Public archives play an indispensable role in safeguarding our documentary heritage while at the same time balancing the needs of public access with a degree of personal privacy for the record’s subject.
Recently, this traditional responsibility has been inundated with questions addressing cultural provenance and right of ownership over materials and even subject matter. This expanded obligation is largely the result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action, which specifically names the Canadian archival community for its role in the legacy of residential schools across the country and invites a community response.
University of Northern British Columbia archivist, Erica Hernández-Read, is ensuring this collective response is informed, culturally responsive and empowering for both archivists and Indigenous communities.
Hernández-Read is the lead of the Response to the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Taskforce with the Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives. Working with a team of archival colleagues and Indigenous heritage professionals and advocates from across the country, this taskforce is committed to the development of a reconciliation framework for Canadian archives which actively engages and broadly includes Indigenous record keepers and researchers, their perspectives and methodologies, with the Canadian archival system.
The taskforce also aims to establish, grow and sustain relationships between archivists and the Indigenous communities represented in their collections, as such communication will establish cultural responsive professional practices which in turn, will ensure that relevant archival materials are treated in accordance with the unique protocols established by individual Indigenous communities.
Hernández-Read received a $182,000 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant to, in part, conduct outreach with Indigenous heritage professionals from tribal councils, cultural centres and territorial governments across the country, to better understand how archives can better support their work and the needs of their communities, as well as, how the archival profession can more effectively engage Indigenous heritage professionals on a collegial level.
“We want to talk to people from both a collegial perspective and a client perspective, to understand where Canadian archives have failed and how we can work together to build that bridge,” says Hernández-Read.
Her experience as the Archivist, Access and Digital Initiatives at the Northern BC Archives made her well suited to the lead this national effort.
“Working with Indigenous communities has always been something that we do at the Northern BC Archives,” she says. “We have many longstanding relationships with regional First Nations communities where we provide archival support in any way we can.”
The first step in the taskforce’s research process was a survey conducted last year, which examined the level of reconciliation action and awareness in Canadian archives. The group is also undertaking an international literature review and author follow-up to learn more about similar reconciliation and community archiving experiences around the world, including in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In addition, there will be a Reconciliation Visioning Circle at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation archives at the University of Manitoba, and a stakeholders meeting of national, provincial and territorial archival associations to discuss how such organizations can further support archival reconciliation efforts within their own jurisdictions.
Most of the Indigenous organizations the taskforce will be engaging with have their own archival holdings, whether or not these holdings are labelled “archives”; however, they are often not affiliated with national or even regional archival organizations.
“We must acknowledge that in Indigenous organizations, archival material is not necessarily separated out from museum artifacts or library items,” says Hernández-Read. “Neither are they separated out from tangible versus intangible heritage. They are all intrinsic, inseparable aspects of culture.”
Among the issues the taskforce will discuss are the concepts of ownership and authorship and how they may differ in archival theory and Indigenous worldview.
“In archival practice, when a donor donates materials, it becomes forever more a part of the archives – the archives effectively owns it,” she says. “In many Indigenous communities, the concepts of ownership and authorship are very different.”
Take the hypothetical example of a series of photographs covertly taken by a non-Indigenous person of Indigenous people engaged in ceremonial activities associated with a secret society. If the photographer then donates these images to an archives, the archives understands that it now owns these images outright and can use them as they see fit, particularly if the copyright term has expired. However, according to many Indigenous worldviews, the subject of such photos is absolutely restricted and not to be seen by any who are not initiated into the secret society represented. Because ownership is held by the secret society not the photographer, public display of such images would be forbidden regardless of how long the copyright term has been expired.
If the photographer is considered the author of the material, rather than its owner, and the Indigenous community represented acknowledged as the rightful owner, then the discussion around how to preserve and display the images takes on a different tone and includes both the archivist as well as members of the community that the photograph depicts.
There will also be discussions around the concept of repatriation, including when it’s appropriate to return original materials to communities and when digital versions would suffice. Hernández-Read acknowledges their attempt to maintain a balance between the priorities of two different communities will be challenging.
“For many archives, their holdings are why they exist,” she says. “Once you start chipping away at those holdings through repatriation, it becomes difficult to justify existence.”
The taskforce is also exploring ideas for how to increase diversity within the professional archival community. Currently, archival education is at the Master’s degree level, which is not accessible for everyone. Hernández-Read says through sponsored internship opportunities, mentorships, or other innovative education models, it may be possible to get more marginalized people involved in careers in archives or in the heritage sector in general.
“There are very few members of the archival community who self-identify as Indigenous and very few People of Colour,” says Hernández-Read. “We have a lot of work to do on this front.”
Over the next few years the taskforce will complete a report, two guide books and a set of evergreen protocols and principles which will not only assist archivists across the country to engage with Indigenous communities in the respectful and culturally appropriate management of Indigenous related holdings, but which will also serve as a catalyst for change within the Canadian archival profession itself.
“Archivists in Canada are aware of the Indigenous materials in their holdings - they are also aware of their historical role as memory keeper, keeping safe documentation of a colonial system of governance which saw genocidal policy as being of national interest. What many archivists don’t know is how to effectively disentangle themselves from their institution’s theoretical colonial underpinning to allow Indigenous worldviews affect archival collections management policy,” says Hernández-Read. “It is hoped that the work of this taskforce will help guide the way.”