The Federal Court has ordered the government to reconsider its decision to withhold parts of a secret RCMP dossier on socialist trailblazer Tommy Douglas.
Federal Court Justice Simon Noel has given Library and Archives Canada 90 days to consider what additional information it ought to release in response to a request by The Canadian Press.
Judge Noel said the archives did not live up to its obligations under the Access to Information Act when journalist Jim Bronskill requested files on Douglas six years ago.
“It is disappointing that the act's intent and the [archives']mandate have not been given their true scope, notably as this file concerns an influential and prominent Canadian, Mr. Thomas Clement Douglas,” Judge Noel concluded in a 90-page ruling issued on Thursday.
Judge Noel raised doubts about the government's argument for blocking the release of the documents – that it would compromise national security and encumber the work of Canada's spy agency.
“It is clear that this decision should in no way be interpreted as downplaying concerns about the identification of human sources or important national-security concerns such as current operational interests,” the ruling states.
“Rather, this case addresses how the passage of time can assuage national security concerns. Furthermore, this case highlights the importance of transferring information to the public domain for the benefit of present and future Canadians as well as our collective knowledge and memory as a country.”
The federal government has refused to disclose the complete file on the former Saskatchewan premier and one-time federal NDP leader, who is widely seen as the father of Canada's public health-care system.
The archives, which holds the 1,142-page file, initially released about 400 heavily censored pages in response to a request by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Mr. Bronskill went to court to force greater disclosure after the federal Information Commissioner agreed with the government that most of the dossier should be kept from public view.
The government partly lifted the shroud of secrecy before a February court hearing by releasing hundreds of additional pages, although they too were heavily edited.
The material released to date shows the RCMP Security Service shadowed Douglas for decades, attending his speeches, analyzing his writings and eavesdropping on private conversations.
The Mounties, who were responsible for domestic security until Canadian Security Intelligence Service was created in 1984, tracked Douglas from the late 1930s to shortly before his death in 1986.
His links to the peace movement and Communist party members were of particular interest.
The government maintained that full disclosure of the Douglas file would jeopardize the country's ability to detect, prevent or suppress “subversive or hostile activities” and could give away secrets of the spy trade.
Douglas's daughter, the actress Shirley Douglas, supported Mr. Bronskill's court challenge, and said she was pleased it was successful.
“I believe in a country that has much more transparency than we do here,” Ms. Douglas said in an interview. “I came out of a generation that saw countries close down in Europe because nobody was watching.”
Judge Noel wrote that Canadians have much to learn about Douglas, and that access to information benefits all “whether the subject of the request is well-known or not.”
The Canadian Historical Association welcomed the ruling as a positive step that would help remove obstacles to historians’ ability to tell Canada's story.
“We were concerned that this was one of a number of cases that had emerged over the last many years in which historians and writers had tried to get access to information and been denied it by CSIS,” said Craig Heron, the association's past president, who was also an expert witness for The Canadian Press in the case.
“It was erratic, and there seemed to be no logic behind the patterns of release and a mindset of resistance to releasing information.”
Getting access to archival information about a major national figure will help Canadians better understand their country, he said.
“The kinds of procedures that were in place to block that access means it's been more difficult for us to write that history and make Canadians aware of what went on in the past.”
Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press, said he hopes the archives will comply with the ruling and release the additional documents.
“There is no logical reason to withhold so much of the information after all these years,” he said. “To do so, is to deny Canadians a piece of their history.’
The files would likely shed new light on Canada's Cold War history and “should set a precedent to ease access to thousands of these types of historical RCMP surveillance files.”
A spokeswoman for the archives said their lawyers were reviewing the ruling but had no further comment.
As the case progressed, it was discovered that dozens of pages of Douglas's file had mysteriously disappeared.
Judge Noel ordered the archives to make sure it did not have other records about Douglas that it had not previously disclosed.