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Provenance in Place (Part I): Archival Fictions from the French Revolution to Canadian Confederation

10 Jan 2023 9:30 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By J.J. Ghaddar (1)

This post (Part I of II) is based on presentations I delivered between March and November 2022 at the Provenance in Place: A Symposium co-hosted virtually by CUNY’s Archival Technologies Lab and Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management; at the International Council on Archives 9th Annual Meeting in Rome; and at From Archival Pasts to Archival Futures Interdisciplinary Workshop hosted at the University of Ghana’s African Studies Institute in Accra. Many thanks to Nadia Caidi, Eve Tuck, Raymond Frogner, James Lowry, and Mariam Karim for their encouragement and conversations over the years that helped shape this work. I am also grateful to the feedback of the respondents, panelists and audience members at the various events. Any mistakes or omissions are solely my responsibility.

For over a decade, I have been tracing the roots of archival studies in western imperialism and white supremacy, with a focus on settler colonial and apartheid state formations with their segregationist and annihilative drives. I have also been thinking about whether and how we can disentangle the field from these oppressive systems and structures. Here, I share with you this ten-year journey by telling you about my excavations of three parallel and overlapping histories: One is the history of the modern archival profession, or at least the story we tell ourselves about this history. Another is the history of archiving in settler Canada and the struggle for land at its core. The last is about the Third World Project, insurgent histories, and the struggle for liberatory archives and futures captured to some extent in the United Nation’s Vienna Convention on Property, Archives and Debt (1983). In the process, I outline the importance of thinking about place in relation to the provenance of archives and records in colonial contexts as part of amplifying struggles of indigenous peoples to reclaim colonized lands and histories, and to overcome the archival legacies of colonialism.

Archival fictions from the French Revolution to the Fifth Republic (2)

Image 1: Picture of the Musée des Archives nationales I took during my doctoral fieldwork in Paris. The museum is run by the official state repository, the Archives nationales. It is part of the French state machinery that fabricates an innocent white history for the nation. Source: J.J. Ghaddar (May 2018).

First, I began tracing the history of archival studies and the emergence of our dominant creator-centric understanding of provenance as others have done—from when it is said to originate since the French Revolution and its codification in the Dutch Manual in 1898, to the first International Congress of Archivists & Librarians in Brussels in 1910 and the subsequent globalization of provenance along with the nation state archives model with Third World political decolonization over the last century. The difference is that I brought into the story some of the many racialized and colonized peoples and spaces within and beyond Europe that are usually erased in how we talk about our professional history. This allowed me to demonstrate the crucial role of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and Algerian Revolution (1954-1962) in the creation of archival studies, western modernity and the French Republic from its first to its current fifth iterations. Doing this research made painfully obvious the role of not just western archives but also archivists in the fabrication of archival fictions, that is the creation and mobilization of archives to fabricate innocent histories for white nationalist projects like modern France and, significantly, for archival studies itself. The fabrication of innocent histories for nation, archives and archivist where none exist requires at a fundamental level erasing and remaking the places of colonized and racialized people and collectivities. It also requires the simultaneous erasure of the colonized and racialized from the places and spaces claimed for white nationalism, which entails a disavowal of the history and afterlife of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  By interrogating this history, I learned how white archivists, in privileging creators, facilitated the expansion of western empires along with the establishment of white nationalist state formations in Europe and globally. I also learned that the Eurocentric stories we tell ourselves about this history allows us to whitewash or sanitize the methods and practices of our field, as if it is just technical, natural and right that we do things this way. In fact, the dominant way of doing things was explicitly developed to serve the political projects of white supremacist states. Archival methods and principles like our creator-centric paradigm of provenance have always been pragmatic; the ends, and not the means, are the point.

Archival fictions from Canadian Confederation to total archives (3)

Second, I traced the history of British North America, which becomes Canada in 1867, uncovering the settler colonial structuring of Canada’s state archives, and of the Canadian archival profession and its total archives tradition. From the era of Confederation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to our contemporary period when the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had to take Canada to court multiple times over records and archives—across this historical trajectory, I demonstrate the archival fictions that facilitated the reconstitution of a colonial frontier (British North America) into a settler nation state (Canada). By archival fictions, I refer to how Canadian archivists fabricated both archives and history at the service of a genocidal white nationalist project. Archival fictions facilitate the erasure of Indigenous nations from their lands so these can be claimed for settlement, as well as the Anglo imperialism and racialism required to make Canada. They also work to remove all those not deemed white from national historiography and consciousness, including people of African descent as part of erasing the history of slavery and whitening, in the national imagination, the labor and population that built the country. Hence, today we still have this myth of the pioneer—hardworking, stalwart, brave and, invariably, white. For whoever works the land, liberal western thinking tells us, can claim the land. It is a lie of course and a very convenient one. Those who have shaped, cared for, and worked the land over the last few centuries, if not millennia, are usually the last to have legal or political claim to it.

