Facing the Past

The August/September issue of Canada’s History magazine contains a short piece I wrote about the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre‘s Remember the Children Photo Identification Project.  This project aims to help connect survivors, families, and communities with residential school photographs.  It also strives to identify the unnamed students pictured in so many residential school photographs.  This is one of the most popular projects undertaken by the Centre and I am constantly grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of it.

Remember the Children and Canada’s History

I recently wrote a piece for the Canada’s History website about the Remember the Children: Photograph Identification Project that was started by the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  This is a project that is near and dear to my heart.  It is one of the initiatives that made me realize the importance of community involvement in residential school archives, the power of images, and the many harsh realities of the intergenerational trauma.

Through this project the SRSC and CSAA have worked to connect communities and survivors with residential schools photographs and to identify people in residential school photographs.  Having the opportunity to work with survivors and communities on this project has been a humbling and eye opening experience that I am very fortunate to have worked on.

Stewarding Collections of Trauma

The Fall 2015 issue of Archivaria included “Stewarding Collections of Trauma: Plurality, Responsibility, and Questions of Action” by Lisa P. Nathan, Elizabeth Shaffer, and Maggie Castor.  The article looked broadly at efforts to manage archives that contain material relating to historical trauma and more specifically at the work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).

As the authors point out there are a lot of ethical and professional questions around how work with materials relating to trauma should be done.  Collections of trauma in this instance have been defined as intentional collections relating to violent and disruptive histories and the resulting aftermath of those histories.  The complexities of residential school archives and the NCTR collection are varied and archivists are still working to determine how best to work with this material.

In particular, I found the article’s section on “Incorporating Distrust” insightful to current challenges.  The authors note that, “The same juridical and political systems that conceptualized, created, managed, and perpetuated the harms of the Indian residential school system continue to be forces that shape the work of the NCTR.  Canadian universities contributed to the running of the Indian residential schools (eg. training teachers); one such university now hosts the NCTR” (p.115).  Many of the same colonial systems that were involved in the residential school era are now involved in the administration of reconciliation policies and the administration of archival collections relating to residential schools.  How does an archive existing within this system acknowledge this challenge and respond appropriately.

This tension is something I’ve felt while working within a residential school archive that is housed in a university and is jointly governed by a university.  The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is slightly different – being founded through the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and jointly managed by a survivor group.  But, it’s physical home is within a university and it exists within a very similar framework as the NCTR.  As the authors argued there is a need to acknowledge the distrust that comes with being part of these colonial systems and the need to develop new professional approaches to residential school archives.

How does the historical context of residential schools, intergenerational trauma, and colonialism impact how residential school archives are processed, accessed, and managed?  The TRC’s Calls to Action challenges the archival community to look critical at its approach to Indigenous archives and residential school archival collections.  This call is something that needs to be examined and responded to as archives continue to struggle with how to best care for this material.

Centennial Celebrations at Residential Schools

cowessessI recently was working with an audio recording from the Cowessess Indian Residential School.  The recording was in the form of a seemingly professionally produced record featuring a musical ensemble of Cowessess IRS students.  The recording was produced to celebrate the 1967 Canadian centennial.  This particular item got me thinking about the handful of other material I’ve come across that relates to residential schools celebrating the Canadian centennial.

At the Shingwauk Residential School the centennial was incorporated in a variety of ways including:

  • Students putting on the play ‘Arrow to the Moon’ which was written by a staff member.
  • Participating in the local centennial celebrations, specifically in a local ‘Indian Pavilion’ focused on Indigenous people.
  • Students created small handicrafts which were then sold at local centennial celebrations.  Many of these crafts were seemingly token Indigenous in nature – eg. totem poles and west coast style woodwork.

This seemingly cheery participation in the centennial is a stark contrast to the federal celebrations and the Canadian Indian Pavilion at Expo 67.  Created in consultation with Indigenous communities from across Canada the pavilion was designed to show the living conditions of Indigenous people in Canada and highlight the unfairness of Canadian government policies.  The Pavilion included a graphic display of a life-sized portrait of an Indigenous family outside of their home with the caption “… and still, too many Indians are poor, sick, cold and hungry. Three out of every four Indian families earn $2,000 or less a year. The poverty line for the rest of Canadian families is $3,000 a year.”[1]

The Expo 67 pavilion was a drastic contrast to the official messaging around the success of the reserve system and residential schools.  Unsurprisingly the pavilion was also very different to the celebratory centennial activities seen at residential schools.[2]

If anyone has come across other examples of the types of activities that were done in residential schools as part of the Canada celebration I would be interested in seeing them.  They are odd little pieces of the residential school curriculum that highlight the assimilation based education and attempts to instill Canadian pride in IRS students.

[1] “Message for Canadians At Indian Pavilion”, Indian Record 30, no. 5 (1967): 15.  Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Grey Nuns of Montreal Collection.

[2] For more information on Indigenous participation in Expo 67 see ““It’s Our Country”: First Nations’ Participation in the Indian Pavilion at Expo 67” by Myra Rutherdale and Jim Miller.

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

NCTR

Screenshot of nctr.ca

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba officially opened this week.  The first day of opening  focused on the history of residential schools, reconciliation, and steps for the NCTR going forward.  The second day of he opening emphasized education and included the launch of the NCTR website.

