No documents destroyed, but concerns raised about safety of records
Laurel Parson knew something had happened at the General Synod Archives as soon as she came to work the morning of Monday, July 18 and found boxes on the table she had not put there, and the vault door wide open.
“It was a mess,” the archivist says. “The ceiling tiles had fallen down on the ground and there was water everywhere.”
Parson spoke to Rob Murphy, facilities assistant at Church House, who told her what he had discovered when doing his usual rounds earlier that day: flooding as a result of leaks in the ceiling.
Leaks have been an ongoing problem for the archival storage vault, which is located beneath a mechanical room containing a water tank and HVAC equipment, Parson says. But this, she says, was the worst case she had ever seen.
“One of the doors had shimmied open and there was water gushing out,” Parson says. “We’re not just talking a little leak. We’re talking water flowing. It had spread all over the place.”
Upon his discovery, Murphy had immediately begun removing boxes from the vault and cleaning up the fallen tiles. Meanwhile, Parson took historical materials out of the wet boxes and put them in new dry boxes. The documents were placed in a room with a powerful fan to dry them as quickly as possible.
“My first thought was, ‘The longer they sit in those wet boxes, the more water they’re going to absorb, and it’s going to be harder to restore them to their former condition,’” Parson recalls.
“They will never look the same exactly again, once they’ve been wet. But at least we can stop ink running and preserve the original documents.”
General Secretary Alan Perry said he was informed through conversations with Murphy that the problem lay in the failure of an access door to a container that surrounded a cooling tower associated with the HVAC system.
“We’re looking into ensuring that that doesn’t happen again, and that’s our priority,” Perry says.
The General Synod Archives have been an important source of information about the Indian Residential School system; they were the source of about half the 300,000 digitized pages of residential school-related documents turned over by the Anglican Church of Canada to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015. These records include monthly reports from the schools, photographs, reports by superintendents, diaries and circular letters outlining policies. Archival research helped the TRC estimate the total number of children to have died in the schools.
An estimated 114 cubic foot boxes full of documents were damaged by the water. The records include a wide variety of materials encompassing the history of the Anglican Church of Canada, from newsprint to typed sheets in file folders. Among the 114 boxes are 76 from the diocese of the Arctic collection, of which about 20 are in the form of microfilm—scaled-down reproductions of documents commonly used for storage. The Arctic materials include parish registers for baptisms, confirmations, marriages and burials. Parson says she was relieved to learn that none of the parish registers from the Arctic were damaged at all.
The materials contained in the archives, Parson says, are unique and irreplaceable. But while the records have been damaged, no records have been completely destroyed or lost. A company that specializes in restoring damaged documents has taken the reboxed documents, freeze-drying half the damaged materials to prevent any possibility of mould. The other half have been moved to processing where they will be dried, reboxed, and sent back to General Synod.
Leaks in the archives have been a recurring problem ever since General Synod moved to its current location at Church House, Parson says. She notes that the original plan agreed to by church leaders did not include a mechanical room above the General Synod Archives.
“It was an 11th-hour change when they built this place, because there was no set of stairs from the fourth floor to the third floor,” Parson says. “I don’t know who made the decision. But in the end, they put the mechanical room over our storage vault and it has been a problem since the beginning.”
As soon as the archives moved to their current location in 2004, she says, “the very first thing that happened was we had a leak. Seriously. As soon as the documents went in, we had a leak. Periodically, it happens. But this is the worst one that we’ve had, and nothing’s been done about it before.”
Church staff involved in the church’s efforts at reconciliation with Indigenous people expressed alarm at the water damage and ongoing risk to General Synod Archives.
Dawn Maracle, national reconciliation animator for the Anglican Church of Canada, describes archival materials as “central” to reconciliation and says preserving them must be a priority for the church.
The past is central to reconciliation work, says Maracle. “We can never forget our past and our past relationships. They’re the foundation of our work of reconciliation, because they’re about truth and justice and rebuilding and healing. In order to do that, we need to know what has happened.”
The value of archival documents, Maracle says, is not just what is written on the pages, but “what’s between the pages.”
She and Diane Meredith, project lead for the Indigenous Historical Project—an archival research study on historical funding trends for Indigenous ministry within the Anglican Church of Canada—say that archival documents can reveal unequal power relationships by what is absent as much as by what is present.
“The archives are interesting because as we slog through them, the Indigenous story is not told as overtly,” Meredith says. “We have to examine what’s not being said, who’s not present in decision-making, who’s not consulted, where do moneys go that were allocated to what—and then where do they not go in terms of supporting Indigenous communities of faith and the well-being of Indigenous peoples?”
Meredith says she was “devastated” when she first heard the news about the water damage to the archival materials. She expresses relief that staff members were able to respond and haul the materials out in time.
“The question is, is the church aware of how critical these documents are?” Meredith asks. “They tell a colonial history that we’re all trying to work together to undo and redo.”
“Is this a safe spot for them in terms of making sure this doesn’t happen again?” she adds. “Anything can happen—fires, everything. But you would really want to ensure that this history is not destroyed, right?”
Parson expresses doubt that there will be any discussions about changing the layout in Church House so that the archives are not directly below a mechanical room where flooding can occur.
“It’s very expensive to move those things because the compact shelving [for archival materials] runs on tracks, and so all of that has to be reinforced concrete,” Parson says. “Plus because of the weight, the amount of reinforcement has to stand up to it.”
Perry says the current vault is fire-resistant, making the probability of fire damage “exceedingly low.” He also says that after a previous flood in the archives, efforts were made to contain the equipment in the mechanical room to make sure a similar leak couldn’t happen again.
“Unfortunately the containment seems to have failed,” Perry says. “So we’re looking into why that happened and how we can prevent that from happening again.”
Perry shares concerns about the need to safeguard archival materials.
“I’ve spent quite a lot of time in archives myself doing academic research, so I’m very aware of the critical importance of these collections,” he says. “They’re really our biggest treasure, and so I agree that they have to be secure.”
Maracle would like to see “anyone and everyone come together” to discuss possible solutions and funding models to ensure archival documents are not at risk in the future.
“I would like to see Indigenous input,” the reconciliation animator says. “I would like to see protection and preservation.” Maracle hopes Anglicans will “think outside of the box to find a way to make it happen.”
Because the archival vault is specially designed and fire-resistant, with the floor heavily reinforced to hold the weight of the materials, moving the archives to somewhere else in the building is not an option, Perry says.
“Cost isn’t really the issue,” he adds. “It’s making sure that we have a permanent solution to the problem that occurred with the mechanical room.”
The general secretary credits Parson for helping save the documents, and Murphy and facilities manager Virginia Douglas for their considerable effort in the clean-up. Murphy and Douglas have been charged with finding a lasting solution to prevent future leaks and are now consulting with different companies.
“The really good news is we’re very fortunate that we didn’t lose anything,” Perry says. “We’ve got some wet documents, but we haven’t lost anything.”
This article has been edited from an earlier version to correctly identify relevant dates.