In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released an executive summary of its years-long investigation into the lasting and harmful impact of the country’s residential school system. One section of the 500-page document shone a harsh light on archives and museums in “settler colonial states,” such as Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, which the commission found had “interpreted the past in ways that have excluded or marginalized Aboriginal peoples’ cultural perspectives and historical experience.”
To facilitate museums’ efforts to right these wrongs, the Canadian Museums Association (CMA) has been given more than $1 million for a program that seeks to foster reconciliation and collaboration with indigenous peoples. The funding is being provided through the government’s Museum Assistance Program, which “supports heritage institutions and workers in the preservation and presentation of heritage collections.”
The CMA, which boasts a network of 2,600 member museums and heritage institutions, will allocate the money to two initiatives, per a Canadian Heritage press release. In accordance with the 67th “call to action” released by Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a guideline for repairing fractured relationships with indigenous communities, a “Reconciliation Project” will receive $680,948 CAD (around $510,000 USD) to undertake a national review of museum policies, in conjunction with indigenous groups. The goal of the review is to determine institutions’ level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and to make recommendations for improvements.
Another $351,508 CAD (around $263,000 USD) will be given to the CMA to support a variety of projects—among them workshops, online learning modules, a museum worker bursary program and museology reports—that will encourage “professional development and sharing of best practices across Canada,” the release states.
“This project will help build better relationships and stronger partnerships between Indigenous communities and Canadian museums," Gary Anandasangaree, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Canadian Heritage, said during the CMA's annual conference in Toronto, according to the CBC’s Jessica Wong.
The TRC’s defining report was based, in part, on thousands of hours of testimony from more than 6,000 indigenous men and women affected by Canada’s residential schools, the government-funded institutions that sought to assimilate indigenous children into European-Canadian culture, often against their parents’ wishes. The system took root in the 1870s and the last school closed in 1996. More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools across the country to devastating intergenerational effect.
“Students were isolated, their culture disparaged—removed from their homes and parents, separated from some of their siblings (the schools were segregated according to gender) and in some cases forbidden to speak their first language, even in letters home to their parents,” the Canadian Encyclopedia summarizes.
In its report, the TRC described the residential school system as part of broader policy to bring about the “cultural genocide” of aboriginal peoples. The commission identified a number of sectors—including child welfare, education, health and the legal system—that should take action to build a more positive and beneficial relationship with indigenous peoples going forward. Museums, the report states, have a “critical role to play in creating opportunities for Canadians to examine the historical injustices suffered by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.”
Speaking to the CBC’s Wong, Sarah Pash, a CMA board member, executive director of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute and chair of the Cree School Board, said there are many ways that Canadian museums can do better in their presentation of indigenous culture.
"I would like to be able to walk into museums and to see the Indigenous language of the territory prominently displayed in all labels and signage. I would like to be able to have experiences in an Indigenous language within a museum. I would like to see Indigenous people working in the museum … [and] on the boards of major museums," she said. "That's where the real change happens."