Rescued by the Americans: the Story Ottawa Conservatives would prefer Canadians not know

By Veronica Strong-Boag

First of all three disclaimers: I like many Americans; I love digital records; and I value the efforts of independent on-line initiatives to serve the public good. Why then my reservations when I read the website http://parkscanadahistory.com?  Two generous residents of the lower forty-eight, with significant expertise in the US National Park Service,[1] have provided free access to a rich trove of  “electronic publications, covering the cultural and natural history of Parks Canada and the national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas of the Canadian park system.” Full texts are available, although only in English. As Harper’s Conservatives sack information services and access, anyone interested in Canada’s parks and historic sites and monuments has reason for gratitude.  We would be much poorer without such initiatives to preserve access to critical information about our past and present.

But after we have thanked our American friends, we should ask some questions, beginning with why is such an external source of public data on Canada necessary? The US site explains that it is “not affiliated with Parks Canada.” This seems a bit strange surely?  All the linked documents were paid for by Canadian taxpayers and all were inspired by Canada’s own priorities with regard to national parks and historic sites and monuments.  Indeed the various units within Parks Canada have a distinguished history of professional research conducted by historians, archaelogists, anthropologists, and a range of natural scientists.  Their studies have contributed significantly to what we know about human exploration and settlement and changes in the natural environment and climate. They have been essential in ensuring that we better understand our part of North America.

Unfortunately, the deep knowledge available in the research records of every federal department has become a target for Canada’s current Conservative government.  It is routinely suspicious of expertise and scholarship in the social sciences and sciences in particular.[2]  Like all federal agencies and institutions, Parks Canada has been stripped to the bare bones by several decades of neo-liberalism, culminating in today’s wide-ranging assault on data collection and access. Federal websites generate growing frustration as materials disappear entirely or fail to be updated.  The loss of significant departmental libraries and collections, like the general retreat from support for Canadian Studies, has become a commonplace tragedy that beggars future generations. The elimination in 2014 of the Depository Services Program (initiated 1927), which made government documents available to Canadians, is the critical context in which Parks Canada’s diminution and the value of  http://parkscanadahistory.com needs to be understood.[3]

And so, when Parks Canada seems in danger of becoming little more than a tout for tourism, our American saviours supply an important counterweight, all the more so when they consulted with a leading Canadian authority, Dr. Alan MacEachern of Western University.  The well-respected Director of NiCHE: the Network in Canadian History and Environment, MacEachern recently helped ensure that more than a century and a half of weather data moved from an uncertain future with Environment Canada to Western to form the Historical Climate Data archive.[4]  Such rescue efforts bear comparison with the struggle of the Hungarian feminist Rosika Schwimmer and the American feminist Mary Beard to establish a World Center for Women’s Archives (1935-1940) as one bulwark against the reactionary politics of the 1930s.[5]

And yet, there are shortcomings to even the most well-intentioned and useful private efforts to stem ignorance’s conservative tide.  To name only a few that stalk http://parkscanadahistory.com, documents in French are missing and the site’s language of communication is overwhelmingly English. So much for bilingualism as a core feature of Canada’s national identity. Equally problematic is the understandable temptation for unwitting readers to assume that the Canadian environment is merely some northern extension (perhaps like a pipeline?) of Uncle Sam’s or perhaps Smokey Bear’s preserve.  The particularities and needs of Canada, its regions, and its peoples readily disappear.

Dependence on public-spirited Americans to save our history (not to mention our environment) seems especially curious when we remember Ottawa’s recent commitment to a version of the US, as remembered in the ill-conceived celebrations of the War of 1812, that constitute our southern neighbour as our founding enemy.[6]  In fact, the Conservative retreat from the active protection of cultural and social well-being means that Canada can readily once again be recast as a client state or colony. So much for ‘standing on guard for thee’ or learning something from decades of Canadian Studies.  Instead of relying on others, we’d be better off to act as saviours of our own history and environment.  One place to start would be the redemption of Parks Canada as a mainstay of critical research and public information.

Veronica Strong-Boag, the author and editor of many scholarly books and articles, received the Tyrrell Medal for excellence in Canadian history from the Royal Society of Canada in 2012. She is a former president of the Canadian Historical Association, a former BC Member on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and now a Professor Emerita at UBC.

[1] These are Harry A. Butowsky a retired US National Park Service (USNPS) Historian and manager of the National Park Service e-Library web site and Randall D. Payne, a long-time USNPS volunteer and electronic data preserver. All information on this initiative comes from http://parkscanadahistory.com/ accessed 30 May 2014 and personal email communications with Dr. Alan MacEachern  1 June 2014).

