Two weeks ago I participated in a remarkable event, called Sharing Truth, an international forum convened in Vancouver under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada. The TRC was established as part of the settlement to a series of class-action lawsuits brought by survivors of the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) against the Canadian government and the three churches which administered the schools.
“Indian Residential Schools” sounds deceptively benign; in fact they were an often brutal mechanism of systematic forced assimilation visited on the indigenous nations of Canada for seven generations.
Beginning in the 1870s, and continuing through the closure of the last school in 1996, the schools were intended – as poet(!) and early 20th century Bureau of Indian Affairs head Duncan Campbell Scott declared – “ to get rid of the Indian problem.” Characterized in large part by neglect and hunger, sexual and physical abuse, the separation of child from parent and sibling from sibling, and the erasure of language, community, and culture, the schools left a legacy of poverty, pain, dysfunction, and profound loss, still present today. Students died unbeknownst to their parents, and were buried in unmarked graves; many were robbed of their very names: “I was number 14C at Yukon Hall,” said one survivor. As Forum Rapporteur Karen Busby noted after the first day, “It is time to recognize that the IRS system was a genocide, and to call it that.”
The purpose of Sharing Truth was to inform a critical part of the Commission’s mandate, that is, the establishment of a National Research Centre, the intention of which is to ensure that testimonies and stories gathered as part of the truthseeking process, as well as the TRC’s records themselves, will be preserved and widely accessible.
It was a remarkable experience for me as an archivist. I spoke on a panel called “Archiving for Advocacy” but what struck me was that the fundamental linkage of archives with advocacy was a thread running throughout the presentations, almost a given; the belief that archives matter, not just to historians but to everyone; that memory is “a dimension of justice,” in the words of Doudou Diene, board chair of International Sites of Conscience. Rarely does an archives conference include the survivors or victims who have a personal stake in the work at hand, and rarely has a TRC or similar endeavor taken such pains to plan and explore the archiving process and its implications before the fact.
The challenge before the TRC in establishing the National Research Centre (which many agreed was a less-than-inspired name) is monumental. As the debates about the permanent homes of the International Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia have shown, location is a deeply symbolic, contested, and political decision, even in the digital age when access may be widely dispersed. There are tensions in the understanding of whom it’s for; the need for First Nations communities to own and control their stories, culture, and heritage, versus the imperative to make knowledge of the residential schools a part of every Canadian’s history. The very definition of ‘archives’ must be opened outward to include all vehicles of meaning and memory: oral traditions, stories and names, dance and art, deerskin and landscape. As with all human rights archives, there is a need to balance privacy against access and education, and to address the risk of revictimization. In the words of survivor Eugene Arcand: “We’ve been studied to death; we’ve been archived to death.”
If there was consensus about anything it was this: that archives, testimony projects, memory institutions, and truth-seeking endeavors, are as much about the present and the future as about the past; and that documentation and memorialization must ultimately be about transformation – personal, communal, societal, national, political.
View the webcast here.