Timothy Andrews Sayle is associate professor of history at the University of Toronto. Vincent Rigby is a visiting professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy and a former national security and intelligence adviser to the Prime Minister. Norman Hillmer is Chancellor’s Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University. Alan Barnes is a former member of the intelligence community and is currently a senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
The Information Commissioner of Canada has sounded the alarm: The Access to Information Act is in crisis.
Various government departments have been flooded with requests by Canadians citing their right to information – with most met by significant delays. The Commissioner’s Office received a record number of complaints last year. The Globe and Mail has launched an investigation, and the House of Commons standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics has said that it has the problem in its sights.
Yet, while much attention is being directed at the lack of transparency surrounding current government records, another one of the act’s major failings is that it makes no allowance for historical research. It does not recognize that most decades-old documents, once deservedly kept secret, can be released without doing any harm at all to the government or to Canadians.
Historical records, and the accounts that are written based on them, are a vital way for Canadians to understand their world as it exists now. But these important parts of Canada’s past are being kept hidden by an act of Parliament so restrictive that researchers cannot do their legitimate work. The Access to Information Act needs to be reformed.
Our allies offer a way forward, particularly our major partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network. They see the value in sharing parts of their intelligence agencies’ history with their citizens. The websites of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency in the United States contain millions of declassified documents and histories detailing analyses, policies and operations. Researchers can easily download the records of the Security Service, or MI5, from the National Archives of the United Kingdom.
But our allies’ approach to documents goes well beyond declassification. In Britain, MI5, MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service), GCHQ (the signals intelligence agency) and the Joint Intelligence Committee have all authorized books, written by professional historians, to detail their past. The Australians, for their part, have sponsored major histories of their foreign and domestic intelligence organizations.
In Canada, the situation is exactly the opposite. The vast majority of the country’s national security and intelligence historical records, and many of the records related to foreign and defence policy, are inaccessible. Canada has no workable system to declassify documents that are no longer sensitive.
Instead, all records related to Canada’s national security and intelligence are doomed to stay secret unless a researcher laboriously requests specific documents under the Access to Information Act. Even then, such requests are treated as slowly and meticulously as those pertaining to today’s secret documents – as if files more than half a century old might reveal something about the Canadian government’s policies and actions in 2022.
The result is an embarrassing and wasteful system in which the federal government frequently makes confusing and contradictory decisions about the information it chooses to release. Too often, Access to Information Act requests for historical records are neglected because of limited resources in the bureaucracy, leading to long delays or no disclosure at all, and a costly follow-up investigation by the Information Commissioner’s office. Everyone loses in this battle: the government, the requester and all Canadians.
Ottawa should establish a declassification framework, separate from the overtaxed Access to Information Act, that would pro-actively and consistently identify which types of historical documents can reasonably be made available to the public. This is not difficult: We can borrow ideas directly from our closest allies, which offer clear and public explanations about what information will be released and when.
Such an organized approach to declassification would be much less expensive to operate than the current access regime, and it would also lighten the bureaucracy’s request burden. But perhaps more crucially, reforms to disclose more information about Canada’s national security and intelligence history will help Canadians better understand the threats that have faced their country and how the government seeks to protect us.
Declassification is an opportunity to strengthen our national security institutions and to build Canadians’ trust in them. It is also an opportunity to open up critical chapters of Canada’s history.