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Decolonial Sensibilities: Indigenous Research and Engaging with Archives in Contemporary Colonial Canada

Cfraser Lac View Victoria Island

View from Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, October 2014. The presence of Indigenous people persists, despite the tenacity of the settler state. Photo: Crystal Fraser.

During recent months, the idea of reconciliation has been brought to the forefront of the Canadian socio-political terrain, largely ensuing from efforts to examine the historical experiences of Indigenous peoples in the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) system. This was a system that sought to eliminate Indigenous cultures, in part, by forcibly removing children from their families to obtain a state-based education, often far away from their homes to institutions characterised by substandard and abysmal living conditions. The shift to reconciliation and efforts to achieve a "nation-to-nation relationship" has prompted a great deal of attention and new questions of access, content, and ownership of historical documents dealing with the history and legacies of IRS. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) battled the federal government for access to files and documents in possession of the Government of Canada pertaining to the centuries-old history of IRS in Canada, illustrating some of the nuances and complexities inherent in the question of 'decolonising the archives'. For Indigenous peoples, access to state or church archives is complicated, given ongoing settler-colonial realities that frame and govern archives in Canada. To decolonise the archives requires an erasure or negation of the colonial realities of the archives themselves. Given the inherent colonial realities of the archives as institutions, any effort to decolonise or Indigenise the archives in Canada can therefore only ever be partial.

In theorising the idea of 'decolonising' the archives, we are faced with a number of structural issues that must be unpacked and we do so in the Canadian context. In this short piece, we first question who controls these archives? Second, we examine the archival holdings themselves, pointing to both the absent within the holdings themselves and the gaps in our knowledge about archival holdings. A final question asks: should we have the goal of 'decolonising archives'? Acknowledging the inherent colonial paradigms that inform and shape the archives as institutions, we propose moving away from the question of decolonising the archives themselves and suggest instead applying a historically-informed critical decolonial sensibility in our engagement with the archives.


In Canada, there are a variety of archives which contain information pertinent to Indigenous nations, peoples, and communities. Historical records are housed in a variety of locales: state archives (national, provincial/ territorial, and municipal); church archives (curated and controlled by religious orders, such as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada); university archives; Indigenous governance organisations; and a variety of corporate and private archives.

There are numerous ways that access to archives and materials is restricted. The Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) Act regulates how individuals may access archival holdings. Ironically, there are numerous claims that the implementation of privacy acts by government agencies is in fact heavily restrictive. In recent years, the experiences of scholars, journalists, lawyers, and others filing ATIP (or provincial variations) and Freedom of Information and Privacy (FOIP) Act, have been to wait for onerous periods of time to access materials. Once documents are received, they are often heavily redacted to the point of being useless. Fraser's own experience accessing records from Library and Archives Canada (LAC) for her doctoral research on the history of IRS in the Canadian Arctic was characterised by persisting roadblocks. Spanning over 2013 and 2014, an ATIP application was lost (and re-submitted), heavily-redacted electronic files were provided and rendered almost obsolete, and the remainder of the requested collection was placed on hold, for review, in Ottawa. But upon travelling nearly 3,000 kilometres to access the collection, Fraser was informed that the files had been checked out by another researcher for an undetermined amount of time. Due to the tenuous and highly sensitive nature of these documents, coupled with the fact that very few researchers have analysed documents reflecting this modern history, the boundaries imposed around 'sensitive' research are troubling. To access archival materials in Canada is to move across geographic, political, and even linguistic boundaries. It is to contend with the structures and rules that govern each organisation; researchers are forced to grapple with power structures that trickle down from bureaucracies to individuals that hold sway over the materials, facilities, and accessibility. The new National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archive housed at the University of Manitoba, which opened in late 2015, is an adequate starting point for conversations about re-defining archival challenges and its political burdens, especially with its extensive online and digitised records, but, in all its innovation, there are limitations even to this collection.

In addition to restricting access to public documents, there are questions about the ownership of these materials. In 2008, LAC announced a partnership with the corporate entity to digitise LAC's holdings. This move raises serious concerns about the vulnerability of people's information to exploitation by private interests, as well as questions about corporations charging citizens for access to public documents. In a time when a) Indigenous peoples in Canada are defending land rights against the operations of national and multi-national corporations that seek to extract and profit from non-renewable resources in unceded Indigenous territories and b) when Indigenous nations in Canada rely on access to archival materials to articulate court cases affirming existing legal rights to their territories against large-scale resource extraction projects, the question of third-party corporate incursions into management of sensitive personal and community information is both pertinent and troubling.

Cfraser Lac Front Sign

Library and Archives Canada, October 2014. Photo: Crystal Fraser.


