National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

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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.

Shifting Priorities and Heritage Relevancy

The May/June issue of Muse included a number of short pieces focusing on relevancy, visitor engagement, and doing more with less resources.  A short International Council of Museums (ICOM) writeup by Mannon Blanchette hit the issue squarely on the head by noting,”In the face of constant and rapid transformations, museums are trying to meet the important challenge of remaining relevant and effective…”

Heritage organizations across the spectrum are being asked to provide more with fewer financial and physical resources.  Arts and heritage organizations are at times seen as ‘extras’ by communities, individuals, and funding bodies.  Yet, the preservation of our past, the educational value of heritage, and importance of community spaces are all things which museums contribute to communities. 

So how are heritage organizations adapting to changing societal needs and expectations?

  • Building a digital presence.  Using social media and digital collection tools it is possible for heritage organizations to reach potential visitors in new ways.  However, the most effective digital presences are engaging and not merely static websites.  Creating a digital space which invites user participation and encourages online users to visit a physical space requires staff time and commitment.
  • Seeking new sources of funding.  With declining governmental funding many heritage organizations are looking to revamping their funding structures.  This often includes developing a great capacity for fundraising and an emphasis on seeking private donors.
  • Emphasizing community connections.  Providing services to the local community the extend beyond a heritage collection are often part of this.  Initiatives such as participating in Doors Open events, sponsoring a community garden, partnering with other organizations to host events, and bringing heritage outside of the institution through booths and off site outreach programming are all ways which heritage organizations have fostered strong community connections.
  • Social engagement.  Heritage organizations need to be stronger advocates for their needs and in promoting their services and values.  The days of simply waiting for people to visit an institution based on chance are gone.  Active communication with stakeholders, potential visitors, and the community at large are essential.

Community Archives and the Limitations of Identity

The Spring/Summer issue of The American Archivist contained a number of thought provoking articles on the representation of disabilities, minorities, and ethnic groups in archives and archival literature.  One of the articles which I found particularly compelling was “Community Archives and the Limitations of Identity : Considering Discursive Impact on Material Needs” by Christine N. Paschild. (Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to be inspired by Paschild’s article, Scott Ziegler wrote a review of the article on the Start an Archives! blog.) 

Paschild’s article examines how “postmodern-influced discourse of identity shapes and influences critical analysis of community archives.” The article outlines a number of interesting postmodern theoretical ideas and is rooted in Paschild’s case study of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM).  Paschild argues that the language used to describe community archives often results in marginalization, distraction, or politicization of collections.

Throughout her article Paschild advocates for a clearer definition of community and identity.  She maintains that “the definition of community archives must be drafted in necessarily broad stokes to fully encompass all possible identity constructions.” Identity can be constructed in a variety of ways and can mean very different things depending on the individual or community. 

Paschild’s article also got me thinking a lot about self-identification within Canada’s Aboriginal community and how archives develop collection policies relating to Aboriginal communities.  Defining who falls under the description Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nation, and a myriad of other labels is something that has been long debated in Canada.

The Canadian government has repeatedly attempted to define Aboriginal identity through the use of legislation, the Indian Act, and treaties.  Government definitions of Aboriginal identity have created exclusions and divisions amongst Aboriginal peoples. Additionally, the government definition of Aboriginal identity often does  not a reflect or take into consideration Aboriginal culture, tradition, language, or practices. 

Self-identification allows people who are ‘non-status’, were adopted by a non-indigenous family at a young age, or simply don’t fit the government’s categories, to identify with the community that they see themselves as being a part of.   Granted, self-identification can be a difficult thing to quantify and many people may be reluctant to self-identify in some cases.  However, without taking into consideration self-identification and community based definitions of identity archives seriously limit the material they collect and potentially become increasingly removed from the communities they are aiming to serve.

A broad definition of identity can help archives and heritage organizations be institutions which serve the organizations they aim to represent and collect material for or about.  Community archives and archives which aim to collect information about specific communities need to consciously think about how they are selecting and accepting material based on their definition of identity.  Simply because a conception of community identity is popular or commonly accepted does not mean it is correct or complete.  Community identity can directly impact archival holdings and is something which more archivists should be addressing.