Closing Doors on Canada’s History

On June 19, 2012, David McGuinty, Liberal Member of Parliament for Ottawa South, rose during Question Period to ask which federal departments or agencies have closed or will be closing their libraries and what is the rationale for such closures. In posing these questions, McGuinty spotlighted a development that has been quietly underway for months and will seriously impede research and undermine our understanding of Canada’s history.

To date, libraries at the Immigration and Refugee Board, Transport Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada, Public Service Commission, National Capital Commission, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canadian International Development Agency have been closed. Other libraries are scheduled for imminent closure. In still others, staff are being drastically cut.

Even when forward-looking library managers take into account the reality of digital publishing and act accordingly, they and their staff, to say nothing of outside researchers, cannot but deplore the consignment of valuable books, documents and photos to basements, where they will be out of reach of researchers and in danger of being lost forever.

An example of a unique document destined for oblivion is cited by Michael Molloy, president of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society. This University of Ottawa Senior Fellow is researching the development of Canada’s refugee policy in the critical period between 1969, when Canada signed the UN Refugee Convention, and 1978, when a revised Immigration Act was implemented.

According to Molloy, developments in refugee policy at the Cabinet level can be tracked online, but the critical decisions made by Cabinet were communicated to immigration officials in an “Operations Memorandum” inserted in an immigration officer’s instruction manual. “These instructions,” reports Molloy, “governed how Canada resettled refugees from Chile, Uganda, Eastern Europe and the early phase of the Indochinese refugee movement and had a profound impact on Canadian refugee procedures down to this day. So far as we know, only one copy of the Ops Memorandum still exists: in the Immigration department’s library, which has closed.” At this writing, it is unclear what is to become of historical material of this sort when other libraries close.

Other irreplaceable documentation slated for oblivion deals with Canada’s labour history, no small part of any country’s heritage. These documents are held by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s library, which has also closed.

These closures and service reductions are ostensibly part of the Harper Government’s budget control measures. Unfortunately, the Government of Canada and federal policymakers often don’t consider the implications of the wanton dismissal of print material. They don’t seem to realize that a huge body of literature does not exist on the Internet. This includes older documents and the pay-per-use literature of academia.

Nor do these federal decision-makers register that librarians are still the best search engines. Many people don’t know how to search the Internet expeditiously or even where to begin a search. With the loss of government librarians, civil servants seeking reports and other background material or researching their own reports will have to rely solely on their own research skills. This will result in less informed reports with the regrettable implications this has for policy formulation.

In short, no matter what type of format is consulted, skilled and knowledgeable librarians have provided quick and efficient research access to the information federal government policy analysts and researchers need. And this should continue to be the case so that their advice to ministers on matters affecting Canadians is well-founded.

These librarians have also been an invaluable resource to outside researchers who are interested in bringing to light the background to public policy.

The statue of Arthur Doughty on the terrace at the back of the Library and Archives Canada building overlooking the Ottawa River. Arthur Doughty was Dominion Archivist from 1904 to 1936. While serving in this capacity, he wrote: “Of all national assets, archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.” Doughty must be spinning in his grave now!

Claiming the need to cut costs, the government has also been slowly and stealthily wrecking Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the flagship of Canada’s heritage-keepers. At LAC, over 30 archivists’ and librarians’ positions are being axed, which in turn is leading to a reduction in programs, one involving the acquisition of new archival holdings.

Already dozens of documents, photos and artifacts so essential to the preservation of Canada’s history are not being acquired. Moreover, Daniel Caron, who was appointed Librarian and Archivist of Canada on April 24, 2009, has gutted the private acquisitions program (the papers of politicians, other individuals, arts groups, organizations, etc.) in order to focus on the government’s agenda: record-keeping improvements in government institutions.

Thanks to the cutting last April of a federal government grant program, part of $9.6 million in reductions to LAC, efforts to preserve Canadian history in small historical archives and museums in dozens of communities across the country are threatened. According to Braden Cannon, special projects archivist at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, many jobs will be lost and projects shelved. Previously, the program helped to support First Nations, religious and historical archives.

Archives are about a nation’s memory. They help to illuminate our history and to make governments accountable.

Government records and the records of private institutions have played an important role in the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has been listening to the testimony
of residential school victims. Archival material has also figured in Japanese-Canadian redress and the tainted blood scandal inquiry.

Budget slashing is also making LAC’s holdings less accessible to researchers of all stripes, including genealogists researching family history, journalists, historians, novelists and playwrights.

Since interlibrary loans were completely eliminated on December 11, 2012, readers wishing to consult books found only on LAC shelves will have to consult them on-site at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. And those who can go to LAC will find that hours and services have been drastically cut.

The Harper Government falsely claims the cuts won’t affect service to Canadians as LAC is putting as much of its collection online as possible. What the Government of Canada fails to mention is that only a minuscule percentage of the LAC collection is online and that LAC documents online can be incomplete and of little use to a researcher. One can therefore question whether digitization is all that it is held out to be. In any event, with all the staff cuts, digitization’s progress at LAC is being severely hampered.

To date, the federal Tory government has demonstrated an aversion to evidence-based policy and a dislike of public access to information. So we have to wonder if its treatment of its own libraries and
archives is a reflection of this. Whether or not this is the case, we can only hope that library closures will soon stop and that policies in effect at LAC and government departmental libraries will be altered to protect Canada’s knowledge base and heritage.


Top Photo: The main Library and Archives Canada building on Wellington Street.

All Photos: David Knowles