Haunted records: the relationship between archival and Indigenous narratives

(NOTE: This is a piece I wrote for a journalism course I took through Carleton University called Covering Indigenous Canada, taught by Hayden King. I’m finally getting around to sharing it. Featured image courtesy of Karolina van Schrojenstein Creative Commons)

Just as the land, the nation, and the national memory are haunted, so too is the colonial archive. – J.J. Ghaddar

There’s something that hides in the background archives. It peaks around the pages of dusty books, scribbles its signature across records, and stands in the back row of black-and-white photographs. It’s an Indigenous narrative, forced to sit behind the colonial narrative that beams front row and centre.

Indigenous communities from Australia to the United States to Canada have been fighting for the right to finally put that hiding face front and centre. Archivists have been fighting the clock, trying to accurately document the passage of time. The archives of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) have been the subject of a very quiet disagreement, headed by Mike Cachagee of the Chapleau Cree First Nation, chair of the Ontario Indian Residential School Support Services and residential school survivor. The discussion centres around who owns the information housed in the archives, the institution or the subjects in the records.

While there may be at this time an amicable relationship between the [University of Manitoba] and survivors, what guarantee do we (the survivors) have that this will always remain as such?” – Mike Cachagee

Cachagee took a small group of survivors to the archives in February to see what information they could find there about their history. The NCTR is the remainder of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to make amends to the history of residential schools by collecting as much information as possible and accurately recording it. Cachagee said they were treated as a nuisance at the archive, but his bigger issue was with the overall structure of it.

“When you go over there into the reception area, it’s this old turn-of-the-century building and there’s nothing there,” said Cachagee. “There was all this energy and money and time and everything else put into the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission], and there was nothing there.”

According to Jarad Buckwold, a digital archivist at the NCTR, they are still sorting through the more than five million records given to them by the commission. That is part of the issue that Cachagee encountered. The other part is that their archives have an access and privacy coordinator who controls the information that is allowed out. The coordinator checks for private information in the documents that relates to anyone but the person who requested the information.

For particularly contentious cases, Buckwold said the archivists will bring in their “survivor’s circle,” a small group of residential school survivors, to provide counsel on the issue. Cachagee and the survivors who accompanied him that day are not on that council.

Greg Bak, professor of archival studies at the University of Manitoba, says that access to the documents needs to be transparent without being offensive or harmful. “What we wanted to do was to make sure that the records were stewarded in a way that made sense in relation to the needs of the various Indigenous communities that were affected by residential schools,” he said.

But there is another factor at play here, one that is hard to account for in tangible terms, and one that cannot have a council created to offer advice. It’s the colonial narrative. That is the quiet dictator of who owns what information, and what information gets to be seen.

To decolonize the archives requires an erasure or negation of the colonial realities of the archives themselves. Given the inherent colonial realities of the archives or institutions, any effort to decolonize or Indigenise the archives in Canada can therefore only ever be partial. – Crystal Fraser and Zoe Todd

Though Canada likes to brag a multicultural society, it’s hard to deny its colonial roots because they still permeate several facets of Canadian society. Archives – especially state-run archives – typically nestle into the narrative of that state. In Canada, then, the archives are nestling into the narrative of colonialism.

Archives straddle a thin tightrope between history and currency. They take old documents and make something new out of them, a collection. If the dominant narrative of the time the records were produced was a colonial one, the records wouldn’t have much of any room left for varying perspectives like those of Indigenous communities.

Some scholars like Crystal Fraser and Zoe Todd, stress the importance of decolonising archives in order to bring those perspectives to light. Bak disagrees though, saying that that isn’t always the right goal. “Archives preserve […] records of bureaucratic action,” he said, “the kinds of government activities that are essential if you’re going back and trying to establish accountability.”

While Cachagee is not in favour of the colonial nature of archives, he did note the importance of the records within them, often being used for court cases against government bodies, and to aid survivor’s in researching their history. Bak echoed Cachagee, saying that, “very often Western-style archives have been important in documenting those relationships.” That just means, however, that how the information is documented and released becomes even more important.

As J.J. Ghaddar wrote in his article about the impacts of colonial archives, “one consequence of colonialism, then, is Indigenous people’s lack of control over how their information, histories, and cultural knowledge are used and interpreted.”

That is the heart of the issue here. Who owns the information, and who is therefore responsible for the proper stewarding of that information?

Research involving Aboriginal peoples in Canada has been defined and carried out primarily by non-Aboriginal researchers. The approaches used have not generally reflected Aboriginal world views, and the research has not necessarily benefitted Aboriginal peoples or communities. As a result, Aboriginal peoples continue to regard research, particularly research originating outside their communities, with a certain apprehension or mistrust. – Tri-Council Policy Statement

Cachagee seems to have that sense of apprehension over archival work that is done without consent and collaboration with Indigenous peoples. “If it was set up that it was joint ownership,” he said, “we have the assurance that the integrity of [the records] and their longevity and the use of them will always be there.” But without that joint ownership, he said, “we don’t know down the road.”

The archives at the NCTR are housed at the University of Manitoba, so are organized through the university institution. The archives, then, lie somewhere between a university archive, a state archive and an organization’s archive. And their guidelines fall somewhere in between all three.

Cachagee was – and still is – concerned about the lack of guidelines that include the perspective of Indigenous peoples. He said he’s concerned that the records will take on the narrative of the university institution.

“It’s now in the hands of the white coats,” Cachagee said about the records pertaining to residential schools. “It becomes clinical. Once it becomes clinical then the rules and operations and processes take over, because it’s within their operating system and it’s the only way they function.”

Bak seemed to embrace using the institutional guidelines for how the NCTR archive should be run. The Tri-Council Policy Statement, quoted above, governs and regulates research “relating to humans,” it states. Institutions that receive funding, like universities, must answer to these guidelines. Three federal research councils created the statement in 2010, outlining ethical practices for research. An entire chapter is dedicated to research on and with Indigenous communities.

The catch, however, is that archives are quite explicitly excluded from the policy statement and therefore from that form of ethical review. The stated reasoning is that the records are publicly accessible and therefore have their own set of policies that govern them.

Bak still pointed to the policy for guidance for the NCTR though. “I think we can look to all of these kinds of documents and see that there’s a clear guidance that we’re being given which is around fully informed consent,” he said. “That suggests that our guys need to have ongoing relationships with Indigenous communities, not just a one-time consultation.”

The new National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archive […] is an adequate starting point for conversations about redefining archival challenges and its political burdens, especially with its extensive online and digitised records, but in all its innovation, there are limitations even to this collection. – Crystal Fraser and Zoe Todd

It’s worth noting that Fraser and Todd are right in claiming that the centre is a good example of archives being done fairly well. As they note in their piece, there are much worse examples like Library and Archives Canada where there is little of any collaboration done with Indigenous communities and access to information is very restricted. The NCTR archives, however, are limited primarily in that they come with the inevitable narrative baggage of archives.

But they are also limited by their age. The NCTR archives only began at the end of 2015. According to Buckwold, they are still sifting through the information offloaded to them by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, some of which came in poorly or incorrectly documented, or not documented at all.

“We’re still at the stage where we don’t even have a handle on what we have yet,” said Buckwold. “Right now, our work is still very preliminary.”

Cachagee compared the NCTR archives to those housed at the Shingwauk Centre at Algoma University in Ontario. There, he said anyone can interact and engage with the records and documents in the archive. “When you walk in there, you’re in an archive,” said Cachagee. “It’s visible.”

The charms of the archives at the Shingwauk Centre were not lost on Bak either. “A lot of what goes on at the Shingwauk Centre at Algoma is similar ultimately to where the NCTR wants to end up,” he said. “The question is, how do you get there?”

Even though the archivists still aren’t sure of exactly what information they have at the NCTR, these archives might actually be at the perfect moment in time to get the narrative balance of an archive right. As every single person mentioned in this article stated, that requires open, honest conversations, and ongoing relationships with Indigenous peoples across the country.


Works Cited and Referenced:

Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. December 2010. Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. Retrieved from: http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/pdf/eng/tcps2/TCPS_2_FINAL_Web.pdf.

Fraser, C, and Todd, Z. February 15, 2016. Decolonial Sensibilities: Indigenous Research and Engaging with Archives in Contemporary Canada. L’internationale: Decolonising Practices. Retrieved from: http://www.internationaleonline.org/research/decolonising_practices/54_decolonial_sensibilities_indigenous_research_and_engaging_with_archives_in_contemporary_colonial_canada.

Ghaddar, J.J. (2016). The Spectre in the Archive: Truth, Reconciliation and Indigenous Archival Memory. Archivaria, 82, 3-36. Retrieved from: http://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/13579.

Morse, B.W. (2012). Indigenous human rights and knowledge in archives, museums and libraries: some international perspectives with specific reference to New Zealand and Canada. Archival Science 12(2), 113-140. Retrieved from: https://link-springer-com.proxy.library.carleton.ca/article/10.1007%2Fs10502-011-9165-y.

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