By Sean Graham
Over the course of the past week, Ian Mosby’s work on nutritional experiments on aboriginal students in residential schools has received plenty of attention in the national media. While it will take a while before the full impact of the research is felt, there was some immediate excitement within the historical community that the issue had/has such traction nationally. In addition to uncovering the terrible abuse, the media interest of the past week has also shown the importance of historical research.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that it’s good that these experiments happened because it gives historians something to talk about nor do I think historians should try to exploit these types of horrendous acts to further their own careers. (Ian walked this line beautifully last week – listening to several of his interviews and following his comments on Twitter, you never got the sense that he wanted to be the story. What was important was the research and bringing the events to light. It would have been easy to engage in self-promotion or to champion himself as a great researcher/writer, but that never happened.)
I’ll leave it to more qualified people to analyze the scope of the research and its impact, but what became painfully apparent to me was the importance of history. As was pointed out on Twitter, there is some irony in the fact that such an important story is culled from LAC at a time when the institution is struggling to cope with budget cuts.
Ten years ago I graduated high school and enrolled at Nipissing University to study history. Two degrees and a partially written doctoral thesis later, the most common question I’ve been asked over the years is ‘why bother?’ Too often, I’ve had difficulty answering that question to the satisfaction of the questioner. In spending a summer working on the airfield at Pearson International, many of my colleagues objected when I (repeatedly) suggested that history can help inform modern life – from social reforms to economic policy to international diplomacy. I was told that ‘no, it doesn’t, what happened 100 years ago is completely irrelevant to today.’
My hope is that last week’s revelations – in additional to forcing the government to address the issues at hand – changes the minds of the people who think that history has no place in public life. The work of the historian and historical institutions matter and can have a significant effect on how we live. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
In this episode of the History Slam podcast I talk with CHA President Dominique Marshall and CHA Past President Lyle Dick about budget cuts that have had such a significant impact on the study of history in Canada. We chat about the situation at LAC, the CHA’s response, and how historians can increase their presence. While this was recorded at Congress in June, last week’s events speak to the issues we talked about and provide a major example of the importance of historical research in general –and of LAC in particular.
As this was recorded well before last week’s cabinet shuffle, I did reach out to then Minister of Heritage James Moore for an interview. The request was denied, but a statement regarding LAC was provided:
“This government is delivering to give Canadians greater access to its history – more than any other previous government. On the issue of the preservation of our country’s history, our government strongly believes in ensuring the preservation of our documentary and historical heritage. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is becoming more efficient while also improving services. In fact now all Canadians will be able to access our historical content online, not just researchers in Ottawa. The Library and Archives modernization initiative will improve and expand access to Canada’s documentary and cultural heritage for all Canadians regardless of their profession or location.
Our government recognizes the importance of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and the many services it provides, as it plays an essential role in preserving the documentary heritage of Canada. As a Departmental agency, the responsibility for operational decisions lies with the Deputy Head and Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Under his stewardship, LAC is modernizing its operations and changing its organizational structure in order to increase digital services and programming for the benefit of Canadians. LAC has never ceased to make key acquisitions as this priority is clearly set out in its mandate. Every year, LAC acquires thousands of items from private fond and an average of 100,000 publications. And, more recently an average of 60-thousand digital publications. For example, LAC just recently acquired the first complete and authorized version of the Bible to be published in Canada, a book dating back to the 1830s.
LAC is developing a new model to ensure that they make the right decisions at the right time in order that Canada’s documentary heritage is acquired and preserved for future generations. Through this approach, LAC is concentrating more extensively on obtaining all socially relevant content rather than acquiring objects taken out of context.”
The statement was provided prior to the resignation of Daniel Caron as Librarian and Archivist of Canada, which is to whom the Minister is referring in the statement.
Sean Graham is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa where he is currently working on a project that examines the early years of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He has previously studied at Nipissing University, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Regina and like any red-blooded Canadian his ultimate dream is to be a curling champion while living on a diet of beer and poutine.