The many problems with Canada’s freedom of information systems often centre on the present, the information governments should reveal about today’s issues but instead actively work to conceal.
Those problems – and the many fixes, if there were the political will – are illuminated throughout The Globe and Mail’s ongoing series, Secret Canada, an investigation into the state of freedom of information across the country. But there’s another pernicious and generally overlooked element to restrictions on freedom of information: learning from Canada’s history.
A year ago, as The Globe was preparing the Secret Canada project, journalists put out a general call to anyone who has struggled to wrest what should be public information from governments. There was a groundswell from an unexpected group, one that reporter Robyn Doolittle described on The Decibel last week as “hopping mad, salty, angry academics.” It might be a surprise that historians would get so agitated but they have ample reasons.
The problem is long-standing. This space in late 2021 started an editorial about problems with freedom of information with a truly absurd anecdote. A University of Toronto history professor had tweeted a snippet of the result of an access request he had filed. The redaction exemplified the culture of secrecy that runs rampant in governments across the country: sections of a 1959 speech in the House of Commons had been blanked out. It’s hard to believe but someone in Ottawa felt it necessary to redact Hansard. That record of our democracy is – news alert? – online and searchable, back to 1867, including the words Ottawa tried to hide from the eyes of a prying historian.
The episode is ridiculous but underscores the unending frustrations historians feel when trying to learn more deeply about Canada’s past. Last week’s Secret Canada piece begins with a historian who sought to understand a legal issue from the First World War, which seemed like a less fraught topic than her usual work on nuclear policy. Yet at every turn, the federal government conjured reasons to say no to the release of century-old information.
This has a quietly corrosive effect. Timothy Sayle, the U of T prof who received Hansard pages stamped with redactions, pointed out in last week’s piece that some students pursuing PhDs actively avoid Canadian history because the availability of material is seemingly random, with release of key documents skewing to no rather than yes. “Not being able to study the past,” Prof. Sayle said, “means we aren’t as prepared as a public, a government, and as a country, to make good policy decisions today.”
There is a better way. In June, the House standing committee on access to information published a report on potential remedies to the failings of the federal FOI system. The review began after Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard in 2022 provided a “rather bleak picture.”
The committee’s report devoted a section to historical documents and offered several smart recommendations. Among these were reforms to declassification, so more historical information is available for release and, most important, that Ottawa establish a framework for “the automatic release of historical documents that are more than 25 years old.”
The Liberal government in October said there would be no changes, further distancing themselves from their abandoned 2015 promise that “government data and information should be open by default, in formats that are modern and easy to use.”
Change needs to be a priority. Automatic release of older information is what’s called a sunset clause. After a set amount of time, records are, without a special request and an elongated assessment process, made publicly available, with a few exceptions.
Yet Canada does not have, as the Secret Canada investigation makes clear, an overarching strategy to release such records. This runs counter to standard practice among our closest allies, the United States included, as well as in countries such as France and Germany.
Boxes – literally – of our history sit out of sight, and far too often inaccessible, in a half-dozen archival storage sites. That’s bad for historians, and all Canadians.