The Truth about Archives: Part I – Decolonization of the Archives

Hi everyone, this is Vino with the first part of the Truth about Archives blog series. At the Archives Society of Alberta’s (ASA) 2016 conference there were a number of sessions related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Canada. These sessions highlighted the calls for action, specifically directed to museums and archives, stated by the TRC final report produced in 2015. There were some key points that I came away with from these sessions.


Screen Shot of National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website showing all of the residential schools in Canada

From the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) website:


Archives are often challenged by these calls to action because we are entrenched within our traditional thinking and the systems that are part of maintaining an archive.  However, aboriginal traditions and practices do not fit perfectly into our systems and the way we have always done things. For example, oral histories are often still seen as an addition to written records, rather than as valid historic records that stand on their own.


The written record still holds a lot of weight in the historical narrative of our system, but these records hold the biases of the colonialists who created them. Thus, integrating records from aboriginal viewpoints must become paramount among all archives in order to have a more balanced perspective. The TRC in particular has worked to circumvent these biases of written records by conducting interviews with survivors of the Indian Residential School system.


Another key point I came away with was the notion of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a key part of the TRC. However, as Greg Bak of the University of Manitoba pointed out at the conference, reconciliation implies that two parties were once conciliated at some point, which is false in this case. Bak gave a simple example to show what this means; if Peter stole a bike from John, and then many years later goes back to John to talk about reconciliation, that is not going to sit well with John. The first step has to be an acknowledgement that something was stolen before there can be any steps toward reconciliation.


Bak is also a big proponent of providing access to archival material and this means there should be endless access to a wide variety of records, such as oral histories, across Canada.  Archives should be providing access to the materials and find a way to tailor this access to our audiences.   The decolonization of archives not only means recognizing the different forms of records, but also understanding the communities involved and building relationships with these communities in order to develop trust over time.


Brief information on one of the two residential schools in St. Albert


I would also like to share a story presented at the conference by Jessie Loyer of Mount Royal University. Loyer presented many stories from residential school victims and also her take on how archives can integrate recommendations from the TRC. One story in particular about a British museum illustrated the need for us to develop relationships with our aboriginal community.


Loyer mentioned how the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, England has a Blackfoot collection, including items from Chief Crowfoot that were purchased. When the museum was doing research on this collection, they invited a Blackfoot delegation from Canada to conduct a pipe ceremony at the museum. A shirt from the Blackfoot collection was brought out during the ceremony and a Blackfoot elder insisted that a young boy wear the shirt. The curator at the museum was initially very hesitant to honour the request.  Museums put things out on display to look at, but not to use, as curators are conscious about maintaining artifacts for future generations. In most museum circles, having someone wear a shirt in the collection would be considered unthinkable. However, the Elder at this ceremony insisted and the boy wore the shirt, which in the end turned out to be a very powerful and moving event for everyone there. This example demonstrates that what works in our museum environment and what works in our community’s environment may not mesh, and we as professionals in archives and museums have to carefully consider whether our roles have to change in order to better integrate aboriginal voices in the ways we treat their artifacts and records. It just may open us up to new experiences, like the Blackfoot pipe ceremony.

A shirt from the Blackfoot collection at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, England

A shirt from the Blackfoot collection at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, England.


How did this Blackfoot regalia end up in England in the first place? To learn about the history of this collection and the efforts of its repatriation to Canada, please read: Chief Crowfoot’s regalia to return home to Alberta.

Stay tuned for my next blog in The Truth about Archives that will look at another minority group in Alberta.