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Archives are adapting to an era of digitization and decolonization

“Acknowledging that [Indigenous communities] have sovereignty over the material and that it is indeed not yours is one of the key things we’re trying to promote in the work that we’re doing with the archival community.”
SEP 18 2019

Archives are adapting to an era of digitization and decolonization

“Acknowledging that [Indigenous communities] have sovereignty over the material and that it is indeed not yours is one of the key things we’re trying to promote in the work that we’re doing with the archival community.”


In 1971, when Algoma University, then a fledgling liberal arts college with ties to Laurentian University, moved to its permanent home at Shingwauk Hall in the Northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie, few of its students or staff knew that just over six months earlier, the building had housed an operating residential school. It wasn’t until 1981, when some 400 students, staff, clergy and survivors of the former Shingwauk Residential School gathered for their first reunion, that the true history of the place became widely known. Over three days, stories of life at the residential school came out, and a decades-long relationship between the survivors and the university was forged. Today, some of those stories as well as original records from the school are housed at Algoma’s Arthur A. Wishart Library and the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, where they are slowly being digitized to prevent a repeat of this kind of “institutional forgetting,” as the library’s archivist Krista McCracken calls it.

It’s easier now than ever to access archival materials like those in the Shingwauk collection. In Canada, that’s been made possible due in part to a massive push by large institutions such as Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to collect, digitize and share the records that make up Canada’s history. In 2015, LAC partnered with smaller public archives to create the National Heritage Digitization Strategy (NHDS) as a way to harmonize digitization efforts, establish best practices and fund the digitization of material that sometimes gets left out of the national conversation. Yet bringing this material into the public sphere has led to a whole new set of questions for professionals working in archives, libraries, museums and galleries – collectively known as memory institutions – about what it means to share these items while also acknowledging the history of colonial violence that has allowed for the misappropriation, misuse and outright theft of material from Indigenous peoples.

Last year, the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre was one of 21 recipients of one-time funding from NHDS through the Digitizing Canadian Collections program. Its Healing and Education through Digital Access project involves digitizing the letters of two former Shingwauk principals and putting them in the public domain. Ms. McCracken says these records offer invaluable insight into the everyday workings of the school, including staffing issues, student life, and relationships with Indian Affairs, the Anglican Church and other institutions. They even refer to deaths. Indeed, for some families, these records may be the only existing documents detailing the fates of their children.

Bringing these papers into the public sphere is not merely a matter of scanning and uploading. Without extreme care, sharing records like these can compound the harm they document. “The digitization is actually kind of the easy part,” says Ms. McCracken. “The more complicated part is working through the ethics and working with the survivor community to make sure that we’re sharing content based on their preferences.”

In the summer of 2020, as part of ceremonies honouring the 50th anniversary of the residential school’s closure, the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association will meet to discuss the results of the digitization project, a form of accountability that was built into the project from the very beginning. “Having survivors in the room able to walk through what the digitization is going to look like on screen and for folks around the world is really important,” Ms. McCracken says. “Having these conversations over the phone just doesn’t work the same way.”

But there are some in the archival community who argue that open access, often a priority of digitization projects performed and funded by LAC, could exclude many efforts to digitize material from Indigenous communities, where access to and ownership of items will be dictated by local protocol or needs, rather than by public or professional imperatives. They believe the focus, instead, should be on empowering communities to create and maintain their own digital archives.

One program that falls under such a mandate is Indigitization, a granting program with a training component that runs each summer out of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia. In 2010, Indigitization started through a partnership between the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC, the First Nations Technology Council and the Heiltsuk, Ktunaxa, and ‘Namgis Nations. Its goal has been to find the best practices for digitizing audio recordings stored on aging cassette tapes in communities across the province. What’s notable about Indigitization, however, is that it does not ask for access to the digital archives that participants create. It offers resources so that community members can do the work themselves and decide what to do with the results.

The program’s technical lead is Gerry Lawson, who also works at the MOA’s Oral History and Language Lab. A member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, Mr. Lawson came to archiving while doing technical support for the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs – his sister, Kim Lawson, a librarian and archivist, ran the union’s resource centre at the time. Part of his job at Indigitization is to help communities purchase equipment that will meet their needs without breaking the bank. “You want to allow people room to make all of their own decisions,” he explains. “At the same time, what I’ve found is that people just want a solution. They don’t necessarily want to become an expert in audio engineering or in archiving.”

This kind of pragmatism and consultation is at the heart of everything Indigitization does, because rather than artefacts of a long-gone history, these cassettes are a vital piece of living communities that have a stake in how this material is preserved. One of the aspects Mr. Lawson values most about the program is that the recordings don’t end up in a vault somewhere waiting for a university researcher to unearth them. “These cultural heritage recordings can help a lot of healing,” he says. “Gone are the days where that is filtered through an anthropologist or a linguist for veracity.”

In fact, certain stories within the cassette archives are governed by cultural protocols around who can tell or hear them, and when they can be told. In these cases, the digitization must be done by the correct member of the community. “Just because something belonged to your grandfather doesn’t give you the ability to listen to it anytime you want to, or to retell the story,” Mr. Lawson explains.

Learning all of this has been a process of trial and error, according to Sarah Dupont, the program manager for Indigitization as well as the Aboriginal engagement librarian at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre and its Xwi7xwa Library (reportedly the only Indigenous branch of an academic library in Canada). A big part of her work is to liaise with communities to make the grant process as painless as possible. This means anticipating their needs at every step, from technical aspects – how long it would realistically take to do the digitization work – to the logistics of bringing participants into Vancouver for the training sessions, including coordinating local accommodations and transportation.

With each iteration of the program, they’ve worked to identify what Ms. Dupont refers to as “pain points,” or places where the process could be easier for participants. One pain point they found was that applicants didn’t have all the information required to calculate exactly how long it would take to do the work, leading some to propose projects that were too ambitious for their means. The solution was to create a basic formula – three hours to digitize one 60-minute tape – and include it in the application. Building clear guidelines has made the process more manageable for participants without a formal background in archival work. And if they still have questions, Ms. Dupont is there to help. “People can actually phone me,” she says. “I’ll pick up the phone and I’ll spend an hour with them with their grant proposal.”

Ms. Dupont hopes other institutions will learn from Indigitization’s mistakes. “We weren’t doing it right, right out of the gate,” she explains. “But other people can learn from what we’ve learned so that communities don’t have to continuously say, ‘You’ve got that thing wrong again. Indigitization had that wrong. Why didn’t you talk to them before you started?’”

An archive photo of junior boys playing table hockey in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Algoma University.

One institution that many archivists believe is getting it just about right is the University of Northern British Columbia. Last year, while wildfires were ravaging the interior of the province, the office of the Northern B.C. Archives and Special Collections at UNBC got a phone call from the Nak’azdli Whut’en Band in Fort St. James. The remote community was in the process of evacuating and with the band offices in danger, they needed a place to store their records. UNBC archivists Erica Hernández-Read and Ramona Rose agreed immediately. “They packed the stuff up, threw it in the back of a truck and drove it out here,” recalls Ms. Hernández-Read. “We helped them unload it and stored it for the rest of the summer.” Then the two began calling other nearby Indigenous communities to see if they needed similar help.

This story may seem an unremarkable moment in a summer of disasters, unless you consider the long history of questionable practices memory institutions have had around Indigenous heritage materials. Many museums held items that had been confiscated during the federal government’s ban against Indigenous ceremonies and other cultural practices under the Indian Act during the 19th and 20th centuries. Memory institutions also came to control access to records – such as census data, land surveys, even those journals from the principals of the Shingwauk Residential School – that affected the lives of Indigenous peoples. These communities would have good reason not to trust UNBC had the university not spent the last 20 years building relationships across the region.

