Lost and Fonds
Our national archives’ poor record
In 1967, as the nation celebrated its one-hundredth birthday, the federal government opened the new Public Archives and National Library, just west of the Supreme Court of Canada. The building’s Soviet-style facade disguised two stunning reading rooms, with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the Ottawa River. Inside, it was a thoroughly modern facility, in both form and function. The nine-storey granite structure, designed by the noted architecture firm Mathers & Haldenby, was the perfect complement to another move the government made that same year: reducing the period researchers had to wait for the release of federal records, from five decades to three.
The halcyon days of Canadian history soon followed. The deluge of materials that came into the public domain lured scholars — those studying political and military history, as well as those taking up the call of social and labour history — to the Parliamentary Precinct. They came to study the First World War, the Winnipeg General Strike, the Great Depression, the waves of migration to the Canadian West, and how politicians and bureaucrats reacted to these momentous events. Over the next several years, other critical documents, especially those dealing with the Second World War, began to flow into the reading rooms, which were open around the clock.
Anybody who worked or researched at the archives during this period speaks of the tremendously congenial environment, driven by intellectual curiosity and common purpose. You never knew who was going to sit down and join you in the smoke-filled fifth-floor cafeteria, but the conversation would inevitably drift to what everyone was uncovering. Senior academics mixed easily with young graduate students, advice flowed freely, and long-lasting friendships were formed. Particularly in the summer, when scholars from across the country and around the world would walk through the doors, 395 Wellington Street was a genuinely exciting place to be.
That atmosphere had all but vanished by the late 1980s. Students would still trek to Ottawa on occasion, but fewer and fewer established historians were to be seen. Today, you might spot a professor from Carleton or the University of Ottawa doing work at Library and Archives Canada, but it is a rarity to meet an out-of-town historian. There are countless possible explanations. There is the fact that many senior academics simply deploy their research assistants these days. There is the government’s successful campaign to make the once cutting-edge building as unwelcoming as possible (the closed cafeteria and exhibition spaces certainly lend a morgue-like ambiance). And there is the advent of online research tools. Yet none of these explain why comparable archives in London, Paris, Berlin, and Washington remain bustling facilities where it’s best to arrive early so you can secure a table for the day, while our national library, among the largest in the world, languishes.
Something unique is slowly strangling Canadian history, and we should call it out: the Access to Information Act.
When Parliament passed the Access to Information Act, which went into effect in 1983, the government of Pierre Trudeau declared it a huge step forward for democratic accountability. Giving all Canadians the right to request any piece of federal information, it was assumed, would lead to greater transparency and trust. Almost forty years later, that assumption remains entirely unproven.
Crucially, the right to seek information does not guarantee access to it. Despite its name, the act allows only for the possibility that one might receive requested materials; it includes a long list of exemptions that are often subject to bizarre interpretations. Researchers do occasionally get what they ask for, but the outcome is more often than not a partial, illogical response — with pages of blacked-out information arriving after a long delay. In 2018–19, for example, fewer than 8 percent of requests under the act resulted in a complete disclosure within the legislated thirty-day window.
Before 1983, historians would head to Ottawa each year to see the lists of files that were being made available for the first time. Professors, graduate students, and independent historians alike would decide what they would research and write on the basis of those lists, which were managed according to a cabinet directive on access to public records. This directive instructed federal institutions to review their files as they turned thirty, to determine which of them could be declassified and transferred to the archives. Not everything was disclosed, of course. The public servants reviewing the files were to identify and withhold personal information, security intelligence, information received in confidence from other governments, and other records “the release of which might tend to embarrass the Canadian Government in its relations with other governments.” Those public servants understood their material, however; they knew that most thirty-year-old records were unlikely to embarrass the government of the day, and they knew what our allies had and had not disclosed themselves.
The majority of historians were well served by the directive, and few cheered the Access to Information Act when it was tabled. While the Canadian Newspaper Association and media outlets argued the act was an overdue step toward open government, bringing us in line with many of our allies, the Canadian Historical Association and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council voiced concern and even opposition to specific aspects of the law. Speaking before the House Justice and Legal Affairs Committee, for example, the historian Robert Craig Brown objected to losing the “passage of time principle” and, worse, to what appeared to be a “perpetual exemption from access.” Specifically, Brown and his CHA colleagues worried that a file poised to be opened before the new law went into effect could instead be closed forever. Most alarming of all, if scholars, journalists, and the general public did not know of a file’s existence, how could they ever request it?
Committee members attempted to address such concerns when defining the act’s purpose: “This Act is also intended to complement and not replace existing procedures for access to government information and is not intended to limit in any way access to the type of government information that is normally available to the general public.” But this was wishful thinking.
Since 1983, the rules on release of government records have been entirely subsumed by the Access to Information Act, which was implemented without giving federal institutions additional resources. That’s in part because Pierre Trudeau viewed information access as a civil right — and no citizen should have to pay to exercise such a thing. The outcome was all too predictable: departments quickly did away with their historical declassification review processes and instead shifted resources to access-to-information coordinators who almost immediately found they were unable to keep up with requests. Only External Affairs continued to review historical records, at least until its declassification program was cut in 1993.
The 1983 law has proven detrimental to historical research. Before its passage, departments had retention periods (the length of time they would hold on to their records) of thirty years or more. Almost immediately after it went into effect, some officials recognized that if they drastically shortened their department’s retention periods, they could rid themselves of an administrative burden. Simply pass the buck to the national archives!
