Tuesday, September 21, 2010

You May Need Us More Than You Realize

From the desk of Ann ten Cate, Reference Archivist at the Royal BC Museum

Future generations will, I am confident, appreciate the work we are doing with the archival collections here at the RBCM. As Winston Churchill famously said “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.” Most people can see the value of the records for historians (family or otherwise). But I think it’s also important to recognize that archival records are used for very immediate purposes. As a reference archivist I help researchers who are working on a broad range of topics – everything from preparing environmental assessments to creating historical fiction.

And, even more frequently, B.C. Archives staff are helping people who need archival records for very personal reasons. Lately, I’ve had a run of requests for help in finding records which were absolutely critical to those individuals because they needed them to claim government benefits – or to confirm their own identity.

Winston Churchill in Beacon Hill Park, 1929, F-05216, RBCM-BC Archives photo

Here’s a sampling of their stories – with names withheld to protect the innocent (or not so innocent) as the case may be!

Back in 1990, Mr. X. was convicted of possession of marijuana. Just one plant – but it was enough to leave him with a criminal record. Mr. X was not a Canadian citizen, but a landed immigrant. Shortly after his conviction his home, and with it his proof of immigration status, were destroyed in a fire. Fast forward to 2010 – Mr. X is now eligible for Old Age Security, and needs to provide his immigration documentation. To get that replaced, he has to fill out “form IMM5541”, which requires that he attach a copy of the “pertinent court documents” relating to his past conviction. You can imagine his frustration...he has no court documents because they were all destroyed in the same fire that destroyed his immigration documents! His initial inquiries to the court system were not fruitful and he came to the B.C. Archives sounding pretty desperate.

In the end, it turned out we didn’t have the record – but we were able to determine that Mr. X’s court file still existed in the court system and were able to give him precise instructions on how to obtain it at a court registry. He’ll be able to get his Old Age Security benefits – and we’ve advised him to put his “pertinent court documents” in a safety deposit box for the next time Big Brother comes calling.

Last month, another male client came to us looking for a copy of his divorce order. This happens often – usually because the person needs it to remarry, claim pension benefits, immigrate or emigrate. As many of us know from personal experience, governments all over the world are tightening up and expanding their requirements for proof of identity. The Archives holds most divorce orders granted in B.C. from 1877 to 1990, and we do a steady trade in providing copies of divorce orders. What made this gentleman’s request unique was that he needed the order to prove that he had custody of his children – and would thus qualify for extra benefits under the Child Rearing Provision of the Canada Pension Plan.

A third case was especially touching – after being brought up in extremely difficult circumstances a young child was transferred to the custody of the Children’s Aid Society many years ago. Now, as an adult, this individual is looking for more information about his birth mother. He knows her name, and when she died, but now he wants any record that bears her signature or her name – simply to bring together all the evidence of her life, and of his own existence.

Children's Aid Society Building, Vancouver, ca 1895, G-02215, RBCM-BC Archives photo

Like the others, his request brought a very human dimension to the work we do here.

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