Archives and the Memory Hole

Commentary, Free Speech, Gerry Bowler

Nikolia Ivanovich Yezhov was not a nice man, but for a time he was an important one. He was a favourite of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and head of the NKVD, the USSR’s secret police. As such he was responsible for the arrests, tortures, and executions of his master’s Great Purge of 1936-1938. But a tyrant’s favour is short-lived. One day Yezhov was the second-most powerful figure in the country; the next day he was arrested and being brutally interrogated to confess to imaginary crimes for which he was secretly executed. He went from holding high office to being an ”unperson”. This process of wiping clean the slate is graphically illustrated by the same photo, before and after being famously doctored (see above).

The ability to alter the reality of the past is explained by an employee of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

You might be surprised to learn that a similar project to alter our memories is underway in Canada. It has been revealed that Leslie Weir, Canada’s Chief Archivist, has ordered a purge of documents that “may offend people”. No defintion of Weir’s “offensive” content was given to employees who were forced to scramble to come up with criteria for material to be thrust down the memory hole. Some of the anxiety-producing documents on the department’s 7,000 web pages appears to have fallen in these categories:

  • “Anything lacking Indigenous perspectives and/or that ignores or dismisses the impact of colonialism on First Nations, Inuit and the Metis Nation.”
  • Reference to people like Sir John A. Macdonald or Egerton Ryerson that makes no mention of their role in the Indian Residential School system.
  • Mention of Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier that does not mention his role in instituting the Chinese head tax.
  • Referring to the 1885 Northwest Rebellion instead of the “1885 Resistance”.
  • Content on the Northwest Mounted Police with “no diversity at all, no language to explain the diversity.”
  • The War of 1812

This undertaking was not just a replacement of once-acceptable terms with more politically-correct language; it is an attempt to rewrite the traditional narrative of our nation. Heroes must now – at the behest of the Chief Archivist – become demons; men who created and built our country are to be condemned simply because they held opinions that were accepted in their own day. The miniscule part played by the IRS and the head tax in the careers of giants such as Macdonald and Laurier are now reasons to regard them as creatures of shame, to be discarded by right-thinking Canadians as Stalin ditched Yezhov.

It is not an archivist’s job to decide what views from the past are acceptable or not. It is not an archivist’s job to shield Canadians from opinions held by their ancestors. It is an archivist’s job to preserve and protect the nation’s collections of historical documents. If Ms Weir does not think think she is up to that job, she should resign.

 

Gerry Bowler is a historian and Senior Fellow of the Frontier Centrre for Public Policy