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.

docsgraph

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

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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.

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