[2] See Stewart Press, “The War On Experts,” Ottawa Citizen (20 March 2014).

Chris Turner, The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada (Vancouver: Greystone, 2013) and Alanna Mitchel, “A Brilliant Attack: The PMO Sets its sights on Enlightenment Science,” Literary Review of Canada (Nov. 2013), http://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2013/11/a-brilliant-attack/, accessed 29 April 2014.

[3] See Amy Kaufman and Jeff Moon, “Farewell to Depository Services, a Building Block of Democracy,” Ottawa Citizens (4 Nov. 2013).

[4] See Alan MacEachern “How Western got its weather data,” University Affairs  (9 April 2014).

[5] On this see Anne Kimbell Relph, “The World Center for Women’s Archives, 1935-1940,” Signs 4:3 (Spring 1979): 597-603.

[6] See Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2012) and Yves Frenette, “Conscripting Canada’s Past: the Harper Government and the Politics of Memory,” Canadian Journal of History 49 (spring-summer 2014): 49-65.

8 thoughts on “Rescued by the Americans: the Story Ottawa Conservatives would prefer Canadians not know

  1. Nadine Hunt

    It appears that many of the publications on the parkscanadahistory.com website are published on the Parks Canada website, but are no longer accessible to the public for whatever reason. However, if Parks Canada deletes or changes the addresses to these pages, I could be mistaken, but I believe that the parkscanadahistory.com website will not be able to display these texts as well. For copyright purposes, possibly with the original publisher, it appears that Parks Canada deliberately published some of its material in a jpeg format as oppose to a pdf or word document. It means that they can “hide” and control the ability to download this material, if they choose. Parks Canada does encourage “non-commercial reproduction” of its website, which it has provided guidance on such use on its website. It appears that the parkscanadahistory.com group organized their website as a “non-commercial reproduction.” However, the ability to delete and hide websites raises some serious questions. The only country that I am aware of is the United Kingdom that has an Electronic legal deposit to archive webpages (see http://www.nls.uk/news/press/2013/04/electronic-legal-deposit). I am not familiar with the practices of the NLAC, but I am hoping that this is in the works. Good article.

  2. Ian Milligan

    Good points, Nadine. Just from the perspective of somebody who plays with a lot of websites and the preservation of born-digital material.

    First, good catch – a few of the documents are linked to files hosted on Parks Canada’s webpage (you can quickly see which ones by checking out the ‘view source’ option in your browser). Most are on the ParksCanadaHistory.com site, but yep, not all. If those links do change or are taken offline, they’ll start returning 404 not found errors. Most, however, are internally hosted by the site.

    There isn’t any real difference between JPEGs as opposed to PDF/Word Doc (the latter being an awful format to present historical documents, so I’m glad they’re not using it) in terms of controlling downloadability, but there isn’t a text layer in the former (so not searchable or indexed). From my clicking, they often do eventually end up as a PDF to actually download, even if embedded within a page. LAC often puts a wrapper around their material so it isn’t accessed directly, which is I think primarily for compliance with the Official Languages Act.

    A few countries do have legal deposit – the UK being one, as does France and a few others.

    Canada does, in their defense, does have a web archive as part of LAC. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/webarchives/index-e.html – they archive government web pages and are given powers around that in the Library and Archives Canada Act. There are some dead zones, and nothing post 2007 is online yet, but there have been recent crawls that’ll be up. So this is an archive – http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/webarchives/*/http://www.pc.gc.ca – and of course we have the Wayback Machine at http://web.archive.org/.

    So we do have archiving of government websites ongoing. I think legal deposit for all websites published in Canada or under the .ca top-level domain, while awesome for historians and something I would personally support, would be a tougher sell in the North American political climate.

  3. Robert Sears

    The reason that documents in French are missing is that the reports were done in one language and never translated. The cost of translation was a barrier to the reports being published. They were kept as internal documents with copies sent to a number of reference libraries, such as Toronto. The Friends of the Rideau have taken a number of the reports on the Rideau Canal and turned them into searchable CD books.

  4. Randall D. Payne

    About 20% of documents currently on-line are in French. As Robert Sears states, many documents were created in English-only (this is especially true for vintage documents), though our goal is to add more French-language content in the months/years to come (our update cycle is the first of every month).

    To address Nadine Hunt’s/Ian Milligan’s concerns, we’ve archived the Parks Canada documents which we currently link to, so should they vanish in the future, we can reload them locally and change our links to point to our local copies.

    Suggestions for improvement are ALWAYS welcomed. You can Email us at: info@parkscanadahistory.com.

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