LAC Forum with University Partners: Exploring Decolonization on the Road to Reconciliation

Summary Report

November 6th, 2017

395 Wellington Street, Pellan Room, Ottawa, Ontario

Table of contents


Since 2015, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has pursued deeper collaboration with Canadian universities through the establishment of inter-institutional Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs). To date, seven such overarching MOUs have been signed , with the ultimate goal of developing strengthened relationships between LAC and its university partners, as well as to catalyze greater cooperation in areas of mutual interest. Specifically, the objectives are to share expertise and knowledge; foster collaboration on research and technology; and engage in public outreach.

On November 6, 2017, the LAC Forum with University Partners convened at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa to explore the topics of decolonization and reconciliation with Indigenous communities. The event welcomed 150 participants from universities, various Indigenous communities, government departments, the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector, and the general public. Throughout the day-long event, students, researchers, public servants, archivists, librarians, and university faculty were presented with a variety of insights and opinions on reconciliation, and encouraged to discuss where and how their own institutions might contribute to renewed relationships with Indigenous communities.

In addition to the thought-provoking discussions and presentations, the Forum also served as an opportunity for LAC’s university partners to meet in person in order to share and discuss innovative projects and ideas related to reconciliation. By providing a platform for dialogue, the forum strived to support the advancement of reconciliation thinking and actions within academic and memory institutions.

Opening Prayer and Remarks

The LAC Forum with University Partners was honoured to have an opening prayer delivered by Sheldon McGregor, Elder of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Nation. This prayer was meant to bless the activities of the day, as well as serve as a recognition of the Forum taking place on the traditional land of the Algonquin People. Prior to delivering his prayer, Mr. McGregor provided participants with a background on how prayers are composed and delivered in his peoples’ tradition, and described the necessity of such prayers being delivered only in the Anishinabeg language.

Opening remarks speaker

LAC’s Chief Operating Officer, Normand Charbonneau, delivers opening remarks to the Forum

Following the opening prayer, Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Dr. Guy Berthiaume, delivered opening remarks of welcome and introduced the day’s activities. He described the conceptual foundation of the Forum as a marriage of a number of ideas that are both profound and interconnected, such as how spaces can be decolonized, who owns language, and how to incorporate traditional knowledge in contemporary research. Dr. Berthiaume then elaborated on LAC’s own commitments to playing a key role between the Government of Canada and Indigenous peoples based on a nation-to-nation, government-to-government approach to engagement and the recognition of human rights. He provided an overview of twenty-four concrete actions related to reconciliation that LAC will undertake over the next three years, including measures aimed at making it easier to access Indigenous content, developing descriptions that are culturally appropriate, digitizing treaties and dictionaries, recording oral histories, and providing financial support through the Documentary Heritage Communities Program (DHCP).

Normand Charbonneau – Chief Operating Officer of LAC – then delivered a heartfelt account of his firm belief in the vital importance of reconciliation activities, and his own experiences in trying to contribute positively to a renewed relationship between Canada and the Indigenous communities found across it.  Mr. Charbonneau described reconciliation as building bridges between people and communities that allows for a better understanding and appreciation of similarities and differences. Pursuing this involves raising awareness of the actions taken and the effects they have caused in order to renew the relationship between non-natives and natives. He emphasized that true reconciliation means combined efforts to fight the ignorance and arrogance borne of colonial attitudes and approaches towards Indigenous communities. The starting point, he stressed, is in the head and heart, as part of a larger acknowledgement that everyone has a personal responsibility for driving the goals of reconciliation forward; to pursue a level of education and humility that will result in a humbler, more sensitive, and respectful reflection on issues specific to different Indigenous communities across Canada. Mr. Charbonneau stressed that reconciliation must take, first and foremost, a human-to-human, rather than bureaucrat-to-human, approach.

