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David Matas is senior counsel to B’nai Brith Canada. He is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Monitoring Access to Archives Project.

The Canadian Access to Information system has broken down. The dysfunctional nature of the system is highlighted by the difficulty in accessing Holocaust records.

The Holocaust ended in 1945, more than 78 years ago. The Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals, headed by Justice Jules Deschênes, completed its work in 1986, almost 37 years ago. The Canadian effort to bring Nazi war criminals to justice has ended. The survivors are fast disappearing.

Though the records in Canada of the Holocaust and its perpetrators are old, their release is urgent. We will soon no longer be able to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive through the testimony of survivors – we will have to rely on the records. Yet, efforts to get the release of Holocaust-related records have gone nowhere.

Ottawa spent $90-million in 2021 on strained access-to-information program

Remembering the Holocaust means not just remembering the victims. It means also remembering their murderers. We need access to the report written by Alti Rodal for the Deschênes Commission, titled Nazi War Criminals in Canada: The Historical and Policy Setting from the 1940s to the Present. It was written to be public in its entirety, but has been released subject only to inexplicable extensive deletions. Part II of the Deschênes Commission report, addressing individual cases, has not been made public. And the hundreds of Nazi war crimes files originally held by the Department of Justice and Royal Canadian Mounted Police are inaccessible.

Canada is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The Alliance’s 2000 Stockholm Declaration commits the signatories to “take all necessary steps to facilitate the opening of archives in order to ensure that all documents bearing on the Holocaust are available to researchers.” The Alliance’s Monitoring Access to Archives Project recommended in 2017 that governmental archival institutions “release Holocaust related records, irrespective of any personal identifying information or national security classifications.” Yet, Canada is not respecting these commitments.

B’nai Brith Canada filed a request for Nazi war crimes related records in January, 2022, to Library and Archives Canada. A year and a half later, the institution has yet to provide a date by which the request would be processed.

In February, 2022, B’nai Brith Canada asked the Department of Justice for the files of all Nazi war crimes relating to people who died more than 20 years ago, the period after which privacy protection expires. The department replied that “it does not have the capabilities” to respond to the request.

B’nai Brith Canada then modified its request to ask for only those Nazi war crimes files of the people named by the Deschênes Commission, excluding cases that went to court, and persons not yet dead for 20 years. The Department of Justice responded in July, 2022, that it would take 1,285 days, that is to say more than three-and-a-half years, to answer the request.

Canada’s information laws are preventing us from understanding our own history

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, in its report dated June 20, made a number of welcome recommendations, one of which was the automatic release of historical documents that are more than 25 years old. The federal government has so many documents and so little staff and budget allocated to deal with them that the only way to make the access to information system work is to automatically release whole categories of records. Requiring consideration of each and every document to determine whether any one of a long list of exemptions to disclosure applies is a recipe for inaction.

Philosopher George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet, we cannot remember a past that remains hidden from us. To remember the past, we have to know the past.

Only through public access to Holocaust archives can we learn lessons from those archives. Learning lessons from the Holocaust is a legacy we can create for the victims, giving meaning to the senseless death of innocents. To learn those lessons, we need access to the archives.

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