Graduate History Students in Support of Canada’s Archives

In May of 2012, the government of Canada announced a number of cuts to institutions and programs that support the preservation, research, and accessibility of our country’s collective past. These cuts will impoverish Canadians of all backgrounds and affiliations, for they undermine the advancement of historical knowledge on every facet of the Canadian experience, and weaken mutual understanding among Canada’s diverse communities. Any healthy democracy requires an engaged and informed citizenship, which is provided not only by the fundamental freedoms of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication, as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also from public investment in education, science, arts and culture. Cuts to public institutions and sites of knowledge production, exchange, and discussion, like libraries, archives, universities, and heritage sites, curtail a citizens’ ability to enjoy those fundamental freedoms.

As graduate students in history, we contribute to the advancement of public knowledge and assist the democratic functioning of our society. Our research explores not just the ‘when’, but the ‘what’, the ‘how’, and the ‘who’ we are, as individuals, as members of our families, our communities, our country, and our planet. We ask interesting and sometimes tough questions; shine light on past successes and wrongdoings; challenge dominant myths and revisit neglected truths; provoke thought and stimulate new ideas; inspire artistic imagination and critical thinking; promote empathy, social trust, respect for diversity, intercultural dialogue, innovation, social justice, and so much more. These contributions will be greatly undermined by the range of cuts proposed to the Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the Canadian Council of Archives (CCA), and to such important programs as the National Archival Development Program (NADP) and the Understanding Canada: Canadian Studies Program (CSP) of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

The Conservative government is justifying these cuts with the argument that they follow a trend in archival usage towards greater web access, and are therefore privileging the digitization of existing collections over improving direct services, new acquisitions, and archival processing. Understating this rationale is the government’s notion that historians – along with other scholars working towards improving our public knowledge of Canada or whose research deals with inconvenient topics –  are an elite group that seek only to maintain a monopoly over Canada’s past. Moreover, because the work of historians, as well as other humanists and social scientists, is not driven by the same profit-seeking imperatives of a capitalist economy, they are ultimately dismissed by this Conservative government as unproductive and therefore unnecessary. This falls within the prevailing perception of governmentality as akin to ‘running a business’, where Prime Ministers are appreciated as national CEOs, and which reduces Canadians from full citizens of a liberal-democratic national society to simple taxpayers and consumers.

However, the argument that the government wants more digitization and is therefore democratizing the access to Canada’s past is utterly false, and is immediately contradicted by the cuts to digitization and circulation staff at the LAC by 50%, or by the complete elimination of the NADP program, which allowed for small local archives and community organizations across Canada to invest in the preservation, processing, and digitization of their collections. It also betrays a deep ignorance about archival preservation, since it misses the fact that archival digitization has many limitations and carries its own risks, and it does not necessarily lead to lower overhead costs. Furthermore, we fear that the government might be creating an artificial crisis where it puts itself in a situation where it will not be able to carry on its proposed digital shift and eventually move to privatize those services. This will eventually mean introducing fees for accessing our collective memory, which is the opposite of democratizing accessibility.

As graduate history students, coming from different social classes and cultural backgrounds, dedicating a large part of our working lives, under serious financial constraints, to unearth, explain and disseminate our collective past, we deeply resent any ‘elitist’ connotations hurled at us. Our demanding academic training, our lengthy and painstaking perusal through thousands and thousands of archival records, our laborious writing process, all of which amount to years of work, results in the transformation of overwhelming archival data into intelligible and practical products of  historical knowledge. That knowledge is then disseminated though a variety of ways: dissertations, books, journals, websites, etc. These are then used by museum curators, public historians, educators, journalists, lawyers, artists, scientists, politicians, and every other person that requires historical insight in their jobs and professions, or is simply curious to learn more about the infinity of subjects that we examine. Our work does nothing but democratize access to historical knowledge. To suggest otherwise is false and arrogant.

The GHSA has formed a committee that is responsible for organizing a range of protest actions meant to express the discontentment of our members, which include: 1) alert and inform graduate history students to the cuts proposed by the Canadian government in a period where most of our colleagues are away from their academic institutions, and away from their peers; 2) mobilize other associations of graduate history students across the country and invite them to join us in writing a joint, nation-wide protest letter to the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, the Honourable James Moore; 3) promote a letter and community outreach campaign among individual graduate students, encouraging them to write their MPs, as well as to diverse media outlets linked to the subjects of their research.

1) Calling all graduate history students!

We have compiled a number of links in this blog that provide detailed information and views from various stakeholders about these cuts and how they will affect archival services and preservation initiatives all over Canada. There are also links to four large petitions demanding the government to stop these cuts. Please see below.

