Archives and Foreign Aid, A Workshop Summary

by Tyler Owens



On December 12th and 13th 2016, the conference A Samaritan State Revisited: Historical Perspectives on Canadian Foreign Aid, 1950-2016 was held at the Global Affairs Canada Lester B. Pearson Building in Ottawa. The aim of the conference was to explore the development of Canadian foreign aid over the preceding 60 years. (In footnote: 2016 was also the 60th anniversary of the publication of A Samaritan State?, among the first scholarly analyses of Canada’s foreign aid policy, written by Dr. Keith Spicer.) Prior to the official opening of the conference, archivists, historians, and members of the aid sector from Quebec and Ontario gathered for a workshop session. The aim of this session was to bring together colleagues from all branches of aid history; those gathered were experts in the archival, library, and document management sciences related to the production, preservation, and use of archives on humanitarian aid. The workshop therefore facilitated the sharing of tips, procedures, and best practices for researching the history of Canadian aid.

The workshop took the form of seven presentations followed by a brief question period.


Presentation 1: Dr. Kevin Brushett, Professor – Royal Military College



The Workshop in session.

The first presentation was given by Dr. Kevin Brushett. This was mostly an introductory session, which laid out the purpose of the workshop session and the goals which it was intended to achieve. He stated that the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History (CNNH) had met in May of 2016 to discuss the possibility of producing a guide on the archives and resources of humanitarian history in Canada.


One issue with the research of humanitarian aid is the sheer volume of the archives that must be consulted; Global Affairs Canada has its own archives (which contain much of the old CIDA archives), but many relevant documents have also ended up at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the archives of various NGOs, the United Church, and separate but related government departments. It can be challenging and overwhelming to try navigating through this system. The CNNH, with its network of interested historians across Canada, found itself in a perfect position to address this issue; the workshop can therefore serve as an introductory session to the production of this guide. Dr. Brushett stated that, due to the ongoing opening of many NGO archives and the continued declassification of LAC fonds (due to the much appreciated efforts of Paulette Dozois, of LAC), the time is now at hand for the production of such a guide.


Presentation 2: Archie Campbell, Information Management Services Officer – Global Affairs Canada


Archie Campbell has worked in Global Affairs Canada (GAC) Records for the past 31 years. In his presentation, he attempted to explain the ongoing effects of the CIDA-GAC merger on GAC archives, as well as the organisation system he has implemented to address these issues. One important issue with the merging of these archives is that many topics fell under the jurisdiction of both CIDA and GAC (previously External Affairs). For example, responsibility for the reconstruction of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the USSR initially landed with GAC before switching to CIDA. In trying to merge the two archives, archivists therefore have to be cognizant of these connections, and be able to group related documents together; if this is not done, the job of researchers is likely to become substantially more difficult.


To this end, Campbell has decided to rely upon an organisational system called ELF, for Enterprise-Level Folder. These are constructed for use with both electronic and physical files, and an ELF structure currently exists for the 87 business areas in GAC, with one general area in existence also. The ultimate goal of this system is to incorporate the legacy systems from both CIDA and GAC; this will make records substantially easier to locate for researchers.


Presentation 3: Fiona Scannell, Manager, Client Service and Engagement – Global Affairs Canada


The Client Service and Engagement Division supports clients who visit the GAC library in completing their reference and research needs. The GAC library was founded in 1929, and has remained with the department ever since, mostly unchanged despite the recent CIDA merger. The space allocated to the library has steadily shrunk over the decades, however, and they have gone from the equivalent of a few football fields to a single room. Most of their material has been moved to storage as a result, and has to be requested ahead of time if a client wishes to have access.


One recent focus in the GAC library has been the digitization of departmental publications; as a result, the collection of digitized publications is steadily growing and is available online for public use, under the Services tab on the GAC website (under Jules Léger Library). The physical library location, in the Lester B. Pearson Building, is open Monday to Friday 8:30-4:30; as long as a visitor signs in, they are able to access the space. The printer and photocopier are also available free of charge.


The foreign aid collection at the library has grown since the merger with CIDA. Unfortunately, the library does not possess the majority of the old CIDA collection, as the CIDA library was shut down before the merger took place. The full collection initially went to Carleton University, but any French documents were then transferred to the University of Ottawa, and many pieces of the collection then went on to other private collections and storage facilities. The GAC library has been adding elements of this collection as they come across them, and has been particularly aided by donations from former CIDA employees.


Scannell concluded her presentation by stating that the GAC website is always a good starting point for researchers of foreign aid, as some of the more recent publications will be available there; further, she recommended that researchers always begin their search with their own institutional collections, particularly as the GAC library does participate in interlibrary loan programs. For researchers studying the relationship between Canada and specific nations, she also suggested searching Google for “Bilateral Relations”, with the site set to; this will yield pages of the GAC website which deal with the relationship between Canada and a variety of other countries.


Workshop in session.


Presentation 4: Sonya de Laat, PhD Candidate – Western University


Sonya de Laat is currently researching the CIDA image archives. These are the International Development Photo Library, which is now also hosted in the Lester B. Pearson Building. The library was created in 1985, and assembled technical, training, and promotional photos taken by CIDA photographers, many of whom went on to successful careers in professional photography, throughout the lifespan of the agency. Most of the early images are technical and training images taken by staff members, intended for use in bringing new staff members up to speed before they travelled overseas. In the late 1970s, however, CIDA began to hire its own photographers to document its work; these photographs became fairly prominent, and a travelling exhibition was created following the launch of the library.