Keynote: Honouring our Path towards Reconciliation: Addressing the Information Needs and Building Relationships

The morning session of the Forum began with a keynote address by Camille Callison, member of the Tsesk iye (Crow) Clan of the Tahltan First Nation and Indigenous Services Librarian at the University of Manitoba. Ms. Callison began by describing her community to Forum attendees, highlighting its unique language, traditions, landscape, and practices, as well as the challenges it faces as a result of its remoteness. She described how her nation’s knowledge of their past both informs their present, and provides direction for the future. She then put forward the question – “how can we build relationships across the extremely different cultures and nations that exist both within and between the Indigenous and settler communities of Canada?” The answer, she asserted, is through cross-cultural training.

Keynote speaker

Keynote speaker Camille Callison delivers her address to Forum participants

Ms. Callison then provided an example of effective cross-cultural collaboration: the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA). An overview of this body’s composition and work was provided, as well as an exploration of the ten recommendations it proposed for achieving goals of reconciliation. Ms. Callison described the recommendations as being the foundation for change and improvement in the way libraries and archives interact with Indigenous communities and materials, and provided suggestions through which these institutions might achieve the recommendations themselves. She emphasized the importance of cultural awareness as a prerequisite for building meaningful relationships with individual Indigenous communities and nations, starting with the recognition of the distinct traditions, histories, and expectations that exist. No single approach is possible; rather, it is only through recognition of the unique histories, needs, and traditions of individual Indigenous communities that relationships built on trust, respect, and understanding can be fostered.

During the presentation, the concept of cultural copyright was also introduced. Acknowledging that Canada’s copyright legislation draws one set of specific legal boundaries and timelines pertaining to the ownership and use of intellectual property, the law does not fully capture considerations related to the knowledge and cultural materials of Indigenous communities in Canada.  Recognizing and respecting the moral rights of these communities and their ownership over their traditional knowledge, artifacts, and cultural practices is essential for libraries and archives to contribute in a positive way to the goal of reconciliation.

Panel: Decolonization of Research and Knowledge Institutions

Moderated by:  Donna Bourne-Tyson, University Librarian at Dalhousie and the President of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries.


  • Brenda Macdougall, Associate Professor and Holder of the Chair in Métis Research - University of Ottawa
  • Andrea Bear Nicholas, Professor Emeritus - St Thomas University
  • Erica Hernández-Read, Archivist, Access and Digital Initiatives -  University of Northern British Columbia
  • Melissa Adams, Librarian and Archivist - Union of BC Indian Chiefs

Following the keynote address, Donna Bourne-Tyson of Dalhousie University kicked off the morning’s discussion panel. Emphasizing that it is the mandate (and responsibility) of GLAMs to serve all peoples, Ms. Bourne-Tyson spoke of the importance of institutional training as key in ensuring that the goal of inclusivity is achieved. By instilling greater cultural awareness in staff through activities such as Blanket Exercises, the challenge of decolonizing archives is mitigated by a greater understanding among those responsible for carrying out important work, such as updating subject headings and developing collections that are both more reflective of Indigenous peoples, and representative of their distinct cultures and communities. In addition to training, there is a need to review archival practices to ensure that they are carried out in a manner that is built upon partnership with, and respect for, Indigenous communities working with archives.

Panelists speakers

Panel discussion on Decolonization of Research and Knowledge Institutions with moderator Donna Bourne-Tyson and panelists Andrea Bear Nicholas, Brenda Macdougall, Erica Hernández-Read, and Melissa Adams

The remainder of the panel session featured four presentations that dealt with the challenges faced at the intersection of Indigenous history and archives. The topics ranged from the challenges related to acquiring church records and conducting research, to those related to training and professional development of Indigenous librarians and archivists. Forum participants learned about the importance of archives and libraries as an enabler of reconciliation through ensuring that traditional knowledge is made accessible to Indigenous communities, properly preserved over time, and appropriately described and disseminated in a manner that respects community and personal ownership of particular materials.

During the presentations and subsequent discussion, the concept emerged of “community sovereignty” over historical content, also known as cultural copyright. In an era where there is a strong trend to maximize access to holdings through proactive removal of access restrictions, Indigenous communities are asserting their rights to restrict access to sensitive, sacred, or confidential material if necessary, as well as to retain ultimate say in when and how material that concerns them is disseminated.