Ms. Rose and Ms. Hernández-Read have worked closely with members of nearby communities, including the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, the Takla Lake Nation, the Tl’azt’en Nation and the Lake Babine Nation, to understand their needs and develop memoranda of understanding (MOU) to guide those relationships. Through these MOUs, the library provides training and support to community members to create and maintain their own archives, both digital and analogue. Once in a while, the library provides storage or back-up for digital files, including many archival materials digitized under the Indigitization program.

Ms. Hernández-Read notes that while most other archives require a temporary transfer of ownership of items from a community to the institution, UNBC never takes formal possession of the materials, nor do they facilitate access to outside researchers – they might not even know what’s in the collection at all. Rights remain firmly in the hands of the originating communities, a policy Ms. Hernández-Read would like to see more memory institutions adopt. “Acknowledging that they have that sovereignty over the material, that it is indeed not yours [the institution’s], is one of the key things we’re trying to promote in the work that we’re doing with the archival community in general,” she says.
The UNBC archivists also encourage isolated communities to reach out to each other for archival support. “We’re trying to connect communities with communities,” says Ms. Hernández-Read. “If you have a relationship with this community in Burns Lake, then solidify that. Create that MOU with them, so in a time of need, you can call them, too.”

Indeed, spreading this relationship-building practice has become one of the main missions of Ms. Hernández-Read’s work on the Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives, composed of the Association des archivistes du Québec, the Association of Canadian Archivists, the Canadian Council of Archives, the Council of Provincial and Territorial Archivists, the Association of Records Managers and Administrators, and LAC. As lead of the committee’s Response to the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Taskforce, Ms. Hernández-Read is working with a group of 15 professional archivists, including Ms. McCracken at Algoma, and 15 Indigenous heritage professionals, including Mr. Lawson at the MOA, from across the country to develop best practices for working with Indigenous communities. (The TRC’s calls to action specifically call upon museums and archives to work with Indigenous peoples to more effectively curate and present Indigenous cultures and histories.) Ms. Hernández-Read notes that, ideally, this taskforce would have been made up of Indigenous archivists, but the fact is that there aren’t many in the field in Canada – and the few who are, like Indigitization’s Ms. Dupont, who is Métis, tend to be spread quite thin. Recognizing this, she opted to include on the taskforce several Indigenous heritage professionals, people who may not have graduate training in archival work but who nonetheless find themselves working in archives as part of their many responsibilities.

The committee’s work began with a survey that had the archivists entering communities not just to gain information, but also to build the kinds of relationships that Ms. Hernández-Read believes will shift the profession in the long term. Alongside sovereignty over cultural heritage material, they are considering issues around the sensitivity of records that might relate to ongoing treaty negotiations and land claims, or that contain personal information that people have not historically had access to, such as the confidential testimonies from the TRC hearings that many residential school survivors believed would be destroyed rather than archived. The group aims to release a reconciliation framework later this year.

In the meantime, there have been some other encouraging steps toward decolonizing archives in Canada, particularly in the official statement from the Association of Canadian Archivists affirming the findings of the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and expressing its commitment to promote “the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples to their cultures and languages.” The association also explicitly calls for “archivists to identify and work to dismantle existing colonial-based archival structures and processes.”

For her part, Ms. Dupont would like to see more Indigenous people formally trained as archivists and working in the field, as well as more support from the profession for community-based organizations where credentialed specialists might not be available to manage records and archives. Until these wide-scale changes can be implemented, she worries that good intentions and a shortage of resources might end in a loss of vital cultural material. “People are a little bit frozen now,” says Ms. Dupont. “There’s a fear of doing the wrong thing so a lot of my colleagues are saying digitize the thing before it crumbles.”

Above all, Ms. Dupont hopes memory institutions will learn to see work around decolonizing and digitizing archives as more than honouring the past. “It’s not about history,” she says. “It’s about taking what people had the foresight to record and leaving it for the generations to come. It’s about taking that and breathing life into it.”

Erika Thorkelson
Erika Thorkelson is a freelance journalist and writer of fiction and creative non-fiction living in Vancouver. She teaches writing and humanities at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.
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