Over 150,000 photographs are contained in the Photo Library, which range in date from 1967 until the present day. Photos taken before 2003 are typically Kodachrome slides, while photos taken after 2003 are usually digital. The entire Library has been digitized, but it is currently only publicly accessible at a single terminal in the Lester B. Pearson Building; it is not yet available online. Marie Bramley, who works for GAC, has also kept a complete record of which photographs have been used and for what purposes, which could be useful for researchers. An additional 8000 photographs, likely among the earlier images taken, are also contained in the LAC archives. The National Gallery also contains information on the travelling exhibitions, for any researchers who are interested.


Presentation 5: Zehra Mawani, Archivist – Library and Archives Canada


Zehra Mawani is an archivist in the LAC private aid collections; her portfolio therefore includes social justice and women’s rights, including humanitarian aid. When she encounters CIDA records, therefore, it is typically through indirect means, usually in the context of NGOs who had a relation with CIDA. The work of NGOs and government institutions often overlap, and the records she studies exemplify this overlap. One important connection is the funding requests which NGOs partly funded by CIDA must submit; these include what an NGO plans to do with CIDA funding. As a result, these records contain detailed project plans on the part of the NGO, including laying out local needs and how the NGO plans to meet them.


Mawani gave the example of the records of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), which contain 19.8 metres of records, a significant amount for a private sector collection. Many of these records document the impact of government policy and aid spending on aid efforts by private organizations; many documents also detail NGO consultations with CIDA on budgets, activities, and more. Mawani concluded her presentation by pointing out that private records are often just as relevant for aid historians as public records, and that any researcher on the topic should ensure that they search both collections.



Workshop in session.


Presentation 6: Margaret Dixon, Senior Project Archivist – Library and Archives Canada


Margaret Dixon works on the government side of the LAC collections. The aid collection stretches back before the foundation of CIDA until around 2010; after this period most relevant records remain with the institutions which produced them. Dixon pointed out that more than one institution has historically had some responsibility for government aid; the 2012-2013 report on the subject, in fact, listed a total of 15 departments. These included CIDA, GAC, the RCMP, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the Department of Finance, Economic Development Canada, Health Canada, Public Health and Awareness Canada, and more. In the past, now outdated institutions such as Trade and Commerce, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, and others also had some level of responsibility over aid.


To clearly separate the responsibilities and periods of each of these institutions, therefore, Dixon has developed a timeline which explains when key events happened and when some institutions gained or lost responsibility over aid. Even once a researcher decides which institution they wish to examine, there is typically more than one file classification system in use inside its records. It can be difficult for any researcher to understand the differences between the Pre-Agency Master Filing Index and the Central Registry of the External Aid Office, for example; finding aids and the expertise of LAC staff are often necessary for navigational purposes.


One particularly interesting collection highlighted by Dixon is the Policy Branch records, which date from 1951-2010. Particularly interesting file numbers to examine are 4050, Foreign and Aid Policy; 4240, Strategic Overview; 4280, Program Overview; and 3111, on the Winegard report. RG25 is another important collection for aid historians, as it explains Canada’s foreign and developmental policy (Example search: RG25 AND aid).


Presentation 7: Paulette Dozois, Senior Archivist / Block Review Team Leader – Library and Archives Canada



Some attendees after the Workshop.

Paulette Dozois currently heads the Block Review program at LAC, and was previously responsible for the CIDA files. Block Review is a system for the release of files which aims to speed up the process significantly. If she receives requests from a researcher, another government department, or others, Dozois will perform an archival assessment to assess the potential risk in releasing a record. If the record is older, the process can be streamlined and it will usually be released; if it is a newer record the process is somewhat more complicated. If SIN numbers are present in a document, for instance, records can almost never be released. The same goes for any document which outlines advice from an attorney to their client, as this is considered privileged information. If neither of these are true, her team will sample every tenth box in a record, checking for the presence of classified information or other barriers to release.


CIDA currently comprises a fairly small portion of the records which have been opened under the Block Review process, although Trade and Commerce does comprise a fairly significant amount. More records can only be opened if requests are received, so any researchers interested in seeing these collections opened should submit requests to the Block Review team at the following address: Alternately, the team may be reached by phone at 613-996-5115/ 1-866-578-777 (toll-free in Canada and the United States) or by fax at 613-992-9350. For more information, researchers may visit the LAC Collections Canada website, where they can log in under Services to the Public; the information will be under Access to Information and Privacy.




Following the completion of the presentations, a brief question period took place, and the workshop then broke up for lunch, returning in the afternoon for the opening sessions of the general conference. The workshop was an enlightening experience, and the contents will form part of the above-mentioned guide, which will begin production in 2017.

1 Comment

  1. Sonya de Laat

    Superb overview, and already a good resource in this blog alone. Looking forward to the more robust, and living, resource document/site/guide that will be of tremendous value to scholars and practitioners of Canadian aid, development history, foreign relations, and more. Cheers.