been included in the CIST: geographical names, titles (e.g. program names), proper names (e.g. companies) and acronyms, except where they are in common usage. These concepts were not included for a variety reasons. Some terms may change frequently over time and prove difficult to maintain. Some terms fall outside the scope of this thesaurus because they are not "subject-related" but more "context-related". Some terms are better suited in a separate metadata field because the authoritative source already exists within the department (for example, First Nation names, geographic locations, program names).

The CIST is primarily intended for content managers, librarians, indexers and metadata specialists at CIRNAC / ISC who must select controlled subject terms to index CIRNAC / ISC information resources for metadata requirements. The main function is to standardize the form and meaning of subject terms, which will ensure that a particular concept or subject will always be represented in the same way in CIRNAC / ISC metadata resources.


In the CIST, French and English have equal weight, neither being the dominant or "source" language.  The French and English versions are parallel except for non-preferred terms where the same number of synonyms may not be needed in both languages. Exact equivalence is mandatory only for preferred terms. Preferred terms in French are in the masculine form.


The CIST is arranged in a standard format in which equivalence (USE; USE FOR), hierarchical (Broader Term; Narrower Term) and associative (Related Term) relationships among terms are clearly displayed and identified by standardized relationship indicators. A thesaurus also contains synonyms, or "lead-in" (non-preferred) terms that may be used as a point of entry by searchers or indexers, instead of the designated preferred subject terms. These terms "lead" users to the "preferred" term that is consistently used for describing or indexing information resources on a subject or concept. The CIST also includes inter-language equivalence relationships (English and French equivalents) for the preferred terms.

The terms are also classified according to broad subject categories that are used in the Government of Canada Core Subject Thesaurus.

In the CIST, the English terms conform to Canadian spelling rules. English terms normally appear in the plural form, except for abstract concepts or entities that cannot be counted. In contrast, the French terms generally appear in the singular form as is the linguistic convention.

All terms appear in direct rather than inverted order as they would in natural speech (e.g. "Harvesting rights" not "Rights, harvesting").

Sample term entry from the CIST:

Historic treaties


Traité historique

Subject Category:

History and Archaeology

Used For:

Numbered treaties

Peace and friendship treaties

Pre-confederation treaties

Broader Term:


Related Term:

Historical documents



Maintenance and updates

The CIRNAC / ISC Subject Thesaurus is managed and updated by the Departmental Library, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada / Indigenous Services Canada.

Indexing guidelines

Indexers using the Thesaurus should apply the following rules of indexing to ensure consistency of subject access to information resources. For more information on how to index Government of Canada information resources in accordance with the Treasury Board of Canada standards, please consult the Government of Canada Metadata Implementation Guidelines for Web Resource Discovery. This resource describes indexing for web resources. However, much of the information can be applied to indexing other types of information resources.

The CIRNAC / ISC Subject Thesaurus is mainly a post-coordinated controlled vocabulary, although there are some concepts that are pre-coordinated. A pre-coordinated vocabulary is one in which a complex concept has been created in the thesaurus as a compound term at the time of thesaurus development. A post-coordinated vocabulary mainly consists of single concepts which are combined. For example, consider the preferred term "Youth employment". In a post-coordinated situation, this concept could be indexed or searched by two single terms; "Youth" and "Employment". However, in a pre-coordinated situation, an organization may find it necessary to have the concept expressed as one term; "Youth employment".

When using the Thesaurus, indexers should keep the following in mind:

Specific vs. General

Avoid using general terms such as "Rights", if a specific term is more appropriate. For example, if the document is about treaty rights, use the preferred term "Treaty rights" instead of "Rights". However, if the document is about rights in general, it may not be appropriate to include specific terms. The indexer must assess the weight attached to a concept within a document; if a concept is not fully developed or only mentioned casually, indexing at a more general level is justified.

As a general rule, a document should not be indexed with both broader and narrower terms from a same hierarchical string. However, it would be necessary, for example, to index a resource about rights in general, which also included a substantial section on treaty rights using both "Rights" and "Treaty rights" as preferred terms.

Use as many subject descriptors as needed to fully describe the contents of a document

Several preferred terms are often necessary to fully express the subject of a document. For example, an indexed document about the Government of Canada helping First Nations in the provision of safe, clean, and reliable drinking water will be represented by the following set of preferred terms:

Water use, Water supply, Water, Water quality, Drinking water, Standards, Aboriginal people

As far as possible, every essential concept dealt with in a document should be represented by a preferred term.

Make use of the semantic structure of the Thesaurus

Consult the list of broader terms, narrower terms, related terms and scope notes attached to each subject term chosen as an index term. These relationships clarify the meaning of a term, and they suggest other index terms that may be useful.


Use the form of the preferred terms as presented in the CIST when using them in the "Subject" metadata element of any information system or database.

As a general rule, only the first letter of an indexing term is capitalized. Conventions are also followed in the CIST regarding the use of singular and plural forms. In English, count nouns (which are subject to the question "how many?") are generally in the plural form, while non-count nouns (which are subject to the question "how much?"), as well as abstract concepts, are in the singular form. In French, most terms are in the singular form.

Indexing language

Documents in English must be indexed with the English version of the Thesaurus and documents in French with the French version. Bilingual documents should be indexed in both languages.

Changes and additions

If you would like to obtain a copy of a detailed list of changes and additions, please contact Rachel Clarke.

Contact information

If you have comments, suggestions for additions or modifications, or would like to discuss the contents of the CIRNAC / ISC Subject Thesaurus, please send an email to: Rachel Clarke







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