Rubin: Exposing Library and Archives Canada’s dismal transparency record

Another illustration of how broken ATIP is:

When I first came to Ottawa in the mid-1960s, I started going to the National Archives to access government records. I met Archives personnel who were trying to get the federal government to adopt better electronic record management to meet the growing demands for information.

But their efforts were largely ignored as more and more government record management came under the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) authority. There, record retrievals became more difficult and descended into a confusing and conflicted state of instability.

This was at a time when government department libraries were disappearing. My ability to freely wander the shelves and stacks and to get reference help ended when the access-to-information regime took over in the mid-1980s. Agency record collections became secret and inaccessible to the public.

By then, the Treasury Board Secretariat had firmly taken control of overall information management policy, with National Archives playing second fiddle. TBS sought to “standardize” and sanitize federal information holdings at a cost of many millions of dollars.

With the 2004 merger of the National Archives and the National Library, the new Library and Archives Canada (LAC) took on the attributes of a regular government agency under the Treasury Board’s tight control, driven by the latest software and ever-increasing secrecy practices.

Just another obedient agency

When Daniel Caron—neither a professional librarian, nor archivist—was put in charge at the LAC in 2009, he accelerated this deference to government powers, acting more like a TBS lieutenant.

He pressed for greater “modernization,” clumsily and at great expense transmitting LAC holdings into electronic file holdings. Caron didn’t fight the cuts imposed on LAC’s professional archivists and librarians, and seemed to relish reining in any staff’s independent actions to help the public. Nor did he fight the Public Works demand that LAC’s auditorium and meeting facilities be reserved only for federally sanctioned events and not for public use (Justice Paul Rouleau’s inquiry on the use of the Emergencies Act is currently taking place in the Library and Archives Canada building on Wellington Street).

Caron’s end came in 2013 after I obtained access to records that showed he was, at taxpayer expense, taking Spanish lessons. When he refused to end the language training, the heritage minister at the time fired him.

Eventually, LAC got a professional head and some of their former information reference service capacities were restored. But it was much too late for LAC to gain an influential central role under the Access to Information Act.

One example of how LAC had become just another obedient agency is how it took little interest in even housing or publicly listing and preserving past completed access-to-information requests.

That task, ignored for 20 years, was eventually done though the so-called open government portal, though the actual records received under access requests were never posted, just the titles of thousands of requests. The result is that much of the unofficial—at times very valuable and of historic record—of what the government did was destroyed without Canada’s retainer agency or historic records, LAC, giving one iota.

Not so well known was that for many years archive authorities had secret deals. One such arrangement that I have written about previously was that ministers’ “personal” and “political” past records deposited at LAC were allowed to remain secret for multiple years—even permanently—as demanded by ex-ministers and prime ministers.

LAC continues to make available public funds, office space, and staff to past prime ministers who assemble their so-called “personal” and “political” records. Such “private donations” get charitable income tax receipts. It’s not clear whether LAC has ever pushed back on prime ministers on ministerial claims made, Trump-style, about those records really being their personal property, a highly questionable practice in the first place.

Another long-standing deal is with the House Speaker, allowing in-camera parliamentary committee records to be hidden and housed at LAC for long periods of time.

A more recent 2018 secrecy arrangement with the Supreme Court of Canada favours many of the judges’ deliberation records remaining secret for a minimum of 50 years or more.

If that were not contentious enough, LAC has also turned its back on acquiring and preserving residential school records. Instead—and likely a better arrangement—many of those government records were sent to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in 2015. LAC, however, still has many residential school records in its possession and has been slow to get those and other federal records processed and out, especially those records held tightly by the federal Indigenous departments.

Which brings us to the 2018 Dagg case where LAC issued consultant Michael Dagg an 80-year wait-time, given the estimated 780,000 records dealing with the RCMP’s Project Anecdote, a 10-year investigation on secret commissions, money laundering and corruption, including in real estate, an investigation which ran out of steam and from which no charges were ever laid.

Dagg complained about the excessive delay to Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard, who then requested LAC take a mere 65 years to respond. The delay issue went to the Federal Court for appeal. Sadly, it was discontinued upon Dagg’s death this past September.

Faster info declassification a good first step to change

LAC, as Dagg, I, and others well-discovered, has become a typical unresponsive and obstinate bureaucratic agency quite willing to severely censor our tax-paid records under legislated secrecy claims.

Maynard’s scathing investigation report on LAC, released on April 26, 2022, readily confirms LAC’s unacceptable long wait-times to access requests, amounting to LAC regularly not meeting its legal obligation under access legislation.

The minister responsible for reporting on LAC activities, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, responded to Maynard’s report recommendations by refusing to take responsibility to correct LAC’s poor access-to-information services. He declined to put forward a strategic plan to quickly correct LAC’s laggard and disgraceful access-to-information record.

Maynard’s report scolded LAC and the Government of Canada (read the Treasury Board Secretariat, the Privy Council Office, and the Prime Minister’s Office) for not taking the lead to quickly declassify records it holds and receives from government agencies. Maynard recommended that the federal government establish a strong declassification directive as a crucial element to the functioning of access legislation.

However, LAC no longer seems up to the task of promptly declassifying those records it has in its possession. That’s even if agencies send any those records at all.

It would be helpful if the information commissioner could get tough on LAC for failing to declassify their records for public use on a timely basis, and if she, along with a rejuvenated LAC’s help, could penalize those government agencies that don’t bother to keep written records, that alter them, or that refuse to hand over records to LAC.

Another serious problem is that LAC quietly follows TBS’s 40-year practice of massive record destruction. Hundreds of thousands of draft records annually don’t make it at all to LAC as TBS orders agencies to regularly destroy draft transitory operational records.

One thing that LAC still does a relatively good job doing is collecting outside legally required deposited information from those publishing and that includes letting the public know about those published records.

Once seen as an arm’s-length agency keeping check on the PMO and the Treasury Board Secretariat’s all-powerful grip on federal records has simply wilted and been cast aside by the same cabal.

LAC has fallen in line with the centralized secrecy commands that rule Ottawa, and has even outdone many other government agencies in their dislike to giving Canadians access to their records on a timely and fuller basis.

Can LAC become more than a secrecy shill for the government? At the very least it would help if LAC, who holds the vast majority of government historical records, gets going in declassifying more records for release. That would be a start.

LAC badly needs to change course and become an independent record manager force with integrity, a pro-disclosure champion for the fulsome and quick release of federal information.

Respect and trust would follow.

Ken Rubin is a long-time observer of transparency and secrecy trends in Ottawa. He is reachable via

Source: Exposing Library and Archives Canada’s dismal transparency record

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: