CBC Investigates Allegation that Government is Hoarding Canadian History in Secret Archives

    Jun 13, 2017

    Some Canadian historians say the federal government is putting the country's historical record at risk by hoarding documents in a secret archive that would make a stack taller than the CN Tower, according to a May 25 CBC report.

    Dennis Molinaro of Trent University discovered ministries and agencies are stockpiling millions of old papers instead of turning them over to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) for safekeeping and public access. Molinaro has launched a petition to convince the government to set them free.

    Additionally, the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) 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.

    According to CBC News, as part of his research, Molinaro sought governmental information about Canada's Cold War domestic spy and surveillance programs run by the RCMP. Last fall, the federal government initially refused his request for the papers (which were never transferred to the national archives) about 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 told him they would release the 1951 "secret order" that authorized the wiretapping program that targeted suspected Soviet spies and other subversives, signed by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent.

    Access-to-information officials have told Molinaro the Privy Council Office holds 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.

    "The government seems to be, in essence, running some kind of secret or shadow archive," Molinaro told CBC News.

    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 is quoted in the article. "What else is there on other topics? On Indigenous affairs and relations? What else is in different government institutions on a variety of topics?

    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) said it has 1,430 cubic feet of government records dating back many decades. PCO said transfer of these cabinet documents, discussion papers, and records to 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 that  it is also 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.

    On June 5, the Association of Canadian Archivists and the Association des Archivistes du Quebec  released a statement that supports the quest for more transparency and public access to such historical records. 

     This monthly advisory contains brief summaries of recent legislative and regulatory issues that may affect the management of records and information in Canada.

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