Archives as activism: The case of residential schools

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Skylee-Storm Hogan and Krista McCracken. Both work in the archives that are part of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, and they talk about both that work and the broader role that archives can play in struggles for social change.

In the middle of battles over pipelines, cuts to social programs, rape culture, police killings of Black and Indigenous people, gentrification, missing and murdered Indigenous women, the minimum wage, blatant racism from elite media figures, and all the other struggles going on at the moment, the political importance of thinking about archives and the practices that create and maintain them might not be immediately apparent. Yet today's guests argue that archives can be significant sites and tools of activism.

It's no secret that the experiences of people who have been marginalized in one way or another tend to get written out of history. Also, the important role of struggle by ordinary people in shaping the world that we live in is ignored most of the time too. The version of history that results from all of this erasure contributes to keeping us feeling powerless and passive, and presents the injustices of the world as "just how things are." Actively remembering those histories, however, can go far beyond just honouring where we came from to be part of an active process in the present of understanding that things don't have to be this way, and that the only thing that has ever made things better is ordinary people acting collectively.

That sort of remembering otherwise can only happen as a result of rather a lot of work of various sorts -- including the preservation of documents, objects, stories, and images that have the potential to be the basis for such remembering. In other words: archiving.

Skylee-Storm Hogan is a Haudenosaunee woman and a fourth-year student at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and she has been working for almost two years as an archive and resource assistant in the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. Krista McCracken is a white settler woman and the archive supervisor at the centre, and she recently wrote an article called "Archives as Activism" for the website

What eventually became the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre began in 1981 with a reunion of survivors of the residential school that had existed in Sault Ste. Marie. Long before these conversations began happening at the national level, this gathering sparked a hard but crucial ongoing process of survivors (and eventually the children and grandchildren of survivors) telling their stories, talking about their experiences, listening to each other, and supporting each other -- in other words, it was an example of remembering otherwise in the face of the dominant story of Canada that, even more in those years than today, completely erased the genocidal trauma at the core of the residential school system. Over the years, the gatherings have continued, and the centre has amassed an impressive collection of photos, objects, and other important materials related not only to Shingwauk Residential School specifically but to residential schools across the country. Though in recent years they have worked to archive that material in a more formal and systematic way, the priority for the centre remains supporting survivors and their families, and being actively involved in shared, public, collective processes of remembering.

The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is just one example of the different kinds of relationships that archiving projects can have to grassroots struggles for justice. Existing archives can be sources of material about the past that are useful in practical ways to movements and communities-in-struggle today. And increasingly, archives -- both institutional archives wishing to engage with communities in new ways, as well as community-based and grassroots archival projects -- are working to make sure that today's struggles are not forgotten. From the pioneering work of initiatives like the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, to more recent efforts to preserve material from pivotal groups like Occupy Vancouver and Black Lives Matter Toronto, there is increasing attention to the importance of making sure that we don't lose the raw materials that will be necessary for engaging in grassroots, just, and liberatory remembering in the future.

Hogan and McCracken speak about the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, about archives as activism more broadly, and about what people engaged in grassroots struggles can do themselves to make sure that their stories aren't lost. To learn more, please check out the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and McCracken's article "Archives as Activism."

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give 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 us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] 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.

The image modified for use in this post is used with permission of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.



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