What is cultural heritage conservation and what is the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property (CAC)?
Conservation is all actions aimed at the safeguarding of cultural heritage for the future. The purpose of conservation is to study, record, retain, and conserve as appropriate, the culturally significant qualities of an object with the least possible intervention. In simple terms, conservators examine, document, preserve, restore, and reconstruct primarily the tangible elements of heritage (e.g. paper, paint, leather, wood, etc.). However, intangible qualities (e.g. songs, symbols, stories, etc.) are also important as they give material items meaning.
The CAC is a federally-registered charitable not-for-profit organization that promotes responsible preservation of the cultural property that gives Canadians a sense of place, of history and of artistic expression. The CAC serves individual and institutional members to provide opportunities for networking, professional development, and information dissemination. In collaboration with the Canadian Association for Professional Conservators (CAPC), CAC governs the official Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice that conservators in Canada are obliged to follow.
For more information about conservation and the CAC, please visit the CAC website.
Why is reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples needed in conservation?
In 2016, the Government of Canada committed to the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in response to the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action. With recommendation 67, the TRC specifically addressed the need for Canadian museums and archives, institutions where many conservators work, to develop policies and best practices to comply with UNDRIP. Institutions at all levels of government and in the non-profit sector must participate in the important process of reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples; this is a human rights issue and is our obligation under international convention (UN General Assembly 2016).
Articles 11, 12, and 31 of the UNDRIP assert the rights of Indigenous Peoples to control their own cultural heritage, to practice, maintain, and revitalize their cultural, spiritual, and religious traditions, and to access, protect, and develop manifestations of their cultures, including but not limited to archaeological and historic sites, artifacts, ceremonial objects, and human remains. Yet, the current version of the CAC-CAPC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice (last revised in 2000) still reflects a conservation perspective that prioritizes the tangible aspects of objects as collected property over the intangible elements of objects as embodiments of living cultures. This approach to preservation privileges settler-colonial ideas about culture and heritage and greatly limits the degree to which conservators are equipped to consider Indigenous perspectives. This can result in incorrect documentation of Indigenous belongings, unintentional damage to culturally significant elements of an object, and handling practices that are culturally disrespectful and spiritually harmful. In addition, current conservation practices that privilege the tangible over the intangible, as well as those that are directed at keeping an object static in time, create barriers to communities’ access to their belongings and to their ancestral Indigenous human remains, many of which were removed from communities without permission or under duress. This can hinder the ability of Indigenous Peoples to practice, maintain, and revitalize languages, technologies, and ceremonies that are so strongly rooted in material culture.
The CAC-CAPC National Canadian Collections Care survey report (Lambert et al. 2019), which surveyed 389 cultural heritage institutions in Canada, included a section on Indigenous cultural centers and Indigenous material culture within museum collections. The survey reports that many Canadian conservators are not sure how to approach relationship building with Indigenous communities, how to ensure access for Indigenous communities to collections, how to respectfully care for these items, or what their responsibilities are when objects are being considered for community loan or repatriation. 58% of non-Indigenous institutions surveyed indicated that at least one percent of their collection consists of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis material, representing over six million items across 207 responding non-Indigenous institutions. However, only 47% of these non-Indigenous institutions reported that they collaborate with Indigenous communities for the care, treatment, and use of Indigenous material culture. 62% have no plans or policies for the repatriation of Indigenous belongings and ancestral Indigenous human remains held at their institutions.
What is the RWG?
The Reconciliation Working Group (RWG) has been implemented by the CAC to keep pace with UNDRIP and the TRC Calls to Action by developing a formal position for the CAC membership on the care of materials of Indigenous origin, and to reflect this position in CAC documents, including the official Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. The RWG will be active from September 2020 to May 2023.
The overarching objectives of the RWG are three-fold:
to better understand systemic barriers in the Canadian conservation field that prevent the inclusion of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples’ perspectives and discourage the participation of current and prospective Indigenous individuals in the profession;
to mobilize conservators to become more interested, aware, and attuned to the importance of Indigenous perspectives and participation in cultural heritage preservation;
to promote collaboration and new relationships between First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities and conservation professionals, support Indigenous folks currently working in the field, and to build capacity for inclusion of Indigenous people and perspectives in the field.
