Reconciliation is rewriting Canada’s memory banks as archivists across the country work to make their collections more open to and sensitive towards Indigenous people.
Library and Archives Canada is leading the way with a $12-million project to hire Aboriginal archivists to work in First Nations communities and to give more control over materials gathered there to the people who created them.
“Decolonization” is a hot topic among those charged with storing, organizing and making accessible the country’s historical record.
“It’s huge,” said Camille Callison, Indigenous service librarian at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s like the biggest thing happening right now. A lot of people are making changes.”
Several recommendations in the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged libraries and archives to rethink their work in light of Indigenous people.
“Archives are instruments of bureaucracy, instruments of power,” said Greg Bak, a historian and archivist at the University of Manitoba.
“The archives become one way in which colonial views of relationships tend to be fixed and preserved.”
The national archives, for example, hold reams of residential school records. Few, said Bak, speak of the children who died there.
That institution is hiring seven Indigenous archivists to fan out across the country. They are to find out what materials are held locally and to record fresh oral history, said Johanna Smith, director of public services.
“That is brand-new for (Library and Archives Canada) to do,” she said.
“There’s definitely interest out there. When we talk about this, every time there’s a community that says, ‘Hey, we’ve got a freezer full of tapes that really need help.'”
Instead of being centralized in Ottawa, materials could remain in their community. So would the copyright — a big shift and a step toward recognizing the concept of “cultural copyright.”
Currently, a recording belongs to the person who made it.
“The rights of that individual who was recorded are not as clear,” Smith said.
“It’s about saying how can we connect those dots a little bit differently to put some agency back in the hands of the individual whose voice was recorded. It’s a community sense of belonging to that object. A community sense of privacy, also.”
Staff are also poring over old records to find those of interest to First Nations.
“Our holdings are vast,” said Smith. “We’re going to do some targeted research and … we’re going to Indigenous archivists to do that research, to identify collections that could be digitized.”
Other projects are also underway.
The Association of Canadian Archivists with 125 institutional members offers a scholarship for Indigenous archivists and has set up a working group to share best practices and to figure out how to best address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.
“There’s no manual to follow,” said director Jo-Anne McCutcheon.
“Every community is different. Settler-Indigenous contact happened differently, so it’s complicated.”
Archivists in Manitoba are reworking the old U.S. Library of Congress subject headings, the access points to any collection.
“They call Indigenous spirituality things like shamanism — the really antiquated terms we don’t use any longer,” said Callison.
Edmonton’s city archivists are rewriting catalogue descriptions so they don’t repeat offensive language contained in the documents they refer to.
“It’s growing on an annual basis,” said Raymond Frogner, archivist for the National Truth and Reconciliation Centre in Winnipeg. “It’s definitely gaining a lot of momentum.”
Archives aren’t necessarily neutral, Frogner said. Archivists and those who use them have to work to ensure everyone’s experience is reflected in the stories told
“We are what we choose to remember, but we also are what we choose to forget.”
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960