Robert Bothwell and John English are Canadian historians working on an oral political history project on the 1990s and the early 2000s.
The new year has brought about fascinating tidbits about Canada’s past – but no thanks, as usual, to our own archives.
Every January, the British press rings in the new year with revelations plucked from the fresh trove of remarkable confidential documents released under the Public Records Act, which declassifies most government files after 20 years. This year, the National Archives of Britain posted records dating from 2000 to 2001, when Tony Blair was prime minister and the Sept. 11 terror attacks occurred.
Those documents showed Mr. Blair asking then-U.S. president George W. Bush whether he could call him “George” – demonstrating the obsequiousness that earned him the epithet “Bush’s Poodle.” Between pats and tummy rubs, the records cover Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush’s reactions to the Sept. 11 attacks and the origins of the Iraq War – a great boon to our understanding of these events.
What piqued Canadian historians’ interest about these British releases was a conversation in February, 2001, between then-Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien and the visiting Mr. Blair. Quebec, always important in Mr. Chrétien’s thoughts, figured prominently, as did the previous month’s announcement that separatist premier Lucien Bouchard would resign. The “vicious but charming” Mr. Bouchard had been a “dangerous threat” to Canadian unity, Mr. Chrétien told Mr. Blair; his successor, Bernard Landry, was “vicious” like Mr. Bouchard, but while “always brilliant, rarely intelligent.”
Fresh off an election triumph, Mr. Chrétien was exuberant in the early months of that fateful year. Globalization, he said, had been “fabulous” for Canada, and NAFTA was working out well. The two also discussed U.S. policy on nuclear missile defence. Would it offend the new Russian leader, Vladimir Putin? Mr. Blair believed that “if handled with respect, Putin would be ok.” Mr. Chrétien worried that the Germans and the French would not be “ok” and that Mr. Putin could influence them.
As the two men talked, British note-takers scribbled away; today, we have their product. Despite the contemporary relevance of this exchange, the foundations of the British or Canadian state have not crumbled as a result of its release.
Thanks to an access-to-information system that one former senior government official called “underfunded and shambolic,” Canada’s historians have once again been left to rely on archives from abroad, in the hopes that a few relevant crumbs fall from their documentary feasts. And while the British government goes about its business, knowing that citizens are better informed about their government than they were on New Year’s Eve, an equivalent records release in Ottawa would likely prompt fainting in the office of the Clerk of the Privy Council, Janice Charette, who presides unhappily at the top of the system.
Among the many government departments that obstruct the distribution of information, it is Ms. Charette’s that has the worst record. Incredibly, it once blocked the declassification of prime minister John Diefenbaker’s speech on the cancellation of the Avro Arrow project – even though, unbeknownst to the censor, it had already been published in full more than six decades ago, in the public Hansard transcripts of House of Commons debates. In its mundane work, it has prevented the release of cabinet minutes recorded after 1980 – minutes that used to be released and posted online every year after 30 years of classification, until that practice was effectively ended in the mid-2000s.
Canadian media outlets once published articles shortly after New Year’s that reported on the latest revelations from transparent records, much as their British counterparts do. But we no longer have a 30-year rule, much less the 20-year one enjoyed in Britain. Canada has no system for mandatory release. And if our public servants do not understand the history they are a part of, they will know much less about what they are able to do in the present and future.
Maybe the federal government could draw an example, and a lesson, from Canada’s recent document dump about the “freedom convoy” and the ensuing proclamation of the Emergencies Act. As required by that law, Ottawa has made available thousands of pages of documents on a very sensitive issue – one that certainly involves the reputation and credibility of the government, if not the state. But dare we say that all parties have benefited from knowing how decisions were made? For once, we have been able to see how useful evidence-based contemporary history can be.
Of course, privacy and particularly sensitive cases may justify redaction and restriction. But the potential embarrassment of politicians or officials is not a statutory reason to hold records back. The British government still restricts certain records, but the batch it just released lacks the censorship that characterizes our releases. Indeed, in 2020, Canada’s censors blacked out the entire discussion of the Polish crisis of 1982, even though the Cold War has long been over.
We have yet to hear that Canadian relations with another country have ever been harmed by the proper release of records deemed historical. On the other hand, we do believe harm is being done by a culture of censorship and secrecy that is unbecoming of a modern Western democracy. The loss is ours.