Ry Moran on Archiving Truth and Reconciliation Materials and Respecting the Record

Ry Moran is the founding director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, Canada. For the past five years Moran, a member of the Red River Métis, has led the creation of a permanent home of a national archive for all materials gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. LJ caught up with him recently to learn more about what it took to build an archive of such a critical chapter of Canada’s Indigenous history.

Ry Moran holding ceremonial painted paddle
Ry Moran holds one of three paddles carved by artist Carey Newman and designed by artists from different generations and nations for the 2019 Building Reconciliation forum. This paddle, painted by residential school survivor Victor Newman, rests at the NCTR.
Photo credit: Nardella Photography

Ry Moran is the founding director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba, Canada, and will become the inaugural Associate University Librarian for Reconciliation at the University of Victoria (UVic), BC, this fall. For the past five years Moran, a member of the Red River Métis, has led the creation of a permanent home of a national archive for all materials gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—established in 2008 to address the legacy of abuse of Canada’s residential school system, which operated from the 1880s through the end of the 20th century, forcibly separating Indigenous children from their families and forbidding them to acknowledge their heritage and culture or to speak their languages. Moran helped collect nearly 7,000 video- and audio-recorded statements of former residential school survivors and others. He was also responsible for gathering millions of records documenting the residential school system.

LJ caught up with Moran before he left Manitoba to learn more about what it took to build an archive of such a critical chapter of Canada’s Indigenous history. (For more on his plans for the new role at UVic and thoughts about taking on the work of antiracism, see Ry Moran on Institutional Reconciliation and Equity.)

LJ : Could you talk about your path to becoming an archivist?

Ry Moran: My journey into archives came first through my studies at the University of Victoria, when I began to better understand the incredible amount of information contained within the archives that I hadn’t seen before. I hadn’t appreciated how much information was there, and I was fascinated from the outset. And as I began to explore questions of how to do meaningful work that would be of direct service to my particular Métis community, but more broadly the Indigenous community, I began to realize just how much information was highly at risk—for example, information that had been recorded that was now at risk of being lost because it was sitting on fragile media—and realizing how much had not been preserved, how much had been lost, and how there was this essential requirement to work as hard and as diligently as possible to protect and preserve Indigenous culture for the benefit of the Nations, the communities, the country as a whole.

I also was fortunate to be involved in a number of legal cases wherein the power of the archival record was what ultimately affirmed and supported the existence of Indigenous rights. We’re still in a place in Canada where we have to prove that we have these rights, rather than them being proactively recognized.

[At] the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation I was given the opportunity to amass what now is essentially the largest archival collection of Indigenous oral history in the country, and to delve deeply into this very difficult element of our national consciousness that had not been honored and recognized.

What was that process like?

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is hosted by the University of Manitoba, so there’s been a lot of discussion on how we harmonize the University’s approach with the Indigenous approach that is necessary at the NCTR. We’ve spent a lot of time working on governance, and on ensuring core principles of Indigenous control, Indigenous knowledge, decolonizing practices—not only internal to the NCTR, but in our decision-making structures as a whole.

That’s one of the challenges. In many ways, the journey of the NCTR has mapped the journey of many, many Indigenous initiatives across the country, wherein we are actively required to remain true to the goals and aspirations that are being set by our communities, and to find creative and new ways to work within structures that have oftentimes been created without us, or in the absence of Indigenous peoples.

It’s made for a very dynamic, interesting path. The NCTR was a wholesale startup, just as the TRC was. We were starting this brand-new organization, staffing it, building a foundation. We were also winding down the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the same time. We were transferring the responsibilities [and] all the records that we had collected, and meeting the Canadian public at a time when Canada had really heard the calls for reconciliation and was responding with an incredible amount of enthusiasm for change, learning, and education.

There must have been so many moving parts to that process—metadata that needed to align with Indigenous terms and culture, and also privacy issues. How did you manage the backend?

This has been a substantive amount of the work. Before we even could get out of the gate we had to develop new privacy legislation in the province to appropriately protect and reflect the mandate of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. We engaged in extensive, lengthy conversations to create the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Act, which on the one hand recognizes and affirms the provincial privacy legislation which is the Manitoba Freedom of Information and Protection of Personal Privacy Act while also harmonizing that legislation to a certain extent with the federal regime, which is the Privacy Act—and ensuring that the director of the NCTR has appropriate discretion in regards to the release of personal information on a proactive basis necessary to fulfill the mandate of truth telling, ongoing discovery, and ongoing sharing of information. That was a very difficult process, and the application and implementation of that legislation remains an active, full-scale part of the operations of the NCTR.

Bringing together all this information—not only the harmonization of the metadata, but making sense of the information, especially as so much of it contains highly sensitive personal information—has been an absolutely massive task. The first job that we undertook at the National Centre was to simply provide authoritative information on every residential school in the country, to associate that information with photographs or images, and include a subset of records that had been deemed suitable for public release.

That step marked the first time that there was site-specific information available to the world on every residential school in the country. We did a number of research projects to incorporate some mapping technology into that finished release as well. One of the first big projects was simply ensuring we had the firm locations of the schools, and map those on GPS coordinates. That hadn’t ever been done. Each school now has a map of where it was or is, photographs, a writeup on the school, and attached associated documents. In and of itself, that was a significant step. It required a lot of reorganizing of information to bring meaning to it in the context that we were mandated to show.

For example, we went into the government records that we had, all of which had already been publicly disclosed. But we essentially deconstructed the microfilm reels and the series, and reorganized those reels and series to match the residential schools in question. We made the residential schools one of the primary authorities and the common unit of organizing, to bring the insights necessary to end users that required turning the collection on its head and bringing new value to it.

We ensure[d] that users across the country had access to the public statements by residential school survivors. We said right from the outset that the documentary archive was simply insufficient to properly explain what had really occurred. The issues of mistreatment, of abuse, of the many terrible experiences that were suffered by survivors, were not found in the records. They could be pieced together or contextualized, but we really had to turn to the survivors themselves.

The survivors were the living archive, the living memory of what had occurred in the residential schools. We wanted to make sure that their voices were—and are—front and center of the NCTR, and that as many people as possible have the ability to hear directly from those survivors who had so courageously stepped forward and wanted their stories heard.

We focused on the public hearings and gave people an opportunity to review documentary material right alongside statements and, as end users, draw their own conclusions about where the truth lay about what was really going on inside of those schools, and what the real experiences were like for the students who had been forcibly removed and put in these schools.

From that outset, then, the work has been a whole host of complex and technical undertakings to gain better control of the records that we have, better describe the records that we have, ensure that our ways and means of organizing these records promote accessibility by survivors and their families, and ensure that we have a consistency of approach and metadata schema across all records, so that the meaning and the spirit that’s alive within those documents is properly reflected.

That work remains ongoing. At present, we are nearing the end of a project to replace both our technical systems and redesign our website, so we’re going to be further promoting accessibility and descriptions. That will be more or less ready toward the end of 2020. Because of the huge amount of public demand that we had right at the outset, we felt that we had to respond very quickly and actively. So we built the system and provided that initial offering, and have been working very hard since to release what would be version 3.0 of our public interface, which is a digital archive as our main front door.

Did you have an idea of what this work would entail when you began it?

From the outset 11 years ago, we had to make a number of very long-term decisions: How were we going to approach the entire statement gathering process so that we were standardizing the look and feel of the interviews, but more importantly, the files and data that we were generating? How could we do that in a manner that would aid and assist the long-term preservation of those records?

We made very conscious decisions in terms of how we supplied video recording equipment, the recording formats we used, the master and derivative, and the various processes that we employed to ensure that we were continuously setting ourselves up for long-term digital preservation.

Likewise, as we approached the document collection effort, we adopted approaches that were aiding and assisting long-term preservation. When we obtained information from an archive, we collected all aspects of metadata, ranging from technical metadata down to the relationships between documents to whatever system that archive collection had been using to hold its records. Now we’re going through the process of deconstructing some of that information without losing any of it, to bring new insight and new meaning into these collections.

We were fortunate that it was clear in the TRC’s mandate that this material had to be archived over the long term in the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. And we were very fortunate that, with that emphasis placed on the archival mandate, the long-term preservation, and the accessibility of the records, the transition between the TRC’s work to the NCTR had been thought out even before we hit the ground running at the NCTR.

Are you dealing with any physical materials?

An interesting element is the physical items gifted to the NCTR or TRC. A wide range of materials, ranging from paintings, to formal declarations perhaps made by a city or an organization, to sacred or ceremonial objects were donated by a variety of Indigenous peoples or groups—all contributions to the process of truth and reconciliation that were intended to either provide information or promise or hope. And all of which have to be honored in very specific ways that not only continue to honor the original spirit and intent of the donation, but also the spirit of whatever was entrusted to the NCTR.

That include[es] many of the important ceremonial objects that were used by the TRC in its work. There’s a number of key things that we hold at the NCTR that are very, very important to us, such as the TRC eagle staff, the bentwood box—kind of the spiritual representation of the entire archive—the basket that carried the ashes between the sacred fires that were lit, the rattle that was entrusted to the NCTR in ceremony to forever remember those children who never returned home from the residential schools. [We] see the collection as being essentially a sacred bundle of information, of life, of spirit, that has to be treated with the utmost regard.

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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