by Krista McCracken
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) held its closing events in Ottawa from May 31 – June 3, 2015. The event included the release of an executive summary of the TRC findings and Calls to Action made by the Commission. The 388 pages of the summary highlight the work of the Commission and the material which will be included in the final six volume final report.
Though this post focuses on the TRC’s discussion of museums and archives I urge everyone to read the full executive summary as it provides crucial context and historical background. Chelsea Vowel’s call to read the entirety of the report highlights why it is so important to read the report before commenting on the work of the TRC. For those looking for a more accessible version of the summary Zoe Todd, Erica Lee, and Joseph Murdoch-Flowers are crowd-sourcing readings of the report on Youtube and the summary has been converted into a Kindle format and epub formats.
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. Given the challenging past relationship between the TRC and archival institutions these recommendations are perhaps not surprising.
The TRC went to court in 2012 and 2013 to gain access to archival records relating to residential schools held by Library and Archives Canada. The Commission’s recommendations go beyond the issue of access. It also includes calls to action relating to best practices, commemorative projects, public education, and compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In terms of public education and commemorative projects the Commission urges the federal government to work with Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian Museums Association to establish funding for commemoration projects for the 150th anniversary of Canada relating to reconciliation. It also calls for Library and Archives Canada to commit additional resources to education and programming on residential schools.
The executive summary pointedly notes that museums and archives “have interpreted the past in ways that have excluded or marginalized Aboriginal peoples’ cultural perspectives and historical experience….as history that had formerly been silenced was revealed, it became evident that Canada’s museums had told only part of the story.” (p. 303)
In 2010 the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, where I work, began a process of professionalization which included the development of many policies relating to collection care, access, and display of items relating to residential schools and Indigenous communities. The SRSC is jointly governed by Algoma University and the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, a survivor organization. This indigenous oversight has been crucial in developing respectful policies. On a personal level I have continuously learned by listening to the words of elders whose history is held in the SRSC.
During the policy development phase I remember scouring the internet for policy examples which took into account Indigenous intellectual property rights, cultural traditions, and care of sacred objects. I found many helpful international examples. But Canadian examples were few and far between. An optimist might suggest that perhaps the Canadian policies simply weren’t accessible online. Maybe that’s true. But my gut says that the archival and museum profession has a significant amount of work to do in policy development and collaboration with Indigenous communities. There are some heritage organizations that have done amazing work with First Nation, Métis, and Inuit communities and who have incorporated the museum specific recommendations made by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples into their policies. But this has not yet become the norm across Canada.
Last year I remember visiting a small rural museum and being appalled at a display of early settler artifacts that inserted First Nation made artifacts into the exhibit in a way that belittled and dehumanized the work of First Nation people. Sadly this isn’t a onetime occurrence. Canadian museums of all shapes and sizes have had a poor track record in their collaboration with Indigenous people.
The controversy around the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is one of the more recent national examples of failure to tell the complete truth and include indigenous voices in the historical record. Former CMHR curators have spoken out about being told to limit the content on missing and murdered indigenous women, downplay the role of child services, and avoid using the term genocide.
I wholeheartedly agree with the Commission’s stance that “there is an urgent need in Canada to develop historically literate citizens who understand why and how the past is relevant to their own lives and the future of the country. Museums have an ethical responsibility to foster national reconciliation, and not simply tell one party’s version of the past. ” (p. 308)
Archives also have a crucial role to play in the preservation of a representative and accessible history of Canada. Holdings need to be described in a way that is respectful to Indigenous worldviews, Indigenous people have a right to access material created by and written about them, and that access should not involve insurmountable barriers. Archives play a crucial role in ensuring all sides of the past are documented and archivists need to look at their practices to ensure Indigenous voices are being preserved in a complete and respectful way.
Archives and museums which hold material created by Indigenous people or who create exhibits on the history of Indigenous people need to look toward better models of collaboration. Not simply token collaboration which sees an elder opening meetings but collaboration which involves First Nation, Métis, and Inuit people in a meaningful and respectful way. The creation of best practices and guidelines for archives and museums that are developed at a national level would be a huge step forward in the heritage field. I hope that the heritage profession at large takes heed of the TRC’s words and thinks carefully about how it can help work toward reconciliation.
Krista McCracken is the Archives Supervisor at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential School and Arthur A. Wishart Library. She is a co-editor of Activehistory.ca