Opinion

Shuttering of provincial archive locations means 'fewer of our stories being told'

Archives are like a laboratory where patrons work with primary sources to unlock and decipher the past. The closure of the Saskatoon branch of the PAS will mean that the public will have less direct access to these historical records.

Sask. archives being amalgamated under one roof in Regina

Archivists Evelyn Eager and Douglas Bocking looking at homestead records in the Saskatchewan Archives’ reading room in Saskatoon, circa 1960. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan/PAS Photo S-B6511 )

Archives are a unique resource, vital to understanding our society and ourselves.

With the closure of the Saskatoon location of the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan (PAS) at the University of Saskatchewan, students from various disciplines will no longer have the opportunity to use these primary materials on campus as part of their training, while faculty research will be severely inconvenienced.

The general public will also be discouraged from investigating their family history.

There will be less research being done and fewer of our stories being told.

That's the real cost here.


It could not have been more to the point.

On November 22, 2018, a Saskatchewan government order-in-council, OC 574/2018, designated Regina "as the location of office for the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan."

The possible closure of the Saskatoon PAS office had been talked about for the past few years, but the speed with which it was finally enacted was unexpected — certainly a surprise.

The Ministry of Advanced Education had recently advised the U of S that the removal of the Saskatoon archives office, housed in the Murray Building, was being seriously contemplated, but the move was not considered imminent.

On November 23, the day after the cabinet order, the university was informed that all archival operations in the province were being consolidated in Regina and that the Saskatoon branch would close effective December 21.

This decision will effectively end a seven-decade relationship between the University of Saskatchewan and the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.

'We cannot know today what is valuable'

The archives, in one form or another, have always been an integral part of the university campus.

The person largely responsible for the creation of the Saskatchewan archives was Arthur Silver Morton, head of the Department of History and Librarian at the U of S.

While researching the Western Canadian fur trade, Morton recognized the need to acquire and preserve the documentary record so that the province's history was neither forgotten nor lost.

He believed that all records should be preserved, "for we cannot know today what is valuable and what is not. The future only can settle that."

The closure of the Saskatoon branch of the PAS will mean that the public will have less direct access to these historical records.- Bill Waiser

In 1936, with the backing of university president Walter Murray, Morton called on the Saskatchewan government to establish provincial archives.

He warned that future generations, "will charge us with betraying our trust if we cast away ... material" instead of preserving it in an archival institution.

The government was receptive to the idea — but probably only because the university was willing to provide space, an archivist and money to cover operating costs.

In April 1937, a new Historical Public Records Office was set up on the U of S campus in a basement room in one of the residences, Saskatchewan Hall.

Morton got a new title, too: Keeper of the Public Records.

The following year, the first set of territorial government records was transferred from Regina to Saskatoon and Morton set to work cataloguing.

This photo from the archives depicts a man eating fish cooked by an Indigenous guide on a small campfire, circa 1946. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan/PAS Photo R-A5372)

A growing collection

By 1941 the collection was so large it had to be relocated to the School for the Deaf in the Williams Building on Cumberland Avenue.

The shortage of storage space was only going to get worse, due to Morton's acceptance of the Saskatchewan land records of the former federal Department of the Interior. It was estimated that this collection would require 3,000 linear feet of shelving.

The other problem was that the Historical Public Records Office — the provincial archives in all but name — had no legislative basis. It was simply an informal arrangement between the government and the university.

Fortunately, the new Tommy Douglas government finally took action.

When the CCF assumed power in 1944, it found that the outgoing Liberal administration had destroyed all government files. Douglas complained to former premier William John Patterson that this "act of pillage" was "most improper."

Patterson lamely replied that he was only following "practices established by custom."

The Douglas government was determined to put an end to this practice and created the Saskatchewan Archives Board in 1945 — ironically, only months after Morton's death.

The archives legislation prohibited destruction of any public document except on the recommendation of the provincial archivist.

It also expanded the acquisitions policy to include all kinds of documentary material on Saskatchewan history.

