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This article was published 5/6/2021 (388 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There is a “deliberate, systematic exclusion of Indigenous and non-white communities and perspectives” on the Canadian government’s web page about Confederation, which should be removed in its entirety, according to an internal memo obtained by the Star.
Library and Archives Canada staff also pointed out in internal correspondence that the “absolutely ancient” online biography of John A. Macdonald fails to mention a litany of horrific acts committed during his tenure, and said it should be replaced with alternatives for learning about Macdonald.
Yet nearly eight months after the Star highlighted that the Macdonald biography omitted any information about devastating policies such as the creation of Canada’s residential schools for Indigenous children, the profile remains unchanged on the government website, as does the Confederation web page.
In a statement to the Star, Library and Archives Canada said the Confederation web page and prime minister biographies “are planned to be decommissioned” this month, but did not respond to a question about why they remain online now.
“Because of the particular context of the Confederation pages, we are hoping to expedite the decommissioning of these pages,” said the statement.
“We recognize that several parts of LAC’s web presence ... are outdated and do not reflect current historical context. Through ongoing work to improve and modernize LAC’s web presence, we are reviewing and rethinking how we present information online.”
In an email Friday, the head of Library and Archives Canada also did not answer when asked by the Star who made the decision to keep the Macdonald profile online. Leslie Weir, whose official title is librarian and archivist of Canada, said only that the Star’s questions had been sent to the organization’s media relations department.
Macdonald’s legacy has again come under scrutiny for his role as an architect of Canada’s genocidal Indian residential school system, in the wake of the discovery last week of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
That has led to calls to remove statues and other memorials honouring Canada’s first prime minister, and demands for a more accurate depiction of his life and the impact of his government’s policies, especially on Indigenous people.
The failure to update Macdonald’s online profile on a government website at this point is “really disheartening,” said Jennifer Brant, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, who teaches courses on Indigenous literatures, anti-racism and settler colonialism, and structural and colonial violence in education.
“I don’t find it surprising, but it’s deeply troubling,” Brant said. “I think part of the shock that we’re seeing across Canada in regards to the news that came out this past week is a direct result of this history that has been hidden for so long.
“As Indigenous people, we know this history. We’ve been saying this.”
Last October, the Star published a story detailing the omissions from Macdonald’s biography on the Library and Archives Canada website.
Indigenous advocates and scholars were disturbed that the biography contained no information about Macdonald’s role in creating the residential school system. There is almost no mention of Indigenous people in the biography, which is presented on the website of a federal government agency whose mandate includes being a source of knowledge about Canada that’s accessible to everyone.
Documents from last October, recently obtained by the Star through an Access to Information request, show that behind the scenes, Library and Archives Canada staff were scrambling in the wake of the story’s publication.
The story sparked an internal review, which proposed revamping LAC’s entire section on Canadian Confederation due to its lack of Indigenous and non-white perspectives — and the fact that the text on some of the web pages “systematically obscured” the existence of Indigenous populations.
Emails show there was much bureaucratic hand-wringing over what to do about the Macdonald profile, which everyone agreed was out of date and should likely be removed. A staff member was dispatched to scour LAC’s web pages for other Macdonald profiles, and began writing a new draft for the biography.
“I’ve been thinking about this all weekend,” wrote one senior official in an email to colleagues last October.
Eight months later, the Macdonald biography remains online, altered only by a note that says “archived on the web” that was added after the Star contacted LAC for comment last October.
“This situation emphasizes the risks to LAC keeping outdated material on our website without regular review,” says an undated memo from the online content and curatorial teams. “Even marking a page as ‘archived’ does not absolve LAC from taking responsibility for the outdated content.”
William Benoit, an Indigenous engagement adviser at Library and Archives, wrote in an email to colleagues that the Macdonald “text is absolutely ancient,” and that “I have articulated my ongoing concerns about the Macdonald text before today.”
“Canadians want heroes — they play into the nation-building (myth-making) aspects of the Canada narrative,” he wrote. “Many of the classic role models were horrible, opportunistic individuals especially when we consider the First Nations, Inuit and Metis nation.”
Benoit pointed out that LAC’s biography of Macdonald “showcases, does not mention or minimalizes” a number of horrific acts committed during his tenure as prime minister, including: “Macdonald’s role in the Indian residential school system; racism, corruption and profiteering of fellow Tories who worked for and with Macdonald; no mention of the Indian pass system; forced enfranchisement of First Nations; arguably, the systemic starvation of First Nations peoples on the Prairies; the condoning of the use of terror (war crimes including rape and murder) by the Canadian militia against the Metis 1870-1871.”
Further discussions among staff members show several recommended adding disclaimers to all of the biographies of prime ministers to say they were out of date, or to remove them completely. “The latter might be a stronger statement that we hear the critiques and are responding appropriately,” a senior official wrote.
The memo from the online content and curatorial teams noted that these “parked and static online biographies are particularly problematic” because they oversimplify the subject matter and give the impression of “being an authoritative interpretation as they appear on a government website.”
It recommended removing all of them, and suggested that instead of presenting the public with biographies, it could facilitate access to original historical material. Going forward, regular review of web content by LAC historians is necessary, the memo stated.
It’s unclear from the documents, which are mostly from mid-October, why a decision was taken to leave the Macdonald page and other biographies online, or who made it. A senior official wrote in an Oct. 15 email to colleagues that “I think the reluctance to remove them is because we don’t have an alternative.”
A separate memo, unsigned and undated, stated the Star had “identified a number of serious omissions” in the Macdonald biography, but went further in identifying other problems, including that it “overstat(es) Macdonald’s contributions to Confederation.”
“The first prime minister was, undeniably, an able negotiator and coalition-builder and the British North America Act bears his imprint. However, the idea of Confederation long predated Macdonald’s political ascent,” the memo states.
The biography should be replaced “ideally by the close” of the 2020-21 fiscal year, the memo says. That deadline has now passed.
The memo notes that the problems with the Macdonald biography also pervade the Library and Archives Canada website’s entire section on Confederation. Among its issues is the lack of Indigenous and non-white perspectives, the memo notes, and that “even the presence of an Indigenous population is systematically obscured” in the various texts about Confederation and the provinces.
“Thus, although it would be possible to update the Sir John A. Macdonald biography in relatively short order, this would only address the immediate press criticism and not the broader problem of outdated online content,” the memo says.
“If we attempt to fix this content on an ad hoc basis in response to specific criticism, LAC’s communications and exhibitions and online content teams risk embarking on an unending game of reactive ‘Whack-a-Mole’ as journalists, researchers, and members of the public unearth outdated, and internally long-forgotten, content.”
The memo proposed replacing the entire section with curated online content based on the agency’s collections of records, but the problematic site is still online today, unchanged.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant