Kelly Stewart

Kelly Stewart

Last updated on 3 November 2021

Kelly Stewart is Chief Archivist at Artefactual Systems Inc

There are many ways to describe the value of digital preservation, but for me it’s fundamentally about enabling memory in the modern world.  Whether we want to  hold those in power to account for  the actions they have taken or use those records in new, previously unimagined or impossible ways as science, culture, and technology evolve, access to reliable and trustworthy digital records is a cornerstone to our collective memory. 

As an archivist and as a Canadian I’ve been thinking pretty hard about the importance of digital preservation and collective memory, particularly as it relates to the history and legacy of Canada’s residential school policy. Briefly, for over a century the federal government provided funding to various religious entities to operate residential schools across the country for indigenous children, explicitly to remove them from their families and culture.  Conditions were brutal.  There was abuse.  Many children never returned home. In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to gather evidence from religious entities, the federal government, and from indigienous survivors and their families.  The TRC final report, which was released in 2015, stated that ‘reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.  In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour’ (, page 6). 

Earlier this year, the land around the former Kamloops Residential School was surveyed using ground penetrating radar which uncovered the unmarked graves of 215 children. Since then, other residential school sites have been surveyed with similar results.  While the conversation around residential schools and reconciliation has been ongoing for years, this particularly atrocious ‘news’ has hit a nerve in Canada, the result of which may be a conscious commitment to the ongoing education, awareness and a dialogue on the history of the residential school system between survivors, their families, and the Canadian public. 

It’s especially obvious to those of us in the digital preservation domain that the best way to ensure that there is a continued awareness of the past is through the preservation of evidence in a system that is trustworthy, reliable, and authentic. That system includes not just technology  but also policies, processes and management. Not only can those in power be held accountable, but records maintained in such a system can be redeployed to break down colonized ways of interpreting, rendering, and understanding the residential school legacy.  Access to content that is presented through an indigenous lens is critical to building a respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Canada is a huge country, 5,500 kms from west to east and 4,600 kms from north to south, but we are living in an age where we can easily  connect to resources that were inaccessible in the past.  Many records have been digitized and put online for discovery now but carrying out preservation actions on that digitized content ensures access not only now but for future generations to come.  Digital preservation enables ongoing access to our collective memory and that is the way to reconciliation. 

For more information on the history and legacy of Canada’s residential school system, go to

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