Acquiring the initial ownership of certain material, or even knowing it exists in the first place, presents another set of challenges for Indigenous communities. Forum participants learned that while colonial and church records can be used positively as tools for Indigenous communities, there are often significant obstacles when trying to identify the location of these records or acquire access to them. To overcome these, participants learned how both formal and informal research techniques are necessary, in addition to relationship-building, resources, and patience with major institutional variance in how records are kept and made accessible.

Throughout the panel, a few common themes from panelists emerged that would be later echoed in the Forum’s afternoon discussions. In the context of archives, it was emphasized that there is a need to review archival practices to both address colonial language, as well as to enable Indigenous communities to utilize archives in a way that best serves their needs. There was a consensus that archives still have major – albeit varying – roles to play in reconciliation and that equal partnerships built on trust and respect is essential to ensuring the fulfilment of these roles. Whether it is identifying sensitive photos in collections, or providing off-site storage services for Indigenous communities who lack sufficient capacity to preserve important historical objects, archives can contribute positively. To achieve this, greater institutional capacity needs to be created through internal training. By developing greater sensitivity within the archival, library, government, and academic communities, colonial attitudes and practices can be proactively addressed from within. To guide this process and ensure its effectiveness, guidance from Indigenous communities through regular consultation is essential to help identify which systems and laws continue to act as barriers to Indigenous access and representation.

The need for establishing long-term relationships between Indigenous communities and academic and government institutions, built on respect and mutual benefit, was also emphasized by panelists. This means avoiding situations where engagement occurs strictly for a short-term (often one-sided) gain, resulting in the abandonment of the relationship once that gain has been achieved. By demonstrating respect and genuine interest in the needs and goals of Indigenous communities, meaningful relationships can be developed where there is an effective balance struck between Western and Indigenous approaches to shared issues. This can include recognizing concerns related to access of Indigenous material by non-Indigenous researchers, providing capacity and expertise when requested, and supporting efforts to redress past disruptions of Indigenous communities, knowledge, space, and language.

Afternoon session: Group discussions on themes related to decolonization and reconciliation

The Forum reconvened for an afternoon focused on discussion moderated by Johanna Smith, Director General of Public Services at LAC. Attendees were divided into small groups and assigned a particular theme related to reconciliation and decolonization. Facilitators guided the discussion and stimulated conversations on the provided themes and questions.

The themes of the afternoon were as follows:

  1. Decolonizing space;
  2. Decolonizing promotion and exhibitions;
  3. Decolonizing cataloguing and description of resources;
  4. Decolonizing knowledge and resources;
  5. Decolonizing language;
  6. Decolonizing through meaningful engagement; and
  7. Decolonizing ownership (artifacts, languages, lands).

Each of the 22 tables was assigned one of the above themes, after which their conclusions were discussed in plenary. The following section presents some highlights of the responses to each theme.

What We Heard

Theme 1: Decolonizing space

Tables discussing Theme 1 emphasized that language promotion is one key element of making Indigenous communities and their cultures visible within institutions. Examples of this could include welcoming people in their language or creating signage in the language of their community. Being inclusive start with linguistic plurality in services, however structural initiatives will be required as well.

Another proposed means of decolonizing space is to reach a better representation in staff, and facilitate the recruitment and retention of Indigenous students and their subsequent hiring for relevant roles.  Doing this can also be facilitated by land recognition and land-based education for librarian and archival practice, in a manner that informs and contextualizes the space and the use of the historical material in them. This means challenging current classification schemes and information systems, which can be bolstered by the recruitment of Indigenous students in the library sciences. There is a need for institutions to create dedicated spaces for special uses such as smudge ceremonies, design space to support and promote Indigenous art, conferences, and centres for Indigenous students, Indigenous student consultative councils, and specialized academic help for Indigenous students.