A fundamental challenge lies in the fact that the majority of archival documents in Canadian archives have been produced by non-Indigenous people: namely white men who dominated exploration, political and other 'great men' tropes of Canadian history. Inspired by the well-known and provocative article by Gayatri Spivak, Canadian historians have questioned if other less-known historical actors – such as Indigenous people, women, and children – are able to "speak" in archival documents. Archival records produced by Indigenous people prove to be far and few between. We know very little about the lives of Indigenous women, apart from a few celebrated heroines, such as Thanadelthur, Kateri Tekakwitha, and E. Pauline Johnson. Even less is known about Indigenous children, two-spirited individuals, and liminal figures such as medicine men and women. Further, the three constitutionally recognised Indigenous groups in Canada (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) are not represented equally in Canadian archives, owing to the different relationships and histories between the Crown and each Indigenous group. For example, accessing materials pertaining to Métis histories at LAC is difficult, as these materials are held in a decentralised manner. If Indigenous people are present in historical records, they are often depicted as passive bystanders, rarely free agents in their own right and far removed from narratives that highlight agency or sophistication.

To their credit, some scholars have attempted to uncover Indigenous voices through creative reading of state documents and by beginning with the premise that, as historian Elizabeth Vibert explains, "meaning, value, and knowledge itself [is] unstable, uncertain, and open to multiple understandings". While poststructuralist approaches have recently dominated historiographical analyses, scholars studying colonialism and post-colonialism in North America have become increasingly invested in reading historical documents in creative ways that allow for deep and fluid understandings of the past. For example, in her work, Todd strives to understand the role that fish played in mediating relationships between Hudson's Bay Company clerks, Oblate Missionaries and Inuvialuit in the Paulatuuq region in the 1920s-1950s. Reading the archives through the lens of Indigenous legal orders and sentient more-than-human agency brings a different perspective to the role of animals like fish in shaping and responding to colonial encounters in Arctic Canada. For the most part, however, academics continue to be limited by the overtly biased and one-sided nature of archival records.


In light of these challenges, we wonder what 'decolonising the archives' would look like? Is it a worthy goal for Indigenous peoples? To reclaim, reshape, and transform the archives to meet the needs of Indigenous peoples requires an honest and blunt engagement with the bureaucratic and arcane structures that govern and shape research today. Church, State, and Corporate archives must be acknowledged as enmeshed in the specific nation- and history-making endeavours they foment. Reconciling the needs and goals of a) Indigenous communities, nations, and b) Indigenous scholars and c) others accessing and using the archives will require ongoing and nuanced conversations about the broader relationships between the Canadian state and Indigenous nations/societies. This necessitates responses that are far deeper than simply digitising content or hiring Indigenous archivists. It also requires us to question how Indigenous peoples can meaningfully access, and hold accountable, the institutions running the nation's archives. This engages several simultaneous and sometimes contradictory issues: the structure and function of archives remain bound to National imaginaries and histories. Decolonisation of these structures and processes can only ever be partial.

Cultural historian Catherine Hall asserts that a fundamental part of the project of decolonisation must begin with a settler desire to understand cultural difference. She writes that we must "decolonize the cultures through which those systems of representation were produced". To achieve this, however, settler Canadians – scholars included – must be eager to have transparent discussions around white privilege, settler colonialism, and structural oppression that characterise post-secondary institutions and Canadian society more generally. Through embracing methodologies of discomfort, we must engage in conversation that hinge upon the hard questions: how we have benefitted and continue to benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous people; how Indigenous communities continue to be the objects of academic research with little consultation and few partnerships; and how we uphold structures of oppression that privilege white supremacy over fair, just, and lawful relationships. There is no single approach in decolonising or Indigenising the archives. It will require nuanced, thoughtful, and contextual approaches that tend to specific relationships, locations, histories and legal-political realities. Historian Adele Perry writes that "Canadian Indigenous people have routinely pointed to the disjunctures between the written and oral records of treaties and to the colonial state's selective and self-serving interpretation of their meaning". Indeed, one way of bring greater diversity to archival spaces and feature Indigenous voices is to prioritise and expand historical collections to include a greater number and range of oral history, whether in the form of transcripts, audio or video files, or previously published works.

Overhauling archival spaces so they are more attentive to Indigenous needs and desires requires a nuanced approach that must be attentive to the plurality of Indigenous legal orders, nations, and temporal and spatial experiences that characterise the Canadian settler state. But the question remains whether state, church, institutional, or private archives should be Indigenised or decolonised in the first place. We argue that rather than decolonise the archives, the application of a decolonial sensibility is necessary to attend to the complex relationships between archives, and Indigenous peoples. Making archives friendlier to Indigenous people and pursuits is essential, but given the complex and sometimes troubling history of the Canadian nation state and its draconian and oppressive approach to and relationship with Indigenous peoples, it is essential that we continue to recognise archival spaces, especially state archives, for their original intent: to create national narratives that seek to legitimise the nation state by excluding Indigenous voices, bodies, economies, histories, and socio-political structures.


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