National library staff quickly switched to full clean mode in June when they faced a public relations crisis over “offensive” online content, while claiming that lack of resources prevented them from making changes earlier, documents show. obtained by Star.
Library and Archives Canada staff were struggling to find and remove “offensive content” from the organization’s website after it was revealed that some of the pages deliberately excluded indigenous peoples and non-white perspectives, according to documents obtained through of a request for access to information.
Employees were assigned to peruse podcasts, Flickr, blogs and other web pages, working against a list of “hastily gathered” criteria for how they thought offensive content should look.
“There are approximately 1,000 blogs that have been published since 2012 and many of them need to be reviewed or removed; the lack of an indigenous / obliterated point of view is one of the main problems, ”wrote an employee in an email to colleagues, highlighting the scale of the work.
The mad rush to clean up the Library and Archives Canada website came after the Star reported on June 5 in an internal memo that noted a “deliberate and systematic exclusion of indigenous and non-white communities and perspectives” across the Canadian Confederation section featured on the federal government website report.
The John A. Macdonald library biography, which omitted any mention of residential schools and other racist policies against indigenous peoples, was also online in June, even though the concerns of indigenous advocates were already voiced in the Fall 2020.
The biographies of Macdonald and others finally began to be removed on June 5. By June 7, the biographies and Confederation section were removed. On June 18, an apology from Leslie Weir, Canadian librarian and archivist, appeared on the main website. Advocates had never asked for the pages to be permanently deleted, simply to present accurate and balanced information.
In an interview with The Star this week, Weir said the organization has been redoing its website and plans to launch a new web presence next year.
He said the decision was made in October 2020, when concerns were first raised, to remove some pages, including biographies of the prime minister, which at the time were covered in “Filed on the web” banners.
“The challenge is that we have about 7,000 pages on our website and about 100 databases, and everything is linked and points back and forth,” he said.
Weir said a team worked on the project with a removal date set for June 29, “which was perhaps a bit late,” given the discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Indian residential school in Kamloops in late May. . “That, of course, put the focus back on our first prime minister,” he said.
In a June 5 email with the subject “follow-up to today’s Toronto Star article,” Weir said: “We need the Confederation page to be changed or removed as soon as possible, no later than next week or more. late in the month. ”
A manager wrote to a colleague in June that the reason the prime minister’s biographies were kept online was a lack of resources.
“I think we have to plan to disconnect. The reason we had NOT suggested removing it before is because we thought we would have the ability to refresh it, and we just don’t do it now, so removing the BIOS is a better bet, ”the employee wrote.
In an email sent to colleagues on June 8, a manager wrote that Weir had ordered all offensive content removed from the website. But employees lamented that they were not given a definition of what “offensive content” should look like.
“Leslie has asked us to remove all ‘offensive’ content from the website,” the manager wrote. “We are fighting today to identify what it could be.”
Weir told the Star that his directive was limited to removing “all offensive material that directly related to the biographies of prime ministers and the Confederation site.”
A list of criteria “hastily compiled” by staff included pages on residential school architects “failing to mention their role” and the erasure of indigenous peoples, including maps that read “uninhabited land.”
“Point out anything that lacks indigenous perspectives and / or that ignores or dismisses the impact of colonialism on First Nations, Inuit, and the Métis Nation,” depending on the criteria. “It can be more difficult to decide what goes or what stays – identify the concerns and we can discuss where the line is. This is a huge category. “
A list shared among staff showed nearly 70 pieces of online content (photos, blogs, podcasts, web sections) marked for removal or modification or in need of disclaimer, for reasons including the omission of residential schools, outdated language, and elimination of indigenous peoples.
Weir told the Star that offensive content “is in the eye of the beholder” and that institutions like his are “trying to make sure things are viewed from the perspective of traditionally marginalized people and not just from the perspective of those responsible. . “
When asked why Library and Archives did not do this work years ago, Weir said the work is “very complex” and that the organization had also been busy working on a number of other initiatives, including digitizing parts of its collection. related to indigenous peoples.
“This is nothing short of systemic racism in action,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, academic director of the Indian Residential School Dialogue and History Center at the University of British Columbia.
“It really speaks to the fact that there is a very serious problem with leadership and administration around properly collecting, curating and reporting on Canada in relation to indigenous peoples.”
Turpel-Lafond said it reinforces her belief that Canada needs publicly funded National Indigenous Archives that have the power to enforce the repository of records. He also reiterated a call for an external review of the Library and Archives, including how it presents the information to the public.
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