Archival Ethics and Indigenous Justice: Conflict or Coexistence?

Much has been made in the last two decades about the “decolonization” of institutions, theories and practices in the Western world.  Archives are no exception.  Archivists have long taken pride in the implicit and explicit link between archives and justice, but what happens when justice and long-held archival principals are in direct conflict?  Using a case study as a launching point, this paper examines how archival theories of creation, ownership and authorship – born out of Western colonial thought and philosophy – together with archival values of access and preservation may actually serve to undermine archivists’ efforts to pursue justice and nurture relationships with historically oppressed peoples. The Anglican Church has records, including photographs, of an early hospital ship mission which operated on the West Coast of Canada visiting predominantly Indigenous communities.  The archives holding these records received a request that the entire collection be copied and/or the original photos be given to an Indigenous community represented therein.  The community members asserted that the priests and staff did not ask permission to take the photos, some were of sacred objects and ceremonies, the culture depicted in the photos belonged to the community, and the photos were the only existing ones of deceased elders and family members.  At the time, the Archivist cited institutional policy as well as archival theory and Codes of Ethics as reasons for denying the request, causing great distress and hurt to the community members, with whom the church has had a significant relationship for over 100 years. This paper contends that the archival community would do well to consider pushing beyond its current practices and Codes of Ethics when making decisions that impact Indigenous communities, and that true justice may actually lie in the rejection of some of its own long-held theories and practices in favour of actions which respect Indigenous ways of knowing and perspectives of recordkeeping.

Melanie Delva has been Archivist for the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster and Provincial Synod of BC and Yukon since 2005.  From 2006-2008 she was part of an Archives Advisory Group to the first Commissioners of the Canadian Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and in 2009-2010 participated in the Pilot Phase of the TRC Document Collections Process. She has served 3 terms as Chair of the Religious Archives Special Interest Section of the Association of Canadian Archivists.  She has a particular interest in the intersections of faith archives and social justice – particularly in the context of justice for Indigenous peoples of Canada.  She holds a BA (Honours) from Dalhousie University and a Master of Archival Studies degree from the University of British Columbia.

Melissa Adams, a member of the Nisga’a First Nation in Canada, is a PhD student at University College London. Her education background combines History, First Nations Studies and Archival Studies, and her PhD research examines the impacts and implications that Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is having on recordkeeping. She has worked in libraries, archives and museums, often at institutions which include Aboriginal material.