Work on the website is ongoing and materials collected by the TRC have just begun to be uploaded to the site.  Currently video footage from TRC events and hearings are available and a limited selection of archival materials relating to residential schools has been placed online.

This material was all openly available prior to the launch of the NCTR.  But it is now all aggregated on the new NCTR site and integrated into their collection. The national events and hearings were open to the public and some of them live-streamed.

The residential school archival material uploaded to the site is a bit more challenging in nature and is still a work in progress.  I found the school narratives created by the Government of Canada that are linked to each school interesting. However these narratives are very analytical and impersonal.  They are also include some errors (eg. the Spanish Girl’s School being labeled as St. Anne’s instead of St. Joseph’s).

The NCTR does note on that front page of these school narratives that:

“The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has not verified the content of this document. It is provided here for reference purposes only….You are welcome to contact the NCTR if you wish to add, comment on, or challenge any versions of the history presented herein.”

I was also struck by how each school’s page includes a “Featured Images” and “Related Material” section.  The bulk of the Related Material is quarterly return and administrative records from Library and Archives Canada. This material was previously available via LAC and is well documented on the NCTR website with details around origin, dates of creation, author, etc.

Conversely, the featured images are not accompanied by any contextual information or metadata.  The complex nature of residential school photography and ownership of these images that were often taken without active consent makes interpreting these images challenging.  Providing contextual information is crucial to understanding this history.  Ideally survivors and communities should be involved in how to describe, display, and share these images.

The NCTR has the potential to be an amazing resource for communities, educators, researchers and the general public.  I know that the website is a work-in-progress but at a first glance I saw a few red flags that need to be addressed in the near future.  However I do look forward to seeing how the NCTR’s digital access develops in the future.

Archives and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Workshop

I recently facilitated a workshop on Archives and the TRC as part of Huron History Day: An Active History Pre-Conference for High School and First Year Students.

The workshop focused on the history of residential schools, the unique challenges of residential school archives, the TRC, and reconciliation more broadly.  When planning this workshop I was a bit worried about the range of backgrounds that might be attending and how to include survivor experiences.

Typically when working with high school students at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre I have invited a survivor into the archive or classroom and students learn through their discussion with the survivor.  In the case of this workshop the time constraint and location meant this wasn’t possible.

This ended up being a blessing in disguise.  It caused me to think critically about engagement and turn to other great educational resources.  I modified and incorporated two of the activities from the 100 Years of Loss edu-kit created by the Legacy of Hope Foundation and drew on Project of Heart resources.

One of the activities I modified from the edu-kit focused on examining the before/after photographs of Thomas Moore.  I used a different set of before and after photographs but employed the same type of questions to the workshop participants.  Questions about identify, why the photographs were taken, and the impact of residential schools on culture all sparked meaningful discussion. This simple activity worked really well to introduce the topic of residential schools in an engaging manner.

I also incorporated an activity that allowed students to read a first-hand survivor statement about their experience in residential school.  This activity brought home the importance of incorporating survivor experiences into the archival record and highlighted the impact of residential schools on individuals, communities, and all of Canada.  Allowing students to speak about what they read in small groups and then as a larger group allowed for a range of participation and discussion.

I closed the workshop with a discussion of the Project of Heart and we debriefed while students decorated wooden tiles in memory of a residential school student.  This artistic activity allowed me some time to interact with the participants on an individual level and check in on the feelings of the group.  There were also a handful of teachers participating in the workshop and this activity served as an introduction into the Project of Heart and allowed me to invite them to engage their classes in the POH initiative.

Overall I was very please with how the workshop went.  A short workshop is by no means long enough to cover residential schools in depth.  But I feel as though participants left with a deeper understanding of the legacy of residential schools and many of them left with a desire to learn and do more.

Self Care Revisited

A few months ago I wrote about working in a field that involves historical trauma and the need for self care.  The topic of self care and the mental toll of working on emotionally charged topics came to the forefront for me earlier this week.  I spent a few hours digitizing records and cross referencing the information in these records with our research files.  This isn’t an unusual activity for me.

However the set of records I was digitizing were burial permits relating to residential schools. Working in a small archives or conducting historical research can be a very isolating and solo experience.  There aren’t always built in support networks for mental health.  Maybe there should be.  Particularly for those working with topics that deal with historical trauma.

In this instance when I finished this task I took a walk and spent the rest of the day engaged in positive work — planning for a gathering of former residential school students and working on education pieces relating to residential schools.  But it’s very easy to get bogged down by work that deals with such an emotionally charged topic.  I love the work I’ve been able to do and I am constantly inspired by the resilience of the residential survivors I work with.  But there are occasionally difficult days that require reflection and support.

I’d be interested to hear about what self care techniques or mental health support other researchers and historians practice.

The Role of Canada’s Museums and Archives in Reconciliation

My latest post, The Role of Canada’s Museums and Archives in Reconciliation, can be seen over at activehistory.ca.  The post looks at the TRC executive summary of the final report and calls to action in relation to museums and archives.  The report features 94 recommendations to facilitate reconciliation and address the legacy of residential schools, including a set of recommendations relating specifically to museums and archives.  The calls to action include a focus on access, best practices, commemorative projects, public education, and compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.