Aspirations of the RWG are:
to confront discriminatory frameworks on which modern conservation practice was built by expanding CAC professional standards to recognize, respect, and defer to Indigenous perspectives in cultural preservation;
to establish a pragmatic and equitable framework for collaborative practice in the care and preservation of Indigenous cultural heritage held in public and private collections, including practical guidelines to provide access to collections and facilitate repatriations, as well as to clarify the roles and responsibilities of conservators in caring ethically for Indigenous belongings and ancestral remains.
Transforming our profession requires a fundamental rethinking of the settler-colonial framework out of which modern conservation has developed. For existing conservation frameworks to meaningfully include Indigenous perspectives the profession must begin to dismantle its discriminatory bias and include intangible (living) heritage as a preservation priority. The act of conserving an object for loan, research, or exhibition in a museum or private collection does not occur in a vacuum. It is not without far-reaching consequences. Acknowledging this requires an understanding of the harm current conservation practices could be doing to Indigenous Peoples who have experienced dispossession, and an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of these cultural objects with land, language, health, well-being, food-ways, stories, and other cultural and spiritual practices. This project is only the beginning of that larger transformation. To address the need for the conservation profession to comply with UNDRIP and the TRC, the profession must first engage First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples, who are themselves the rightful owners and caretakers of their cultural heritage, for their perspective on the ways in which the conservation profession reinforces harmful settler-colonial frameworks, and how we can begin to fix our mistakes.
What does the RWG do?
The RWG engages in four types of activities: research, workshops and discussions, meetings, and implementation of results.
The main activity of the group is research with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis cultural centres, community education programs, contemporary artists, and craftspeople. Interviews and focus groups centre around, for example, what cultural heritage is (as defined by Indigenous participants), Indigenous perspectives and responses to current standard conservation practices (such as written and photographic documentation, scientific analysis, interventive treatment, and handling), Indigenous preservation practices, barriers to participation in the Canadian conservation field, the importance of access and use of Indigenous historic belongings for Indigenous communities, and issues surrounding repatriation.
The ongoing consultations are framed by three workshops: a kick-off workshop on May 26, 2020 (virtual), a mid-way workshop in 2022, and a closing workshop in 2023, and an informal discussion series with invited Indigenous speakers. The workshops and discussions are a way for the RWG to engage with the broader CAC membership in conversations around the importance of Indigenous perspectives and participation in cultural heritage preservation and to address cultural competency in the profession.
Once consultation work is complete, the RWG will develop recommendations that will likely include a formal statement on the care of Indigenous art, belongings, and ancestral human remains, the implementation of a formal review of the CAC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice, and the creation of a “tool kit” of documents to help CAC membership improve the care of Indigenous art and belongings. The latter could include a guide to facilitate Indigenous access to collections and a repatriation guide outlining (among other things) the roles and responsibilities of a conservator.
It is hoped that a permanent CAC Indigenous liaison committee will be formed out of the RWG at the end of its mandate.
How will the RWG ensure that the rights of Indigenous Peoples are respected?
The RWG is committed to the First Nations Information Governance Centre’s OCAP® principles of collaborative research with Indigenous Peoples, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ Ethical Guidelines for Research, and the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (including Chapter 9, Research Involving the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples of Canada). Additionally, all activities will respect individual Indigenous government and community-driven research ethics processes, and will practice free, prior, and informed consent. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities will be involved at every step of this project through its design, implementation, and evaluation.
The CAC RWG aims for a collaborative consultation process in which all participants benefit. Skill-sharing and capacity building activities throughout the course of the project will help to ensure that participants gain knowledge and experience from each other. All expenses incurred during the course of the work will also be compensated and participants will be asked for feedback on how the project can be made more beneficial to them. The success of the project will be most visible in the relationships formed during the course of the group’s work, which the CAC intends to continue beyond the two-year scope of this project. A goal of the RWG is for the diverse Indigenous communities who have participated in the project to continue their involvement in the cultural heritage conservation community long-term, reshaping the conservation community in the process.