Most importantly, it was constituted as a partnership between the government and the university, often with the U of S representative as chair of the board.

Space for the archives office was designed into the basement of the then-new Murray Memorial Library for the convenience of the university community.

As fellow historian George Simpson claimed, Morton would have been pleased that the records had now been "placed on a sound and permanent basis."

The archives also catalogue the province's sports history, as in this photo of Willie Desjardins, bottom, and Dave King, top, who lifted Saskatchewan to a University Cup victory in 1983. (University of Saskatchewan Archives)

Since that time the archives have become a key asset of the university, one that has been fully integrated into teaching and research programs.

Students, faculty and the general public have consulted these materials for a wide range of purposes: a class project, an academic study, an aboriginal claim, or information about homesteads.

Many graduate theses, books, articles and historical productions have depended on the archives.

The records are not only a vital research asset, managed by information professionals, but are a vital community resource, attracting local historians, enthusiastic genealogists and visiting scholars.

New plan leaves much unknown

This long-standing relationship between the University of Saskatchewan and the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan will now end December 21 when the Saskatoon office is officially closed.

The five buildings currently occupied by the PAS are to be consolidated into one central Regina location scheduled to open in August 2019.

The plan raises questions:

What studies and recommendations were behind the cabinet decision?  Why was the public not consulted? Are these studies and recommendations accessible?

It would be supremely ironic if these documents, affecting the future of the provincial archives, were closed to the public.

The decision to close the Saskatoon branch was also made before a new central facility has been selected.

Where will the Saskatoon records be sent, especially when the four Regina buildings are  reportedly at capacity?

Will the Saskatoon materials still be accessible for research and access to information requests while the new facility is being prepared?

How will the Saskatoon materials be moved, given that constant humidity and temperature are essential for older paper?

Of all national assets, archives are the most precious. They are the gift of one generation to another.- Arthur Doughty, Canada's first Dominion Archivist

It has been suggested that the closure of the Saskatoon office will result in reduced leasing costs, but in a 2016 agreement, the university agreed to continue to charge the PAS only $500 a year  — no, that is not a typo — for rent until such time as the space was needed.

Since that agreement, no university official has indicated any change in PAS lease costs.

The bigger financial question is where the PAS is going to get the funds for its ambitious plans: a single facility with better conservation standards and improved public access hours.

The province has not been particularly generous in funding the PAS and present economic challenges suggest that it may not get any better.

What will be the features of the new consolidated PAS facility? What will it cost and how will it be funded?  Surely, the public should see the detailed, fully-costed plan.

Getting the new single PAS facility up and running by August 2019, just eight months away, is also doubtful.

Moving the huge volume of records into a single location will take considerable time.

This photo from Saskatchewan's archives shows damage to homes following the 1944 Kamsack Tornado. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

The other complication is that some records were deposited with the PAS on the understanding that they would remain in Saskatoon.

Are negotiations underway with other Saskatoon archival facilities to take these records?

That too might affect the transfer timeline.

The provincial archivist has also stated that the four Saskatoon positions will not be lost but transferred to Regina.

That raises the question whether these professionals will want to relocate and if not, the PAS will lose that corporate memory.

Some have suggested that such consultation will not be necessary with the digitization of PAS materials, but only a fraction of the materials have been digitized and more cannot be done without funding.

Nor will digitization ever take the place of working with the original records and consulting with an archivist.

So, why should the public care?

Archives are like a laboratory where patrons work with primary sources to unlock and decipher the past.

The closure of the Saskatoon branch of the PAS will mean that the public will have less direct access to these historical records.

And this reduced access will hinder, possibly even discourage, communities, families, and individuals from seeking details about their past and their place in the larger provincial story.

As Canada's first Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty once observed, "Of all national assets, archives are the most precious. They are the gift of one generation to another."


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About the Author

Bill Waiser

Bill Waiser is an author, historian and retired University of Saskatchewan professor. He is the 2018 recipient of the Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media (the Pierre Berton Award). He lives in Saskatoon.