It was pointed out that some universities, such as Université Laval and Concordia University, offer programs and research centres on Indigenous issues underpinned by dedicated full-time resources. The allocation of budgets for Indigenous collections is necessary to support inclusion, but also to raise awareness. This can also be accomplished by structuring institutional initiatives, such as service committees, or developing five-year plans that are founded upon consultation with Indigenous communities and integration of their suggestions.  Additionally, committees and academic working groups could be convened to develop implementation initiatives for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations or for defining institutional visions for Indigenous leadership.

Theme 2: Decolonizing promotion and exhibitions

Respondents to Theme 2 began by suggesting that early, proactive collaboration with Indigenous communities is essential to decolonizing promotional and exhibition activities and materials. This includes recognizing the importance of thinking deeply about the context, goal, and message of exhibitions and promotions. The challenge of reconciling documents and artifacts that are racist in content or description remains an obstacle to overcome; however it was argued that they should not be removed entirely from public view as they provide a historical reference point that shows the truth of the past.

Maintaining this problematic content for historical context was recognized as having the potential to create tension and provoke sensitives, and it was acknowledged that a balance is necessary to be both respectful and accurate in the portrayal of history. One option that was presented is the possibility of keeping an original description along with a revised version, to maintain respect while preserving inherent historical context.

To maintain further respectfulness is to recognize that Indigenous communities have varying priorities, including priorities that are inextricably tied to the health and quality of life of the community. Nurturing a respectful relationship means looking beyond common project agendas, and understanding the overall context of the relationship and the socio-economic realities of the partner community. It was suggested that if clean water is an issue, for instance, then pressing archival priorities would neither be appropriate nor respectful. Accordingly, pursuing, building, and maintaining long-term relationships must be based on more than a single benefit or project.

Theme 3: Decolonizing cataloguing and description of resources

Tables tasked with responding to the questions of Theme 3 asserted that the first step to decolonizing cataloguing and descriptions of resources is to recognize issues related to embedded processes and attitudes within professional cultures, and commit existing resources to making changes. Misrepresentation of material belonging to, or portraying, Indigenous peoples in Canada continues to be under addressed as a result of established practices in libraries, archives, and museums. It was acknowledged that addressing and implementing change in professional culture is difficult in any environment, as it disrupts the old and established ways.

Nevertheless, respondents felt that cultural change was ultimately possible through an incremental approach; one that undertakes a community-by-community approach, and makes prioritization decisions that are well documented and justified. It was argued that there is a current lack of engagement during review processes for cataloguing and descriptions that needs to be addressed, and that there is a sufficient supply of Indigenous resource centres and consultative committees that could easily be engaged with to assist in review. Establishing a culture of proactive engagement starts with education and training to develop awareness of both internal responsibility, as well as the necessary cultural competencies to both achieve respectful external engagement with Indigenous communities, and understand when it is essential to include them early in particular processes.

Theme 4: Decolonizing knowledge and resources

Discussants of Theme 4 recognized that there is an inherent tension between the traditional approaches to knowledge familiar to Indigenous communities, and those practiced by Western culture. Navigating this tension relies on the dissemination of collections and knowledge, to enable a cross-cultural consensus on false claims and inappropriate language as they occur. Additionally, reconciling academic standards and credentialism with informal traditional competencies and language continues to be a challenge, and requires efforts to prepare students for both traditional and Western approaches to knowledge and education. It was emphasized that credentials and Western training do indeed play their part, especially in efforts to ensure data sovereignty and accuracy.

To address the tension between the above-mentioned approaches, it was suggested that existing bodies such as friendship centres could be leveraged. Additionally, a greater presence of qualitative research and an underlying goal of encouraging Indigenous communities to represent their own history, exposure, and sensitivities were argued as means through which the decolonization of knowledge and resources could be addressed.

Theme 5: Decolonizing language(s)

Tables discussing Theme 5 touched on how to address the continued use of offensive terminology in government, archives, and librarianship, and the lack of awareness that enables this. Whether in subject headings or casual conversation, certain historical terms in the common lexicon are no longer acceptable to use. Respondents emphasized that continued use of these terms was not considered to be the product of intended harm, but rather due to people simply not being aware of the harm that such terms cause. To address this, it was argued that greater education is needed so that any ignorance as to what is and is not acceptable language is dispelled from archives, librarianship, and academia.

