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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, in Ottawa, on Feb. 23, 2022.PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

Susan Colbourn is associate director of Duke University’s Program in American Grand Strategy. Simon Miles is assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Timothy Andrews Sayle is associate professor of history and director of the international relations program at the University of Toronto.

History, it seems, is on the minds of many in Ottawa these days.

In January, when Chrystia Freeland met U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in Washington, the Deputy Prime Minister came toting a copy of Dean Acheson’s memoirs Present at the Creation as a gift. Ms. Freeland believed that the writings of the former U.S. secretary of state – who had Canadian parents – offered lessons from the Second World War and the Cold War that could inform how today’s White House could use its economic tool kit in foreign affairs.

General Wayne Eyre, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, also told reporters last month that, after a year he described as “a turning point in the global order,” he has been urging planners at the Department of National Defence to turn to the past. “I often challenged the team to look at history,” he remarked in a recent interview. “What did we do in 1939?”

This kind of thinking from our leaders is heartening. The past can tell us a great deal about the present – and it can inform how we prepare for an uncertain future. But for those like Gen. Eyre who want to learn from the past to make better policy in the here and now, the history books to which we often turn – the works that can help us understand how Canada approached the world in the last half-century or more – have faced enormous obstacles.

A broken system of declassification and archival access is preventing Canadian historians from researching and writing about huge swaths of their own past. But it is also stopping Canadians – and the Canadian government – from learning from that history.

Over the decades, Canadians have seen the international order change around them, and we have adapted accordingly. We have seen wars approach, and we have fought and won them. We have played a role in helping to avert war, and we have negotiated ceasefires and trade deals. Understanding and applying how Canada responded to these moments of crisis in the past helps today’s Canadians – in and out of government – learn from the past.

Looking to the past can shed light on the origins of contemporary problems. It can offer useful points of comparison to identify what makes present problems different from those of decades past, warning against faulty analogy; it can also reveal which challenges remain largely the same, such that historical policy successes and failures could be an invaluable guide.

The current Access to Information regime makes that all but impossible for some topics in Canada’s postwar history, particularly questions of national security: foreign and defence policy, as well as intelligence activities at home and abroad. With no mandatory declassification of historical documents, records languish for decades tucked away in vaults. Students and scholars working in archives face long delays and unnecessary barriers to their work because of an overly bureaucratic and cautious Access to Information system that forces them to make arduous and specific requests.

The knock-on effects of this inefficient and secretive system are deeply damaging. Students and scholars need access to the archival record to write history. Other countries do a better job of releasing their historical records, and as a result, Canadian historians often end up having to study American or British or even Soviet history for salient Canadian details, because it is so much easier to study their own country from afar.

It all adds up to fewer histories about Canada and its place in the world. And it means that Canada’s leaders are deprived of historical insight that can help them meet today’s challenges.

Historians have long been sounding the alarm on the drawbacks of the Access to Information regime and the damage those restrictions are doing to the study of Canadian history, even as decision-makers in Canada like Ms. Freeland and Gen. Eyre clearly recognize the importance of history to policy-making. If Canadian leaders truly wish to “look at history,” they must recognize the importance of making Canada’s historical record available to historians.

Help us investigate Canada’s broken Freedom-of-Information regimes. We’re looking to speak with people who use and interact with the system at all levels of government. Are you a current or former FOI analyst? A public servant? A citizen, academic, researcher or advocate who has filed requests? Are you a current or former appeals adjudicator? A lawyer with experience in this area of law? We want to talk to you. You can get in touch with us at

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