Lament of 32: The Canadian Government and Information Control

Over the past few weeks we have begun to explore the world of professional history as currently practiced in Canada. Some of our most recent blog posts have focused on student life, academic publishing, and the traditions and evolution of the specialized historical community. Today we investigate the role of the Canadian government in information control, in an effort to provide further insight into the world of historical research.

In 1983, the Pierre Trudeau government legislated the Access to Information Act, which permits Canadians to retrieve government files for personal use. The act is by name extremely misleading. Canadian citizens don’t have direct, unabated access to information; rather, they merely have the right to request access to information. The act essentially established what information could be accessed, and mandated timelines for information reviews. Under the act, which is enforced by the Information Commissioner of Canada, government departments cannot refuse to grant access to records without first authorizing a review of the documents requested for retrieval. Any government records that remain closed to the public following review are supposed to be limited and specific, but reviews are seldom objective and transparent.

Unfortunately for historians, the list of files types that can exempted from disclosure is quite expansive. Records containing information provided to the Canadian government in confidence by other governments are restricted. So too are files pertaining to public safety and security, provincial and federal relations, third party sector companies, and information that may be used to undermine government operations. The list is not exhaustive, but nor is it black and white. Shades of grey permeate the Access to Information Act and negatively impact the writing of history as a result.  

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is the national repository of records pertaining to the history of Canada. Many archival records at LAC are subject to access restrictions, which means that researchers interested in consulting documents are quite often prevented from doing so. LAC uses a systematic codec to qualify “Conditions of access,” where most records are categorized as either open under code 90, or restricted and private under codes 32, 18 and 10. Access to private records under code 18 is dependent on review by the individual(s) who donated the records to the repository, while records under code 10 are closed to consultation. Access to restricted records under code 32 is granted solely by government authorities operating as classification officers. These government employees hold an impressive amount of power and authority, and accordingly their jobs impact the work of historians and the wider public on a regular basis.     

In 1983, the Trudeau government also introduced the Privacy Act. Meant to be complimentary to the Information Act, the Privacy Act protects the privacy of individuals with respect to personal information about themselves held by the federal government. Such records held at various federal government repositories are restricted and must also be reviewed prior to disclosure. Regardless of age, under both acts, no document is to be released to the public without first being reviewed for “sensitive” information. When in doubt, archivists must contact and consult the government department from which the requested document(s) originated. Due to government cutbacks and bureaucracy, it is not uncommon for document reviews to take six to twelve months or more to complete. Some reviews are quickly rejected, and those that are processed quite rarely yield complete access to the file(s) requested. Rather than provide important details and exciting new insights, records opened by review often provide information of a tertiary importance to the subject under examination by the historian or individual who submitted the acquisition request. Declassified files from the departments of National Defence and External Affairs, for example, may contain reference to administrative statistics concerning military or civil service personnel rather than details about weapons procurement or executive government meetings on national security and warfare.

Naturally, some files fall through the cracks and are open to the public despite the intentions of the government. Records at archival repositories other than LAC may reveal information that remains restricted under code 32, but it’s important to note that all archival repositories in Canada are subject to the information and privacy acts. Archival codecs vary but acquisition reviews must follow a standardized procedure, so historians and individuals seeking access to records are filtered by government oversight nationwide. It is for this reason that many books of Canadian history have gone unwritten, as critical records necessary to appropriately examine and reconstruct a version of past events remain stored in archival repositories and closed to the historians’ eye.  

Historians generally strive to research and write objectively. Complete objectivity is unattainable, because personal experience impacts our method of thought and conversely our method of research and writing. Recognizing that the human mind reconstructs the past in an inherently flawed manner, we attempt to build an expansive body of evidence from which to draw insights and conclusions. Access to information is of paramount importance, but historians and individuals interested in examining peoples and past events in the evolution of modern day Canada are restricted by a governing body whose right to “protect” citizens seems to be accepted rather than questioned. Under such circumstances is it perhaps fair to posit that the allegedly democratic government of Canada is somewhat flawed?

The question of whether or not access to information should be controlled is by no means unique to Canada, but the current system in place herein should be interrogated nonetheless. Democracy is an ongoing project, after all.