Canada’s Secret Archives

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Dennis Molinaro

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By now the story of Canada’s secret archive has made the news. I will take the time in this post to elaborate more on what I found and why I think it matters to everyone.

This began during my search for documents pertaining to wiretapping in the Cold War. My early research finds made news in December 2016 and January 2017. The discovery of P.C. 3486 and the PICNIC wiretapping program led to a search for more material. The early indications were that this wiretapping went on for decades and that a paper trail had to exist. The RCMP paid rent to Bell for the wiretapping, so where were the financial records, the transcripts of calls, the warrants that were issued, etc.? To my dismay, a thorough search at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) involving the aid of the Information Commissioner’s office led to nothing. Where were these records?

I decided to try something different. I filed Access to Information (ATI) requests to every institution that I could think of that may still have material. This included: the Privy Council Office (PCO), RCMP, CSIS, National Defence, Department of Justice, Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and Global Affairs. Some preliminary searches came up negative, some places never replied. In most cases I asked the Commissioner’s office to intervene to expedite the search.

In the course of the search I learned more, such as that Global Affairs had some sort of facility in Saskatchewan that contained historical documents, enough that an archivist was needed. Some institutions like CSE wanted me to take other documents in lieu of abandoning my request because they thought it so broad that it would impede their function (something I assumed could only occur if they had too many documents); other institutions asked for a year extension because they had too much, and PCO told me they initially found 147 boxes of material. That’s usually enough material (if most of it is research rich) to give someone a decade worth of work.

One of the biggest problems I faced was that institutions wanted more specifics on what I was looking for. I told them my general research direction but as part of my request for “wiretapping files” from the Cold War, I also asked for the names of files in these institutions possession that pertained to my subject: in essence I wanted a list. If I had that, I could be specific, but no one wanted to provide one, except PCO which asked for more time but the time extensions became unreasonable. PCO then told me they actually had 1.6 million documents pertaining to my research. It was at that point I decided the public needed to know how bad this situation was.

After receiving the PCO’s letter, I wondered if this was some sort of secret archive. Could it be considered secret if I was told by the government that it had 1.6 million documents? My answer is: if it isn’t a secret archive, where’s the “finding aid,” i.e. the list of what’s in there? When historical documents are kept outside of the public archives, archivists are working outside the public archives, no one in the general public is permitted to know the contents, and there’s a separate system that has been developed for storing and sorting this information, what else can it be called other than a secret archive or archives?

Library & Archives Canada stacks. Photo: LAC.

I’m still not sure why I was given this information (the 1.6 million document figure): only PCO can answer that. The usual reply would be that “your request is too broad, narrow it down,” or some such refrain. I can only speculate that the previous CBC attention to my research may have influenced the institution’s decision to try and say something to the effect of “look we have a lot and we can’t do this” and to be specific about why, perhaps not recognizing that a historian would not only be upset about delays and not getting access as much as the fact that an institution outside of the archives would be in possession of all this historical material.

Given PCO’s response when I asked about the secret order back in the fall of 2016, which was that the existence of the document couldn’t be confirmed or denied, I’m guessing that had I not been to the CBC over that incident, I may have had a similar response this time around too. My guess is they did not understand the importance of this and that speaks to a bigger problem about what the government thinks of history.  But as I said, I can’t definitively offer an answer on this. Revealing that there is lots of material is not the equivalent of making something “public,” because the contents and many details about what is held, how much and where are all still unknown. All we know is that we’re dealing in the millions of documents.

It’s also worth noting that I didn’t ask for anything current. I wanted material older than 30 years, and in some instances to help the staff searching, I even stated I would take material pre-CSIS, i.e. before 1984. There are also millions of documents that don’t pertain to my research but pertain to a host of other topics. What else is in these collections? It’s also worth pointing out that I don’t blame ATIP staff for any of this. They were doing their job helping me and found themselves in this situation of having to process and handle all this archival material likely because of a mix of secrecy, hoarding, and government neglect. Secrecy led to material being hidden, inertia and neglect took over, and secrecy protected neglect and the inertia.  The reasons why this situation exists are ultimately not important right now, because the end result is the same: a massive amount of material exists outside of where it should be.

While people can debate about when material should be made public, what is much more difficult to debate is where material should be. If a file is particularly sensitive it could be kept classified for a longer period of time, and more security can be created to protect files at the archives, but at least if it’s in the archives people know it actually exists. The legacy that the current government has inherited and maintained to date is much more Orwellian and anti-democratic in that by keeping documents secluded and “off the books” so to speak, they are hiding history. A nation’s history is central to people understanding themselves and is a critical component to a healthy democracy. If citizens have no right to see their history and access it, what does that mean for citizen access and accountability in the present? What kind of governments hide their history from their people?