Archival fictions also refer to the process of professional mythmaking and history writing that started in the 1970s reframing the varied practices employed over decades at the explicit service of settler colonialism as the foundations of a continuous tradition of Canadian archiving known as total archives. This tradition, it is often said, creates a more inclusive and democratic national documentary heritage. This archival fiction provides a sanitized way of talking about the history of our profession in Canada. Significantly, the fabrication of a national archival heritage and national history where none existed required generations of Canadian archivists to gather records according to subject. Concretely, they copied and gathered in Ottawa any record or document pertaining to the European settlement of what became Canada. Most of these records, notably, were created before Canada or much of its settler population was in existence. So what exactly is national or Canadian about them? The prevalent legislative framework for archives from 1912 to 1987 emphasized the historical rather than administrative value of records, their content over their function. It deemed material as archival by virtue of its acquisition regardless of the nature or method of its creation, whether its creator was a public or private entity, or if it was original or a copy. Generally, records were acquired with little regard for the coherence of collections or the need to maintain the records of a single creator together or in their original order. These ideas were anathema to the emerging consensus in Europe codified in the canonical Dutch Manual of 1898, which required archives of the same creator to be maintained together.Yet long after the International Congress of Archivists & Librarians adopted in 1910 a definition of provenance in line with the Dutch Manual,Canada’s state archivists were reclassifying acquisitions from their original systems within repositories like Britain’s Public Record Office and the Archives nationales de France so that “individual documents and even entire fonds were grouped together in large thematic, alpha-numeric classes.”(4)

Table 1: Summary of key milestones in the development of total archives and the Canadian national archival system.

Tracing this history reinforced the point to me that Canadian archival practices and laws have been driven by the pragmatic imperative to archive in whatever way serves settler colonialism. For the first few generations after Confederation, that meant archiving by subject as territory since there was no such thing as a Canada until then. Hence, an archival heritage had to be retroactively invented alongside a nation and history. Once the Canadian state and its archives had been cohered circa the 1970s and ‘80s, there was a shift to archiving within a creator-centric provenance paradigm as a more effective way of maintaining the state and its functioning. Evidently, then, to forge a new nation and collectivity, it can be helpful to archive by place or territory, rather than creator. I began to think if that is the case when you are making up a country like Canada, then would it not be even more so when you are attempting to recohere long established nations and native collectivities in the wake of colonialism, to revitalize cultures and reaffirm sovereignties? At least in such cases, the population is already established with a long history on the land, usually long before the records are created or gathered. In sum, I began to think of the ethical imperative to decenter creator in provenance and to consider place as crucial when land occupation and colonialism is or has been central to the context of the creation, use, acquisition and displacement of records. To elaborate these ideas, I turn to the Vienna Convention, and the Third World Project from which it emerges, in Part II of this blog post.

(1) This text is based on research outlined in the following publications: J.J. Ghaddar (2022) “Provenance in Place: Crafting the Vienna Convention for Global Decolonization and Archival Repatriation,” in James Lowry, ed., Disputed Archival Heritage, Volume II (New York: Routledge); Ghaddar (2021) Provenance in Place: Archives, Settler Colonialism and the Making of a Global Order. Thesis (University of Toronto); and Ghaddar (2020) Total Archives for Land, Law and Sovereignty in Settler Canada. Archival Science 21(1): 59-82. 

(2) This section is based on the introduction of my doctoral thesis, J.J. Ghaddar (2021) Provenance in Place: Archives, Settler Colonialism and the Making of a Global Order. Thesis, University of Toronto; and Ghaddar (2021/2020) Total Archives for Land, Law and Sovereignty in Settler Canada. Archival Science 21(1): 59-82. 

(3) This section is based on Ghaddar, Provenance in Place: Archives, Settler Colonialism and the Making of a Global Order; and Ghaddar, Total Archives for Land, Law and Sovereignty.

(4) Danielle Lacasse and Antonio Lechasseur (1997) The National Archives of Canada 1872-1997 (The Canadian Historical Association Historical Booklet No. 58 (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association), 5.

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