Today’s post is cross-posted in partnership with Aidhistory.ca
Wartime found Government employees working in poorly-lit, crowded offices such as the Records and Files Department of the Experimental Farm. Source: Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada fonds/a144872
Jill Campbell-Miller, PhD and Ryan Kirkby, PhD, MLIS
In general, historiography and historical methods courses do a good job in teaching students to be skeptical of their sources. As undergraduate and graduate students, we learn to scrutinize what we read, hear, or see. Yet while historians may be familiar with how to critique the sources themselves, rarely do we look up from a given document and examine the place where it is located, or think about how the document arrived in the archives. This is particularly true of written documents that emerge from government. Historians do not always critically engage with the organizational structure of the files, or think about how a certain structure came into being. This might seem somewhat “inside baseball” to historians, who usually leave such concerns in the hands of archivists. Exploring organizational descriptions on archival websites is not for the faint of heart, and rarely make much sense to the untrained observer. But considering these issues is important, because the history of how government departments change over time influences how documents come to be organized, influencing the history that emerges from this research.
The history of Canadian Official Development Assistance (ODA) in Canada provides an excellent example of how this is true. Cranford Pratt, David Morrison, and more recently, Stephen Brown, have all written about the historical and current difficulties in maintaining policy coherence regarding Canadian ODA policies. Political self-interest and/or ideology have often dictated the focus of Canada’s aid programs, and changes in government have naturally affected their policy priorities related to aid. Changing policy priorities have affected government’s organizational approaches as well. When Canada’s first major aid program, the Colombo Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia, began in 1951, aid was managed by the department of trade and commerce, with significant policy direction from the department of external affairs and the department of finance. There were other departments involved in the technical assistance aspect of aid as well, including the departments of agriculture and national health and welfare. In 1960, the External Aid Office, located in the department of external affairs under a Director General, replaced this loose organizational structure. In 1968, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government founded the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Of course, most recently, the Harper government did away with CIDA entirely, and integrated international development programming back into the much re-named foreign affairs portfolio, currently called Global Affairs.
Every researcher expects a learning curve when approaching a subject, but complicated organizational histories provide a unique challenge to researchers. Continue reading