Government accused of hoarding Canadian history in ‘secret’ archives

Hard to know whether deliberate policy or, what I think may be more likely, lower priority and capacity constraints:

Some of Canada’s leading historians say the federal government is putting the country’s historical record at risk by hoarding piles of documents inside secret archives that together would make a stack taller than the CN Tower.

Historian Dennis Molinaro of Trent University discovered ministries and agencies are stockpiling millions of decades-old papers rather than handing them over to Library and Archives Canada for safekeeping and public access. He’s launched a petition to try to convince the government to set them free.

The Canadian Historical Association (CHA) has joined his campaign and is calling on the government to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary by overhauling the laws on access to government records.

“It’s very disturbing that there are caches of documents about which we know very little. We don’t even know the extent of this,” said CHA president Joan Sangster, a colleague of Molinaro’s at Trent in Peterborough, Ont., where she teaches labour and women’s history.

As part of his research, Molinaro has been asking government departments to hand over information about Canada’s Cold War domestic spy and surveillance programs run by the RCMP. Last fall, the federal government initially refused his access-to-information request for the papers (which were never transferred to the national archives) concerning a 65-year-old top secret RCMP wiretapping program dubbed Project Picnic.

One day after CBC News reported on Molinaro’s battle with the bureaucracy, officials notified him they would release the 1951 “secret order” that authorized the wiretapping program targeting suspected Soviet spies and other subversives, signed by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent.

‘Secret or shadow archive’

Access-to-information officials have told Molinaro the Privy Council Office holds at least 1.6 million more pages from the era, many of which could concern Cold War counter-espionage programs. He’s also learned many more intelligence-related records dating back four, five and six decades are being held by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and the departments of Justice and Foreign Affairs.

He’s been told in email exchanges that there’s currently no public list to help him — or any other researcher — understand, let alone access, these mountains of papers kept inside closed government storerooms.

“The government seems to be, in essence, running some kind of secret or shadow archive,” Molinaro told CBC News.

Keeping millions of records from the national archives is “appalling,” he said.

“You’re hiding the historical record from the Canadian people.”

He says the problem extends far beyond his own research interest of domestic surveillance.

“Think of how many events from the Cold War … The Cuban Missile Crisis … RCMP counter-intelligence operations, foreign intelligence operations,” he said. “What else is there on other topics? On Indigenous affairs and relations? What else is in different government institutions on a variety of topics?

“We don’t know.”

CBC News asked various government departments to identify how much historical material they keep that’s more than 30 years old — and why.

The Privy Council Office (PCO) revealed it has “1,430 cubic feet” (40.5 cubic metres) of government records dating back many decades.


PCO says transfer of these cabinet documents, discussion papers and records to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is “time-consuming” and first requires wide consultation to ensure classified information isn’t released improperly.

The office says it’s looking at recommendations to declassify a large block of “legacy” information from 1939-1959, and considering transferring cabinet minutes and documents from the 1980s to LAC.

The CSE, Canada’s electronic spy agency, acknowledges it, too, is struggling to sort 128 linear metres of boxes of “legacy” records that are more than three decades old before handing them over to LAC.

The Foreign Affairs Department, Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP all declined to say how much historical material they continue to store.

Source: Government accused of hoarding Canadian history in ‘secret’ archives – Canada – CBC News

‘Death by a Thousand Cuts:’ Memo to PM questions across the board budget cuts

Reassuring to know that PCO is doing its job and bringing these studies to the PM’s attention.

Last line is priceless and applies to the Canadian context and Government approach:

In a Jan. 27 memorandum to the prime minister, obtained under the Access to Information Act, the Clerk of the Privy Council briefed Stephen Harper on how austerity measures were being assessed in Australia.

“The authors found that prolonged cuts of this nature result in a loss of workforce capability, public sector productivity and innovation, and trust and confidence in public sector institutions,” states the memo.

The memo details how public trust is undermined “as programs become less efficient and effective in the wake of across-the-board cuts, and as mistakes and oversights occur.”

The study recommends that a better way to trim costs is by using efficiency audits of departments and by engaging staff to find effective and efficient new ways of delivering programs and services.

As the memo summarizes the Australian study, “skills shortages are having a significant impact on government operations, resulting in higher costs for recruitment and training over time, the appointment of more expensive private sector contractors for information technology, and diminished procurement expertise.”

Large portions of the four-page memo are blacked out.

The Prime Minister’s Office says it receives many memos and would not comment on the views in the Australian study.

“I will say that our government is proud of the steps we have taken to trim the size of government bureaucracy and ensure that tax dollars are being spent on programs and services that benefit Canadians,” spokesman Jason MacDonald said in an email.

….The study, based on austerity measures taken by national and regional governments in Australia, notes that politicians habitually claim cuts will be efficient and painless.

“In practice, however, claims that administrative budgets can be cut without affecting services are likely to be made only by politicians who have evaded explicit and responsible government decision-making, or want to evade it, or who are prepared to re-define services in order to evade it.”

‘Death by a Thousand Cuts:’ Memo to PM questions across the board budget cuts (pay wall)

And, in perhaps a concrete illustration of this, the Auditor General’s report on the sad state of Library and Archives Canada:

The Ottawa-based institution is supposed to collect and preserve government documents, photos, films, artworks and other materials of historical value and make them available for public use.

“Overall, we found that Library and Archives Canada was not acquiring all the archival records it should from federal institutions,” the report says.

The acquisition of federal records is governed by directives issued to departments and agencies, but some are out of date because they do not account for the records of new programs or changes to existing ones.

Since 2009, Library and Archives Canada was able to update the directives for just 30 of 195 federal agencies, meaning it could not ensure it was acquiring all retired records of archival value. As a result many records were stuck in limbo, awaiting Library and Archives’ decision as to whether they should be saved or destroyed.

Some of the 98,000 boxes of records in the backlog have been there for several decades. The auditor found the backlog had grown over the years and there was no approved plan to eliminate it despite allocation of $600,000 this year to tackle part of the problem.

Researchers for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission told the auditors the uneven quality of archival finding aids meant missing descriptions of box contents, as well as inaccurate or incomplete listings.

Library and Archives says digital records will represent the “format of choice” by 2017. However, there was no overall corporate strategy for the preservation of digital data, the report says.

The institution spent $15.4 million developing a trusted digital repository for records, but due to a change in approach it was never used.

Auditor General: Archives sitting on mountain of unsorted documents

Canadians love their libraries but report urges new chapter

More on the ongoing decline of Library and Archives Canada and the cumulative effect of budget cutbacks in the Royal Society of Canada report on libraries:

The society panel spoke with dozens of librarians, archivists, students, seniors, new Canadians, and library users young and older, said Demers during a conference call Wednesday.

But the decline of LAC, which has suffered widespread budget cuts and staff reductions, was a major concern for Canadians across the board, she said.

“LAC is our national institution mandated by act of 2004 to acquire and preserve our documentary heritage and make it known to and available to Canadians,” she said. “There has been a decade-long decline in all the services at LAC.”

The panel heard from “disappointed professional” LAC users, including Governor General’s Literary Award winning author Jane Urquhart who gave it a collection of papers but has since been told she can’t have access to them.

… (Between 2009-12, the federal government cut 445 of its library jobs, mostly at LAC and the National Research Council’s science library).

Canadians love their libraries but report urges new chapter | Ottawa Citizen.

Ironic, that a Government that promoted Canadian history in its citizenship guide, Discover Canada, appears to be enabling Canadians to forget it.

For a thoughtful discussion on the importance of reading and books, CBC’s The Current did an excellent interview with Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (great book from both a literary criticism point of view as well as the context of post-Revolution Iran):

Haute fonction publique fédérale – Après le silence, la révolte | Le Devoir

More on Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and its former head, Daniel Caron. Part of his problem was that the savage cuts to traditional archival activities, done to meet government expenditure reductions and generate savings to capture the digital records or contemporary events, never had a public constituency. Meanwhile, the LAC constituency of academics, librarians and archivists strongly protested about the loss of traditional archive activities (see Jack Granatstein’s excellent Who will preserve the past for future generations?).

M. Caron dit avoir été injustement cloué au pilori, sans l’appui du ministre du Patrimoine, James Moore, ni même de BAC, où les réformes liées à la numérisation du présent qu’il était en train de mener créaient beaucoup de remous, admet-il. « Les changements étaient importants et ne plaisaient pas à tout le monde, dit-il. Il y a des gens qui avaient un intérêt à me voir partir. Quant au ministre, il avait, lui, un intérêt à se faire du capital politique en tapant publiquement sur un fonctionnaire pour des allégations de mauvaises gestions de fonds publics. Cela est cohérent avec le discours sur la réduction des dépenses ». Et il ajoute : « J’ai également résisté sur des projets d’acquisition de documents liés à la guerre de 1812 [un dossier historique hautement controversé et alimenté par les conservateurs], et poussé pour documenter des mouvements comme Idle No more [mouvement d’affirmation des autochtones et de contestation ciblant l’administration Harper] ou des projets comme Keystone XL [oléoduc canado-américain]. Cela n’a pas été très bien perçu. J’étais au milieu d’un tir croisé, dans une impasse. Je n’avais pas d’autres choix que de me retirer ».

Haute fonction publique fédérale – Après le silence, la révolte | Le Devoir.

Library cuts trigger fears of knowledge drain

More on government reductions and cuts in government libraries. While pruning and digitizing collections is good practice, some press accounts suggest a less thorough process (e.g., Fisheries and Oceans libraries), with resulting loss of accumulated knowledge. Cutbacks to Library and Archives Canada a number of years back also undermine the Government’s record on knowledge and history.

I was amused, however, by this comment on access to material stored offsite:

Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Remi Lariviere confirmed that the department’s library materials “are housed off-site with a private sector provider” in Laval, Que. He said the closure of the department library saves taxpayers about $200,000 a year and rejected suggestions that they are inaccessible to researchers.

Lariviere said there are “clear service standards for retrieval” and that most Citizenship and Immigration employees the predominant users of the department’s materials access documents online.

Given my experience with ATIP (where CIC fails to meet statutory requirements), or the lack of service standards for most citizenship and immigration dealings with the public, I must say I am somewhat sceptical. And the money saved for most departments is small change.

Library cuts trigger fears of knowledge drain.