For the record

City Archives’ future uncertain years after disaster struck

City employees were on hand in June 2013 when water started pouring in through the roof and onto the main floor of the City of Winnipeg Archives. Rainwater soaked the walls, floors, ceilings and around 450 boxes of records.

More than three years later, those records have been recovered, but the future of the city’s archives program, as well as the heritage building that once housed it, remains uncertain.

Several Winnipeggers are concerned about the status of 380 William Ave., which opened as the city’s first public library in 1905 and now sits empty. Many are confused as to what the future holds for the archives program.

“It just seems to have disappeared,” Jim Blanchard, local historian and author of several books about Winnipeg’s past, says.

380 William Ave., which used to house the archives, is now sitting empty.

Former archives building sitting empty

“We’ve had several years of upheaval, to put it lightly,” Jody Baltessen, Winnipeg’s city records manager/archivist and chair of its records committee, says.

At the time of the disaster, the roof of the archives building at 380 William Ave. was undergoing a major reconstruction. It was an early stage in a plan that would have turned the building into a state-of-the-art archival facility, featuring a climate-controlled vault, an upgraded shipping/receiving area and a meeting space for presentations and community groups.

But those renovations have since been put on hold by the city. A revised plan of action that was approved in principle by the Historical Buildings and Resources Committee in 2014 remains as yet unfunded by the city, with little justification for the decision on the public record.

According to Baltessen and others, the damage sustained at 380 William Ave. in 2013 has yet to be repaired. Brad Erickson, the city’s manager of municipal accommodations, assures The Uniter that “in terms of the building’s integrity … everything to secure the asset in a ‘mothballed’ state has been performed.”

While the roof has been sealed and occasional walkthroughs take place, repairs and renovations won’t resume until the city decides if and when the archives – or another tenant – will return to the building.

“I think it’s an outrage,” Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, says. “They’ve left it under the radar and really didn’t tell anybody what was going on. Everybody was sort of expecting that this work was going to be completed, and they would move back in.”

In May 2015, the city sued Gardon Construction for damages related to the disaster, and in March of this year, Gardon pointed the blame toward a third party, Wolfrom Engineering. The suit is ongoing, but the city has not confirmed whether the legal matter is preventing renovations from moving forward.

City archivist Jody Baltessen shows Tim Runtz around the interim archives storage space.

Temporary solutions ongoing

In the meantime, the archives has been functioning out of three separate locations: the Corporate Records Centre on Ross Avenue, storage space leased from the provincial government’s record centre in St. Boniface and a former manufacturing plant on Myrtle Avenue, near Notre Dame and Wall, which now functions as a temporary headquarters.

“This was pretty much the only viable option under pretty extreme conditions,” Baltessen says.

“We were looking for something fast, we thought it was a temporary solution during the construction period for 380 [William Ave.], so this seemed to fit the bill for that type of scenario … It’s workable, but there are some issues.”

That temporary solution has recently been renewed for another year, and the city hasn’t provided a timeline for when the archives might move out.

“Being situated in the downtown is kind of important for the archival program but also for the basic administration of the branch,” Baltessen says.

City employees now spend more time driving between the various archives locations and other city buildings, most of which sit within the city’s “campus” area downtown. Cindy Tugwell is quick to point out such inefficiencies become a taxpayer’s burden, while renovations remain unfunded.

According to Tugwell, Blanchard and others, the Myrtle Avenue location is difficult to find and access, with no parking available. They worry that the off-the-beaten-track location will deter visitors from using the facilities, which will in turn justify further neglect from the city.

The archives can no longer offer public programming onsite, and far fewer researchers are now using the facilities, according to the Records Committee’s 2015 annual report.

“The current facilities are completely inadequate for a truly professional archival service that serves communities and government administration,” Tom Nesmith, University of Manitoba history and archival studies professor, says. “I don’t send students there. It’s too awkward to get to. The facilities aren’t really adequate for class visits anymore.”

Accessibility aside, the records themselves may also be impacted by their current location. Because of their age and condition, some paper records “tend to self-destruct” if they’re exposed to spikes in temperature and humidity, Baltessen says. Yet the conditions inside the Myrtle building tend to fluctuate with the weather.

Archival records can help support legal claims, inform educators and shed light on forgotten parts of our civic history.

Why archives matter

Nesmith is adamant that these documents, lists, photos and maps in the archives are not simply ancient scraps of paper.

“Archives do fly under the radar, they’re not well understood, their role is not widely appreciated,” he says. “I would argue that they are directly relevant to not just contemporary problems, but the central problems that we face as a community.”

Academics, historians, filmmakers and curators use the archives to generate the materials that help to inform the general public in libraries, classrooms, museums and galleries. Nesmith points to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in particular.

“What are they actually showing you when you go to the museum? They are not showing you that many traditional museum artifacts,” Nesmith says. “They’re showing you copies of archival materials or loaned archival materials or archival materials that they are creating by interviewing people.” 

University of Winnipeg (U of W) associate professor of criminal justice, co-editor of Access to Information and Social Justice, and citizen member of the Records Committee Kevin Walby says the issue impacts students directly. 

 “The amount of [archival] material that professors from the U of W use in the classroom is immense, and when professors can’t have ready access to those materials… if they have to drive way out to the industrial area of town and go through records that aren’t organized as the archivist wishes they could be, or should be, because of the haphazard arrangement out there, it means that students aren’t getting the type of enriched presentations they could be,” he says.

Understanding Winnipeg

Archives are used by city administrators, lawyers, developers and others who use information from the past to inform decision making today.

For example, the environmental impact of a potential construction project can be assessed in part by looking at old fire insurance maps. If developers are able to learn what used to be at a particular address (like a gas station or manufacturing plant), they will have a better idea of what might be buried underground.

Proponents also say archives can help us understand who we are as a community.

Blanchard recalls the “10-year shemozzle” surrounding the development of Memorial Boulevard in the 1920s. 

“It’s kind of a picture of this city. This is a very unruly city, and there’s a lot of different groups who all have to have their say. It’s very democratic. It shows you that Winnipeggers have been feisty for a long time. They do a lot of complaining,” he says.

Among other things, the city archives contains vast records pertaining to the origins of the Shoal Lake aquifer, which was completed in 1919 to prevent contamination of the city’s water supply and the subsequent “Red River fever” that ravaged its citizens.

Only in the last few years has it become common knowledge to Winnipeggers that the project devastated the residents of Shoal Lake 40 and continues to do so today.

While official records are prone to overlook the stories and perspectives of the disenfranchised, they can also corroborate legal and moral claims made by marginalized peoples.

“We are able to piece together the story of one of the most important events in the history of Winnipeg that is in some ways a great achievement, making it possible for our city to have healthy water, but also a story that’s a dark chapter in our history,” Nesmith says. 

“We have dispossessed Indigenous people and ignored the problems that we have created for many decades.”

According to Walby, tribunals, inquiries, lawsuits and other quests for justice can start and move forward based on archival records. “There’s a kind of connection between accountability and the archives that matters in a real material way,” he says.

Future uncertain

It remains to be seen what the future holds for the City of Winnipeg Archives.

Several sources point to the city clerk’s department, which is apparently working on a report pertaining to the issue. The department declined to comment but confirmed they hope to present something to the appropriate committees by the end of the year.

“We had a plan, and it’s up to the city now to make a decision about that plan,” Baltessen says.

“What I’d really like to see is for them to respond in a meaningful way to the archivist’s well-costed budget and well-planned proposal for refurbishment,” Walby says.

“It’s all there – how to bring the archives back, how to bring people back to the archives, how to make the 380 William site a place for public culture again. It’s all there in her elaborate proposal, and it’s a shame that the mayor and the council continue to ignore it, so I’d like to see them turn some attention to it,” he says.

Published in Volume 71, Number 9 of The Uniter (November 3, 2016)

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