2) Graduate history students’ nation-wide protest letter

We have drafted a letter to the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages and are gathering feedback from our members. We are also asking students to send us their testimonials (250-300 words) about how these cuts will affect them and their research – GHSSCA Testimonial request. We will post these in this blog and send them attached to the letter to the Minister. Efforts are underway to mobilize graduate history student associations and other supportive organizations across Canada to participate in this campaign. More on this to follow.

3) Letter writing and community outreach – mobilizing stakeholders beyond our ‘sector’

We urge all graduate history students across Canada to write their Members of Parliament expressing their discontentment towards these cuts and demand that funding to these important institutions and programs be restored.

We also encourage graduate students to write op eds, articles or posts to those media outlets that are associated with the subjects of their research – i.e. local newspapers from the towns being studied; ‘ethnic press’ produced by immigrant groups in their heritage language; thematic magazines that deal with topics explored in your research – and explain how these cuts will affect the development of historical knowledge on their particular audiences. If possible, we suggest that graduate students use their own research and personal experiences as users of these institutions and programs, as examples of what historians do, and how our will be undermined by these cuts. Not only will this be a great way to connect with our audiences and introduce them to the fascinating work that graduate students do, but  it will mobilize stakeholders from all sectors of Canadian society to write their MPs. This is especially significant when the proponents of these cuts are trying to make the case that they will only affect a small ‘elitist’ group of Canadian society, or that ours is merely a sectarian grievance.

We invite you to send us any articles, op eds, blog posts, articles, etc., that you submit to media outlets, so we can re-publish them in this blog, with your permission. This will help us keep track of which outlets have been contacted, and provide a central repository where interested parties can learn more about the diversity of topics, and the myriad ways in which graduate history students contribute to advance historical knowledge in Canada and abroad. As a suggestion, you can also refer to this blog in your communications with the media as a place where your readers can find more information about this issue.

You may find useful to consult the fact sheets, public letters, and articles below to learn more about the cuts, and develop ideas for you own communications. You can also check this blog from time to time to find additional information about our developing actions and read the communications submitted by your peers.

NADP fact sheets distributed by the Canadian Council of Archives:

How the cuts are affecting Ontario archivists:

Links to public letters from various organizations

Canadian Historical Association:                                                                                                                           Canadian Council of Archives:                               
Association of Canadian Archivists: and
Society of American Archivists :                                              
Ontario Library Association:
Canadian Library Association :

Link to relevant blog posts, media coverage:
Call to Action:

Program cut devastating, archivist says, Ability to preserve Canada’s past in jeopardy, librarians contend

CBC’s “As it Happens”. The piece begins at 6:50 of “As it Happens for Monday, May 7, 2012, Part Three.”

Mike Ridley (former head of U of Guelph Libraries)’s approach:

Good post by gov’t docs librarian at Laurier:

Artists and archives:

Harperizing Canadian Heritage:

New Brunswick archivists on CBC

Saskatchewan Council of Archives and Archivists

Archives Society of Alberta

Déclaration sur les archives

Other blog posts:
Prince Edward County Archives
York U Archives:
Anglo-Celtic Connections

Petitions and campaigns
Make it better.Write a letter Help save Canada’s National Archival Development Program

Against the elimination of the “Understanding Canada” program:

“Archivists on to Ottawa Trek” or

Save LAC (CAUT campaign):

4 Responses to Graduate History Students in Support of Canada’s Archives

  1. John H says:

    I support the petition to cuts at LAC. This archive is enormously valuable and any significant cuts will undermine the ability of future graduate students to successfully conduct their research. Consequetly, the cultivation of new historical knowledge regrading Canada will suffer. I have used LAC twice this year and have been fortunate enough to access a small part of its great archival collection. I hope success stories like mine contiune into the future.

  2. says:

    That is a truly magnificent summing up of the consequences of this government’s cuts. As a former staff member of the former much-lamented National Library of Canada, I am both grieved and shocked at the plans to undo so much of what so many of us worked towards, which was the satisfaction and pleasure of serving researchers like you and of collecting and preserving our heritage for future generations. Thank you for speaking up and for directing readers to other expressions of support, notably the CAUT which seemed to be our only champion for a while.

  3. yorkughsa says:

    Thank you for your kind and earnest words. We are all dismayed by this government’s profound disdain for our collective heritage, and its lack of understanding about the significant contributions that archival professionals make to empowering all Canadians. In the worse of cases, we hope at least that, with the extent of media attention that this issue is already generating, Canadians will be introduced to the work of archivists and other heritage professionals, and come to appreciate the significant role they play in our democratic society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s