In Praise of a Nondescript Government Facility (or, The Most Canadian Title Ever)

Nondescript government facility.

Alan MacEachern

As I drove deeper into a suburb in the small town of Matane on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, things got busier instead of quieter. More and more parked cars lined the streets. There were no sidewalks, so the many people walking were all in the street, all of them headed toward the same low-slung, nondescript office building in the distance. To anyone who has watched Stranger Things, or a Bond movie, or any number of movies or TV shows, it all screamed “top secret government facility.”

Which it was. Or if not “secret” at least “little-known.” And certainly under-appreciated.

In 1977, the government of Canada opened the René-Tremblay Building in Matane to be the terminal destination of all government cheques. It still takes in tens of millions of cheque stubs – staff told me proudly that any specific one could be retrieved within two minutes – retains them for six years, and shreds them. But the advent of direct deposit banking in the new millennium threatened the future of the facility – which, as a leading employer, threatened the future of the town. As a result, many of the staff retrained, and soon became some of the nation’s frontline experts on digitization. Starting with a single flatbed scanner, Matane’s Document Imaging Solutions Centre [DISC] has grown to become Canada’s principal facility for digitizing government material – including of historical material. If you’ve used or perused the First World War attestation papers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force online, for example, you know their work.

I visited Matane this summer because they are digitizing the Environment and Climate Change Canada [ECCC] meteorological archive that I helped bring to Western University in 2014: all the extant daily weather observations compiled by the Meteorological Service of Canada between 1870 and 1960, 900 boxes in all, an estimated 1.6 million pages. That long-term loan had happened at a moment when government department libraries and archives were under threat. ECCC (just EC then) had long ago squeezed whatever information it wanted to from the collection anyway, so as I’ve often said since, some folks in ECCC thought the collection priceless, others thought it worthless, and both thought it would be better off at Western. The funny thing is that the loan stirred up more interest within ECCC for the collection it was loaning, and as a result the department has found funds to digitize the material, with plans to make it available online as part of its new Canadian Centre for Climate Services climate data portal.

I had only worked on the collection alone or with a small number of Western students, so it was amazing to walk into DISC and see a whole team, an entire floor at work on it. (DISC has a great video of its workflow here.) Staff prep the documents, such as removing envelopes, staples and fasteners, etc., and fluffing the variably-sized forms in a “paper jogger,” my new favourite gadget. They scan them in one of their four high speed scanners, at a rate of more than 300 pages per minute, and return the documents to their original files in their original order. They create thorough metadata for the digital files per ECCC instructions.

The entrance, I was told, to a room storing classified material. Or perhaps a doomsday device.

And most amazingly, time-consumingly, they are doing data entry of all the material on the forms. Although ECCC had always used its observers’ quantitative remarks (such as temperature and precipitation), it had never figured out a way to use their qualitative remarks (such as indicating a sign of spring or that harvest was underway). It was these that Western students and I have been transcribing and tagging over the past few years, as a means of documenting how Canadians interpreted and described nature in the past, and to uncover proxy evidence of climate change. We had gotten through 45% of the collection when ECCC announced the digitization initiative, so we have teamed up to complete the project. DISC has access to our data, and we in return will get early access to theirs. The English-first-language academics and the French-first-language public servants are finding it helpful to have access to the other in deciphering century-old cursive.

As I looked over the shoulder of a row of DISC workers on computers doing quality assurance on the ECCC scans, I thought about the many layers to the historical enterprise, and how seldom we notice, let alone acknowledge, let alone collaborate with one another. Readers fail to credit the historian’s role, historians fail to credit the archivist’s, and everyone fails to credit those, such as DISC, who provide infrastructure.

Yet in employment terms, that may well be where much of the future lies. DISC has 450 on staff and is growing; there is a reason its parking lot is overflowing and that employees’ cars fill the streets nearby. Although I don’t pretend that historical training is a prerequisite for most jobs at DISC, the site serves as a reminder that there are opportunities to be involved in important history work far beyond the classroom. It is also a reminder to historians that, on the one hand, we have more resources and greater support behind us than ever before in human history, and that, on the other, we have to work harder than ever to advocate for our own jobs, to make the case that the artifacts and scanned documents will not simply speak for themselves.

Alan MacEachern teaches Canadian, environmental, and climate history at Western University. 

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