SAA 2015: Session 508, The Role of Archives and Archivists in the Search for Truth and Reconciliation

In advance of the 2015 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, roundtable and section meetings, forums, and pop-up sessions. Summaries represent the opinions of their individual authors; they are not necessarily endorsed by SNAP, members of the SNAP Steering Committee, or SAA.

Guest author: Katharina Hering, Project Archivist at the National Equal Justice Library — Georgetown Law

Note from note taker: My notes are just a summary of the presentations and discussion, but I want to add that this session was one of the most informative and thought-provoking panels I attended at the conference – the TRC archive is a model of a digital archive based on respect for the victims, developed and managed in close collaboration with indigenous communities.

As the moderator pointed out, this session was one of several sessions at the meeting that complemented another very well, dealing with communities that don’t want to be documented, community archives, postcustodial theory, and archival activism. Shelley Sweeney introduced the session with reflections on concepts of truth, and their impact on archival practice and theory. Sweeney has been the Head of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections department in Winnipeg, Canada, since 1998. Sweeney has been instrumental in securing the bid and implementing the concept for the development of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, which is now the home for the records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. The Commission wrapped up its work this year.

Drawing on a range of definitions and philosophical concepts of truth, as well as critical archival theories, Sweeney discussed the role of archivists and archives, when people, who have been subjected to discrimination and genocide, are seeking truth and reconciliation as a redress for past harm. A number of authors have explored the social responsibility of archives, and their role in preserving the records of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Verne Harris, Rand Jimerson, Trudy Huskamp Peterson, among others. The debate between Michele Caswell on the one hand, and Lisa Nathan, Maggie Castor, and Elizabeth Shaffer on the other, helps us with sharpening our understanding of archival pluralism. Archivists have to recognize that there exist many different perspectives, realities, and definitions of truth, and have to acknowledge their own biases and privileges: to what extent are archival institutions expressions of dominating power structures, and representing the legacy of colonizing initiatives? Archivists have the responsibility to address structural injustices. In “The Concept of Truth,” Richard Campbell develops a model linking truth closely to the concept of action – truth is faithfulness in action. In order to be faithful, one must understand and respect the integrity of the other. Sweeney, however questions whether we can ever completely put ourselves into the place of “the other.” Rather, “archivists need to go further,” and need to collaborate with communities to actively participate in the development and management of their collections, says Sweeney. Archivists can provide infrastructure and knowledge, and communities bring knowledge of community and network to the archives. Along these lines, the University of Manitoba has made an active effort to collaborate with several communities in hosting their archives – records from the LGBTTIQ community, archives from Indigenous communities, and from the Ukrainian community. Archivists cannot act alone – archivists must work with “spider advocates,” based on collaboration and mutual respect. T & R Commission archives must be based on the participation of the injured community.

Ry Moran is the Director of the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, where he is responsible for developing a dynamic Indigenous archive built on integrity, trust and dignity. He came to the Centre directly from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools in Canada (TRC), where he facilitated the gathering of nearly 7,000 video/audio-recorded statements from former residential school students and others affected by the residential school system, in addition to gathering millions of documents and thousands of photographs from government departments and nearly 100 church archives. “It is an archive of pain and tears.” The TRC was established following the largest class-action lawsuit in Canada’s history, and the mission of the Centre was to house all of the statements, documents and other materials gathered throughout the TRC’s years of operation in order to foster reconciliation and healing. The Centre, including the archives, is intended to be a public and open space and plays a critical role in fostering the public dialogue about the residential school system, in which over 150,000 students were subjected to neglect and abuses– including cultural abuses. Canada, which tends to be perceived as a peaceful nation, has just begun to listen to the experiences of indigenous communities, and has to come to terms with its violent history. Within the broader context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, reconciliation is defined as an engine of sustainable development.

Based on the model outlined by Sweeney, indigenous communities are actively involved in the management of the archive and the Centre. Following indigenous traditions, the archive is a sacred bundle, and the design integrates elements from indigenous cultures. One of the main goals of the archives was to facilitate access for the survivors of the system, for whom and whose families the documentation is extremely important for many reasons. Other key audiences are students and educators, and the Centre is working on expanding teaching resources based on the documentation available in the archives.

Moran gave a preview of some of the elements of the digital archive and its features, including interactive maps, timelines, a centralized portal for reports published on the system, and a database with sophisticated search functions supporting the easy discovery of large volumes of documents. Since the litigation drove the development of the archives, almost all documents have been digitized, metadata tagged, and OCRd.

One of the questions raised during the discussion was how the archives are handling the protection of privacy. Moran acknowledges that privacy is an important issue, and they are constantly negotiation how to balance access and protection of personal information, including information about third parties. They have done a risk assessment, and have identified three categories of records: records that are in the public domain, redacted records, and restricted records. They have developed a segregated system, with a vault that includes the restricted records, and a public system. There is also a takedown request function. Managing these systems will be an ongoing challenge. The release of records that are in the public domain has been made easier by relatively recent legislation.

Another question was whether there are similar projects in the U.S.? While the same system existed in the United States, no efforts exist on this sale — Jim Gerencser, the archivist at Dickinson College, is working on a project on the residential school in Carlisle, which served in many respects as a model for the schools in Canada.

Does the archive also include private collections? No, the collection is focused on the Centre’s original mandate, and is focused on gathering the statements, documents and other materials throughout the TRC’s years of operation.

Visit the online archive, as it evolves, at:

University of Manitoba, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

It also includes a link to the final report of the TRC:


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