Remarks presented during the National Research Centre Forum of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Honourable Members of the Commission,
Mr. President,
Members of First Nations, Inuit and Métis,
 
Thank you for giving me this opportunity today, in the ancestral lands of Coast Salish peoples, to share with you my thoughts concerning the achievement of an important outcome: documenting and making known what happened at Canada's residential schools.
 
As those of us who are gathered here today know all too well, the history of Canada's residential schools has left deep scars on the relationship between Canada's aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.
 
We recall the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who in 2008, during his historic federal apology to the Survivors of Residential Schools said, and I quote,
"Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools System were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.
 
These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. . . . Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country." End quote.
 
Since then, many survivors of trauma, abuse, and neglect have told their stories.
Many have begun to heal.
 
Apologies have been offered; commitments to truth-telling and reconciliation have been made.
 
And still, an enormous challenge remains.
 
Many Canadians, and certainly many people around the world, know very little of this chapter in our history.
 
Speaking as the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, I know that my institution can play a role in changing this, and in so doing, ensuring that through documenting these events and making them known, we guard against future injustices.
 
Documenting can take many forms, including storytelling and oral histories, documents and photographs, digital narratives and hand-written diaries. Memory cannot be held in a single space, but rather exists almost like the Web itself, dispersed among people, communities, and organizations. And it is through the connection of content and people that we can restore a broad, national and international understanding of historical events.
 
Among other things, the mandate of Library and Archives Canada is to serve as a continuing repository of documents for the Government of Canada.
 
We are responsible for ensuring that the most important documents are selected and preserved for future generations, in both digital and analogue formats.
 
By preserving and making available the evidence of what has happened in the past, we support democracy and literacy.
 
Indeed, access to records, properly managed, is the hallmark of open, accountable government and societies, and this includes records which explain government policies and decisions.
 
The preservation of archival records, and the availability of the information they contain, allow us to tell the stories which animate our history, and create a shared understanding across society. They support the process of truth and reconciliation by contributing to the resolution of claims and to the broader understanding of what happened. In fact, they make possible the collective memory of a nation.
 
For example, Library and Archives Canada partnered with the Legacy of Hope and Aboriginal Healing Foundations to put together the We Were So Far Away travelling exhibition, which featured eight oral histories that described the stories of the Inuit experience of residential schools in Canada.
 
These stories are supported by archival records gathered from churches, schools, and public and private archives.
 
They include letters and diaries, photographs, and other original documents.
Together, they represent a collaborative effort towards mutual understanding and a recognition of the diversity of perspectives which inform any issue.
 
Yet despite the importance of our mandate in this regard, it has become clear that if Library and Archives Canada is to continue meeting this legislated responsibility and to remain relevant for the twenty-first century and beyond, it will have to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the new digital environment.
 
The sheer volume of documents that is being generated in the digital realm means that no single institution can go it alone in trying to capture, preserve, and make accessible a nation's documentary heritage to its citizens.
 
Moreover, with the advent of the digital landscape, the physical location of holdings for an archive of the future loses importance.
 
Going digital means that information can now be accessed from anywhere, anytime.
Even the term "holdings" is slowly being replaced with the more fluid and flexible idea of information resources. Holdings tend to imply a sense of limitation, of staying put and being held together. But in today's world, the world of the cloud, to think externally and to cast our nets more broadly is both exciting and highly promising.
 
In fact, in our own attempts to modernize Library and Archives Canada's practices, we have come to the realization that continued collaboration with a multitude of partners across diverse fields of interests is to best serve Canadians. It assures us that the documentary heritage we have is shared broadly and that it contributes like never before in building our collective memory and Canadian history.
 
Aboriginal Peoples are a key partner in this.
 
We hope to build on the success of such collaborative efforts as the Project Naming Initiative that allowed Nunavut youth to identify photographs taken of individuals from their local communities. These were located in the photographic collections of Inuit held at LAC.
 
As a result, Nunavut youth connected with their Elders and we improved their access to our northern collection of photographs.
 
In 2009, representatives from LAC and CMHR met to explore potential collaborative opportunities, notably in the area of digitization, research and loans, as the museum moved forward with gallery and web content development.
 
These kinds of successes can be drawn upon for new partnerships that keep memory alive and open a window of understanding about our history. In turn, this helps us learn from our past and move to the future with an informed understanding.
 
It is an interesting paradox that on the one hand, we may wish to put the tragic events of the past behind us, and yet on the other, the kind of mutual understanding that leads to new relationships and healing means that the collective memory must be kept alight, like a flame, guiding us to a better future.
 
The popular Lest We Forget program combines digitization, research methods, and learning strategies to bring alive the history of soldiers from the First World War. This is the kind of initiative that we could consider to promote awareness and understanding through the active use of records that tell the story of history simply by the information they contain.
 
In this area, Library and Archives Canada has a great deal of experience and can be a valuable resource for researchers in the field.
 
Our experience in managing extensive holdings of documents and publications, our knowledge of preservation techniques for all media, our continued interest in finding ways to make access to information resources faster and easier, our familiarity with the complex set of rights arising from different types of private and public collections, and our commitment to capture and preserve the digital component of our documentary heritage could ideally serve the objectives of keeping alive the memory of Canadian residential schools, enabling healing and justice to occur.
 
At this point, the important question is "how".
 
The archives of the analog era, due mostly to the knowledge dissemination models of that age and the physical nature of the records they kept, had to take the form of vaults. Now that we are in the digital age, we can meet Isaac Newton's challenge of building bridges rather than walls. In doing so, we will ensure that the information we keep can be easily accessed by all, thus empowering everyone to craft his identity and contribute to tomorrow's collective memory.
 
This goes much beyond the realm of chance or opportunity: it is a duty. We must engage in a continued dialogue that will bring to light what it is that we want to accomplish together.
I look forward to participating in these discussions and I am sure that we will bring forward some interesting proposals to further the important work that has already been accomplished by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
 
Thank you.

 
 
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