A digital archive of feminist struggle in Canada

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A digital archive of feminist struggle in Canada

Alana Cattapan is an assistant professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, and she is part of the organizing committee of Rise Up!, a digital archive of feminist activism in Canada. Scott Neigh interviews her about the importance of preserving social movement histories, about remembering Canadian feminist struggles, and about the work of Rise Up!

It's an ongoing challenge to ensure that the collective movements of ordinary people that have shaped the world in the past are not forgotten, and that their struggles can be remembered to inform the movements of today.

There are a range of ways that this kind of activity happens. Some projects emphasize preserving material in archives. Others focus on interviews, or on using primary source material to write histories that push back against erasure and forgetting. Some projects make use of the resources, institutional legitimacy, and rigour of the academy, while others ground the work of remembering directly in communities or movements. Some focus on more traditional approaches, whether that's brick-and-mortar archives or scholarly monographs, while others take advantage of the possibilities offered by technology and online connectivity.

The Rise Up! digital archiving project focuses on Canadian feminist struggles between the 1970s and the 1990s. It began with a group of women, many of whom had themselves been involved in feminist organizing in those years, some of whom are also scholars. They were very aware that the active participants in those struggles were getting older, and there was a growing danger of losing the movement papers, publications, and ephemera that have mostly survived in boxes in people's attics and basements. And they didn't just want to preserve this material – they wanted to make it easily available for researchers, for students, and for feminist organizers today to learn from. Moreover, many of them had been involved specifically in the socialist feminist wing of the movement, and they particularly wanted to be sure that this more radical strand of feminism – a strand that was quite politically significant in the Canadian context – was remembered.

The project began by digitizing three publications by socialist feminist formations based in Toronto during the target era: the International Women's Day Committee Newsletter, Rebel Girls' Rag, and Cayenne. To make a given document available, it is scanned and run through character recognition software. This means that searchable text is associated with each scan, making it easier for people to find the material that they are interested in. Character recognition software isn't perfect, so each item is double checked by a volunteer, and then appropriate tags and metadata are added, again with the goal of making searches more efficient.

The original plan after digitizing the three initial publications was to build the archive in a sort of crowdsourced way by issuing a callout for people with accumulations of movement material from that era to scan items themselves, submit them, and then Rise Up! would do the character recognition and tagging. That proved to be impractical, so they began a partnership with the Nellie Langford Rowell Women's Studies Library at York University in Toronto to digitize material from their holdings, and have moved forward acquiring new material in a range of other ways. Though they have occasionally managed to get small amounts of project funding for individual pieces of the work, the archive as a whole is sustained by volunteer labour.

The Rise Up! archive website aims to present as much material as possible in as accessible a way as possible. It includes not only scans of movement publications but cultural material like song sheets and buttons as well. Along with the basic search function, users can access content via carefully crafted narratives produced by the collective that highlite actions and issues that they have judged to be particularly significant – from the struggle for reproductive rights and choice that raged in those years, to women's organizing within the labour movement as well as particular strikes, to the struggles of Indigenous women, and much more. They also have pages describing particular organizations and their relationship to feminist struggles in those years, from the Congress of Black Women of Canada, to Voice of Women, to the Lesbian Organization of Toronto, and -- again -- much more.

At this point, their holdings continue to overrepresent Toronto and Ontario, as well as the socialist feminist current. Their ongoing work of broadening and deepening the archive's holdings is particularly focused on increasing the representation of other parts of the country, and of the organizations and struggles of Black and Indigenous women and women of colour, disabled women, and other marginalized women. To that end, they actively invite supportive people to donate money, to volunteer with the project, or to share movement material that might belong in the archive.

Image: The image modified for use in this post was taken from an item in the Rise Up! archive, the International Women's Day Poster (Toronto) – 1982.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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