However, in some cases – such as in certain laws – the adjustment of language to reflect modern-day sensibilities is far more challenging. As representatives from the Department of Justice indicated, the existence of the Indian Act, as a primary example, means that use of the particular term “Indian” is unavoidable until a formal legislative change occurs. Accordingly, it was acknowledged that while addressing colonial approaches to language and terminology may simply require fostering greater knowledge and awareness in some cases, in others it might be a considerably more complex process when such language is systematically or formally entrenched in law.

When decolonizing language is possible, it is important to ensure that the preferred respectful terminology is both determined by consulting with Indigenous communities who are affected by its use, and normalized through sufficient education and standardization.

Theme 6: Decolonizing through meaningful engagement

Respondents to Theme 6 emphasized that meaningful engagement relies on patience, and a recognition that the process will take time and require training. They argued that there needs to be a willingness to reconsider previous approaches to engagement with Indigenous communities, and instead focus on relationships that pursue multiple initiatives, meaningful legacies, while avoiding fatigue from “over-engagement”. Being sensitive to the needs of a community, and understanding how meaningful engagement is developed over a long period of relationship-building, was deemed essential.

The question was also put forward about how the concepts of engagement and consultation intersect.  The act of consultation has both legal implications, as well as a fraught history of insufficiency. In situations where more meaningful engagement has been achieved, respondents suggested that it is unclear what the role of consultation would be, or what it would look like. They concluded by suggesting that engagement should have measureable elements to help ensure that activities are impactful and ultimately beneficial to the Indigenous community or communities being engaged with.

Theme 7: Decolonizing ownership (artifacts, languages, lands)

Tables that were assigned Theme 7 began by describing the need to question conventional understandings of ownership and interrogate how material was acquired. They acknowledged that this question touches on complex questions related to repatriation, preservation capacity, and the challenges of helping to increase capacity in Indigenous communities while avoiding colonial or paternalistic approaches. A suggested starting point was for institutions to review the donation, protection, and dissemination mechanisms of materials concerning, or considered the cultural property of, one or more Indigenous communities.

There were a number of suggestions on how to achieve this. Identifying ownership prior to dissemination was put forward as one approach, to prevent “story stealing,” by understanding that the finder of an artifact is not the owner of it. Further, archives can assist by recognizing their role as an intermediary and steward of Indigenous materials, and exploring how they can best fulfil this role to store, but not necessarily share, these materials.

It was acknowledged that challenges related to ownership exist in varied forms across the GLAM community, as museums are also familiar with their own questions of store versus share in the context of Indigenous artifacts or materials. Determining in advance what can be shared, when, and how was seen as crucial for institutions to ensure respect for Indigenous ownership, as well as constantly checking and reviewing processes in a consultative manner to ensure this determination is accurate and fully informed by community processes and cultural protocols.

Forum participants

Forum participants (left to right) Donna Bourne-Tyson, Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Camille Callison, Brenda Macdougall, Andrea Bear Nicholas, Melissa Adams, Erica Hernández-Read and Normand Charbonneau


Throughout the Forum the notions of respect, education, and knowledge were repeatedly asserted as the building blocks upon which renewed relationships between Canadian institutions and Indigenous communities will be built. Forum attendees left with a greater sense of the importance of relationship-building as the sole avenue through which reconciliation will occur and the goals of decolonization realized. We learned that training and the development of greater cultural awareness are essential for all institutions looking to proactively address processes and practices that perpetuate colonialism, and that this activity relies on engagement with Indigenous communities to ensure it is undertaken correctly and respectfully. While there was no doubt that there are still major challenges to be addressed, and long timelines for doing so, the Forum concluded positively, with a sense that such discussions, while small, represent a meaningful step in the right direction toward reconciliation. In short, the Forum reiterated that we all have a personal connection to, and responsibility for, the ongoing process of reconciliation in Canada.

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