The consequences were dramatic. In 1984, the volume of records transferred to the Public Archives of Canada tripled from the year before; the Department of National Defence alone sent over 13,000 linear feet of unlisted records, dated between 1837 and 1973. The government was forced to rent and outfit storage facilities to hold the barrage of materials, while archivists struggled to properly select, arrange, and describe it.
The Public Archives of Canada was now also in the business of determining what researchers could access. Management assumed that an understanding of historical context would facilitate decisions on what could and could not be disclosed, and a team of archivists, all with graduate training in history, took up the task. This was a short-lived solution. The Treasury Board Secretariat instead produced a set of exceptionally tedious guidelines that spelled out where and when a reviewer could exercise discretion (not very often) and when other government departments needed to be consulted. Researchers across the country soon discovered that “consultation” is synonymous with “dead end.”
The majority of access-to-information consultations involve copies of a requested document being sent to every department and institution that may have an interest — or equity — in it. If I were to request something related to national security, say, individuals within the Canadian Armed Forces, Global Affairs Canada, the Communications Security Establishment, the Privy Council Office, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service might all be asked to put aside their operational work and review a package with hundreds, perhaps thousands of pages. The coordinator handling my original request could state a deadline for this external review, but it would be toothless at best.
All of this is bad enough if I’m after relatively current material; at least the desk officer may have the subject-matter expertise to be able to eventually process the request. With older items, the results are often as ridiculous as they are delayed. The historian Robert Bothwell once asked for information on Mikhail Gorbachev’s state visit to Canada, in late May 1990, and eventually received a set of heavily redacted documents. The names of all the Soviets who attended the meeting were blacked out, except for the general secretary himself and Eduard Shevardnadze, his foreign affairs minister. In another case, the historian Timothy Andrews Sayle found that one of the items withheld from his request on U.S. Air Force activities over Canada had already been published on the Global Affairs website.
Hundreds of similar incidents prove that a public servant who lacks an understanding of historical context (or who is unfamiliar with what’s already out there) is not equipped to make an informed access-to-information decision. And because there’s little time to investigate matters fully, an internal calculus takes hold: If I make the effort to do a proper review, it will be time-consuming and costly, and there might still be risk of inappropriate disclosure. If I claim a security-of-state exemption and withhold the document, there will be no effort, no cost, and no risk.
This dynamic has only worsened with the passage of time. The day before the Access to Information Act came into effect, there was a finite quantity of historical records subject to review and disclosure each year. The day after, the volume began to grow exponentially, which ironically jeopardized the act’s stated goal to “promote an open and democratic society and to enable public debate.” Thanks to the efforts of the Canadian Foreign Intelligence History Project and the University of Toronto’s Canada Declassified, it is now clear that many of the organizations in our security and intelligence community have been holding on to records for as long as eighty years, because of top-secret classifications or special handling caveats. In 2016, scholars began a targeted access-to-information campaign, but a freeze has descended on the Ottawa Valley; the security and intelligence community has all but ended disclosures and has stopped responding to consultation requests from Library and Archives Canada. The independent information commissioner, Caroline Maynard, has raised the alarm, warning that the whole system “is in danger of collapse.” Her staff is pursuing numerous complaints, with hundreds of formal investigations under way, but there is little tangible progress.
Something is deeply disturbing about a government that obstructs historical scrutiny, whether intentionally or not. And the typical desk officer carrying out a review likely does not consider the hidden costs of unwarranted secrecy. For one thing, repeated requests for the same information, often to multiple departments, distract public servants from their regular jobs. Nobody has quantified the wasted time and effort; administrators simply consider it a necessity. What’s more, all Canadians pay the heavy price of being deprived of knowledge about their own past.
Scholars of all kinds realize they are gambling with publication deadlines if they depend on the outcome of an access-to-information request. Professors who advise doctoral students warn them off topics as important as the October Crisis, the National Energy Program, and trade negotiations, because the key documents remain locked up. Conference papers, theses, monographs, and popular histories that we as a nation deserve go unwritten. Crucially important swaths of our annals are left buried in the mire.
Genuine political will generated the Access to Information Act nearly four decades ago, but bureaucratic inertia snuffed out any hope it once brought. We now have a situation where a citizen’s rights are being administered by a public servant whose principal job has nothing to do with those rights. (One can almost hear Sir Humphrey, the consummate permanent secretary in the British sitcom Yes Minister, lecturing James Hacker, his hapless minister, about the dangers of too much knowledge.)
The contest between more openness and bureaucratic control has worked itself out in many other jurisdictions. In the mid-1990s, for example, the New York senator Daniel Moynihan led efforts to reform secrecy in Washington, which resulted in an executive order and the bulk declassification of millions of records. In 1999, Labour Party MPs in the United Kingdom worked to ensure that Whitehall did not subvert the introduction of that country’s Freedom of Information Act. But when the Jean Chrétien government launched a review of our own Access to Information Act, in 2001, it entrusted matters to a career civil servant who simply tinkered around the edges. The only politician who showed any interest in reform, the Liberal backbencher and published historian John Bryden, was shut down.
The way out of this morass is not difficult to see. We need only look to the past and to our more open and sensible peers. The re-establishment of a proper declassification framework, like the ones our principal allies use — like the one that we had until 1983 — would be a start. And then we need carefully researched books about what happens when public servants have the power to determine what historians can see and, therefore, what they can authoritatively write about.