These are the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes not democracies. The existence of these secret archives that the state has created, either out of secrecy or neglect–or both–speaks loudly. Particularly in the year of Canada’s 150th, we see a government claiming to “celebrate” Canada’s history, while at the same time all the documents that are either inconvenient to the government’s view of history are hidden, or the government doesn’t care enough about history to treat these documents as they should be treated and turn them over to the general public.

Either way, the result is a fragmented history, one in which gaps in the historical record have become too common and it speaks to successive governments that have either neglected our past or sought to control it to preserve its image of the country as it sees fit. Whatever the reasons the results are the same and are intolerable. It is a situation that every historian of every political stripe should oppose as well as all academics. The archives are not just a place for historians. They are a place for all academics to do research, a place for the public and the country to learn and discover themselves – warts and all. They are reflective of what the country has been and is today. What has happened with all this hoarding is a perversion of that, and of the laws that are supposed to exist to protect citizen access to government documents and preserve the country’s history.

Take a moment and sign the petition I launched below which calls on the government to return historical material to LAC where it rightfully belongs, and to reform both the Access to Information Act and Library and Archives Canada Act to ensure this doesn’t continue. For the ATI Act to work it requires that institutions are transparent about what they hold. Among other changes, the Information Commissioner needs more power to acquire documents when government is not being transparent and the archivist needs more power to acquire documents rather than the current system which relies on side deals with institutions. They have clearly used this system to their own benefit and not the benefit of the people. When a law that is supposed to provide citizens with access to documents is being used to help hide them (ex. “be specific in what you want out of 1.6 million documents you can’t see”) and a law that establishes Canada’s national archives is being used to quietly justify secret archives, we have a serious problem. The LAC Act anticipates the direct transfer of material from government departments, institutions and agencies to the National Archivist and, therefore, the practice of holding back such transfers thwarts the spirit and letter of the Act and undermines the role of LAC as a central repository for the documentary heritage of Canada.

I’m hoping that this government fixes this mess and finds itself on the right side of history. They should understand, as previous governments did not, that history doesn’t belong to governments, it belongs to Canadians. It’s your history and you have a right to access it.

Dennis Molinaro teaches history at Trent University and is the author of An Exceptional Law: Section 98 and the Emergency State, 1919-1936 (UTP, 2017). The original version of this post appeared on his blog, The Surveillance Citizen.


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8 thoughts on “Canada’s Secret Archives

  1. Ian Milligan

    It’d be great if could try to run a piece from an archivist – you can find quite a few on Twitter – which might help contextualize this. Framing these as “secret” archives is unnecessarily sensationalist.

  2. Dennis Molinaro

    Have to disagree. It’s the government that is making it so. Institutions are still refusing to speak about the amount of historical material they have. Why? When a document from 1951 is only released to me after going to the national media, and documents from that era are still not being transferred, and they won’t even discuss the contents, we have a multi-layered issue of neglect, underfunding, unecessary secrecy. We need legislative changes and funding changes.

  3. Ian Milligan

    I think my disagreement is too complex to articulate in the comments section, and I don’t want to speak for my librarian and archivist colleagues who understand these things far more than I do.

    But I guess your argument here “Could it be considered secret if I was told by the government that it had 1.6 million documents? My answer is: if it isn’t a secret archive, where’s the “finding aid,” i.e. the list of what’s in there?” strikes me as naive. Making a finding aid for 1.6 million documents isn’t trivial. Small and medium-sized archives that I’ve worked with struggle with backlogs on far smaller scales.

    There are serious deficiencies in funding, so yes, I’d agree that we need a massive investment in our cultural heritage – but in the meantime, I think still think framing archival backlogs as “secret archives” is unhelpful.

  4. Dennis Molinaro

    PCO told me they could do a list in 2 weeks but didn’t have approval to release it so no it isn’t naive. That’s a big assumption and one made without asking me first about it and on a public forum. There’s a reason there’s 1.6 million pages there and yes it has to do with backlog and underfunding and all those issues and no one is saying that archivists don’t work hard, don’t deserve more and that the system isn’t in dissaray. If anything I’m hoping this will help. But those documents were withheld from the archives for a reason – exemptions. Files that I have been dealing with were never intended to be transferred. OICs can be secret and cabinet confidences even more so. That’s secrecy and it’s excessive when applied to 70 year old documents. And again, if it’s not secret, then let the government clarify and explain but so far no one wants to do that. So yes the system is in tatters but to date that conversation has been held behind closed doors as one institution points a finger at the other because of finding issues and other problems. But the government thus far has wanted that conversation held out of the public eye and that’s what we are calling out here because it affects our ability to do our work. So if it’s not secret, tell people what is being held, why, how will it be cleaned up, what sort of funding will be provided to do it and what legislation will be tabled to resolve it long term. I don’t think that a bad thing.

  5. Dennis

    What has gotten lost in this is ATI reform. This act and system helps perpetuate excessive secrecy and puts people into an adversarial relationship. You ask for information, govt tell you to be specific, you ask what they have, are told it’s too much, but they won’t tell you what is there either so if you can’t be specific go away is the reply. Intolerable situation.

  6. Dennis

    This was added to the original post on my site:

    Since this story has come out about this issue there has been some discussion as to whether using the term “secret archives” was sensationalist. I can’t speak for CBC but I can speak for myself and what I know. So first, it’s quite ludicrous to think that the CBC didn’t speak to archivists, they did, I know this because I read the online article, the director general Robert McIntosh appeared in CBC’s coverage, other archivists also spoke to CBC as CBC acknowledged online, but many currently working do not want to speak publicly for a variety of reasons. Why try and continually make accusations archivists weren’t consulted? To force people out to face reprisals?

    It is easier for retired archivists to speak out but even still many don’t want to deal with the subject of security exempted material and that’s what this story has mainly dealt with. To try and draw a distinction between funding cuts at the federal archives and access to material in this case, as if it’s an “ether or” scenario is disingenuous, misleading and a false distinction. When dealing with security exempted material the issue of archival reform and access to material are not separate and distinct issues but rather they are intimately connected and one fuels the other. Security exempted material began accumulating during the Cold War (we think) and funding cuts, halting of reviews during the Mulroney years, and the power individual institutions had to retain records from the archivists led to hoarding. Secrecy and lack of access has made the issue one that was fought largely behind closed doors. Have former archivists not made the lack of funding issue and backlog issue known? Of course they have and historians did as well, often publicly calling out the government for its repeated cuts to LAC. Historians are not oblivious to the low morale and sad state of affairs and they certainly don’t blame public servants for that or expect more of them. But who was making it known that the government was also hiding documents that pertained to domestic wiretapping operations and had been keeping it out of public sight for decades? No one, because no one could, and that’s the issue here along with the issue of the accumulation of material and lack of funding. The story was about trying to get security exempted documents. The implications of it are to ask what else beyond security exempted files is being held and how are security exemptions being decided? In the UK, the illegal and embarrassing actions of colonial officers from the 19th century started their hoarding process. How far back in Canada’s history did this start? We can’t answer this if we don’t know what’s there. The public and historians are told to be specific when making ATI requests, but how can you do that when these historical events, like domestic wiretapping programs, were never made public? When no one except those familiar with the material know the material exists what do you ask for? “Can I have the files that shall not be named?” Seriously, how is that not a secret? I would welcome anyone to try to request unknown material. Let me know how that works out. Because of this situation, more creative ways at getting at the material were needed.

    Does that make it conspiratorial on the government’s part? Of course not and to suggest it is conspiratorial because material is secretly held is utterly foolish. Every country has exempted and secret material. Every country has material that is sensitive for security reasons that can’t be made public. The issue is: when does that end? The issue is excessive secrecy applied to these files and for too long a period of time and an ATI Act that is now being used to deny access to both current and past material rather than grant it. Canada is far worse at this than other countries. Not confirming or denying the existence of a 70 year old document is just plain silly. The inconsistency in releases is staggering and apparent to frequent users of the ATI. When I discovered PCO had 1.6 million wiretapping related documents did I expect a list of holdings right away? Of course not. I was told they had this after I asked for a list. Frankly, I didn’t know who had what or how much. How could I? The timeline I was given by them was 2 weeks but the release was held up for security reviews and “consultations.” The public doesn’t know what’s going on, it could be because the material is unsorted, but to those on the outside of the process, the effect is the same, we still can’t see the material, we still don’t know the extent of the holdings of the government outside of LAC, so yes it’s still a secret archives. People can speculate on the internet all they want about what they think the reasons are for delays and refusals but all you see as a requester of the information is the refusal. If you want that to change, sign the petition. Let’s change the legal framework and then push for the funding to implement it and clean it up, and no I don’t want current material released unless it’s in the public interest to release it. I want more power for the Commissioner’s office, more for the archivist to acquire documents and not always have to be deferential to institutions, as well as having section 69 of the ATI function the same as other exemptions rather than the “not applicable” status PCO confidences currently have. Some just want to speak about neglect and lack of funding when speaking of this story, and not the inability to get at the material, but that inability and excessive secrecy on exempted material along with lack of funding and neglect has led us here. It’s great to bring up funding and it’s a good opportunity to do so, but while this story dealt with hoarding, it was also focusing on security exempted material and access to it. What else is there isn’t known. If someone does know, I’d be happy to hear from them and suggestions on what to request. Archivists and historians need to be allies. We are all concerned about our heritage, as well as our ability to know that heritage, access it, and hold our past to account. There are no longer any good reasons for keeping all this material from our past a secret and to not fix all the issues that led to it.

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