Unfortunately for historians, some of Canada’s secrets never get old.
Ask historians of Canada what their favourite number is and the answer is likely to be ninety — especially if they’re in Ottawa.
That’s because in the numerological system that governs this country’s national archives, ninety means a given collection is open for consultation. You have only to order it and, short of the delivery truck breaking down on its way from the Gatineau warehouse to the Wellington Street reading room, you’ll be moiling for historical gold in no time.
But pity the poor sods whose interests lead them to collections otherwise designated. Drawing eighteens or thirty-twos gives you a weak historical hand: Those numbers mean access is restricted. Analysts in the Access to Information and Privacy division of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) have to review the files to decide if and what you can see, applying the Access to Information Act.
Because the review process can take a good deal of time, some of us fold in the face of eighteens and thirty-twos, choosing to use only what’s already available or shifting the focus of our inquiries, researching topics where access isn’t an issue.
But as Kenny Rogers says, “You gotta know when to hold ’em” as well as when to fold ’em. Jim Bronskill is just that kind of gambler. A journalist specializing in security and intelligence issues, Bronskill filed for access to the RCMP files on former Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas (1904–1986). After a delay of over a year, 1,142 pages of material landed on his desk in December 2006.
And what a riveting story they told: The Mounties tailed the former Baptist minister well into the 1970s, going to his speeches, listening in on his conversations, collecting his writings, and keeping track of his associates, especially the peaceniks and pinkos. In the eyes of the Cold War state, members of Canada’s peace movement, as well as the Communist Party, were potential subversives. Douglas wasn’t the only public figure to fall under the RCMP’s encompassing gaze: Fellow traveller Dr. Norman Bethune got lots of attention, as did former prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson.
As interesting as this was, even more tantalizing were all those black lines that decorated the pages. About a third of the material Bronskill got was blacked out for reasons of national security and privacy. Hundreds of other pages, some dating to the 1930s, remain completely off limits. Bronskill tried to find out what he hadn’t been allowed to see and appealed LAC’s decision to withhold parts of the Douglas file to Canada’s information commissioner. When that proved unsuccessful, he sued the federal government in the fall of 2009, asking the court to order the release of the records.
One of the more surprising things to emerge during the subsequent Federal Court hearing in the spring of 2010 is the involvement of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). It seems Canada’s spy agency takes an active interest in history. Its interventions, as much as those of Library and Archives Canada, influence how and what we know of our past.
Although LAC holds RCMP material, as it does the historical records of all federal departments and agencies, intelligence files are subject to extra oversight. They might have sent some of their old files to Wellington Street, giving them a good scrub first, but the spymasters still play a role in determining who can see them. After Bronskill made his request, LAC sent the Douglas file back to the spy agency, where their access to information analysts made recommendations for redaction before returning it to the archives. At that point, the archives’ own analysts reviewed the file and CSIS’s recommendations before making a final determination about what information would be released.
Bronskill and The Canadian Press news agency argue that the restrictions imposed by CSIS and LAC are excessive. Putting aside the question of whether Tommy Douglas was ever a threat to national security, the danger posed now by allowing researchers access to his RCMP file is minimal. The methods of surveillance that were used to monitor Douglas have surely been surpassed, and the people who informed on him are likely dead. It’s hard to imagine how disclosure would compromise the current intelligence operations of the Canadian state or breach any individual’s right to privacy.
These arguments are convincing, and the stakes are high. As Bronskill and his lawyers point out, democracy depends on the free flow of information. Transparency is the best guarantee of accountability. Governments need to know that we’ll know what they get up to, and that knowledge, in theory, limits the arbitrary exercise of power.
Unfortunately, in reporting on the case, Bronskill’s fellow journalists have chosen to focus on the sensational rather than on the serious. It’s shocking to learn that the man who’d later be named the “Greatest Canadian” in a CBC contest was considered by the Mounties to be a potential threat to the country’s security. And there’s a certain satisfaction in expressing our collective indignation at seemingly unimaginative bureaucrats bent on enforcing the letter of the law. We shake our heads, ask each other, “how could they be so dumb?” and then forget about it. After all, a story about how the government is preventing the release of a pile of old documents dealing with a dead politician might be interesting and even entertaining, but it isn’t really relevant to my life, is it?
It is. What happened with Tommy Douglas’s RCMP security file raises important questions about knowledge and power as well as public culture. Access to information bears directly on the relationship between the state and its citizens and the quality of democracy we enjoy. We just don’t always know it.
Instead of fixating on the contents of the restricted files, we need to take a long, hard look at how that content came to be hidden in the first place. In a way, the release of redacted records has served the interests of the state: All that black ink has captured our attention, focussing it on finding out what’s been hidden, rather than how it came to be hidden in the first place.
If we’re interested in maintaining a healthy democracy, we need “to engage with hiddenness itself,” as the academic John Beck tells us in Dirty Wars. That means interrogating the institutions, processes, and material circumstances that govern and shape the flow of information. As Beck points out, “the freedom and transparency of democracy are underwritten by unseen and often unknowable powers.”
Engaging with hiddenness means understanding the workings of the bureaucracy around access to information, our version of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. We need to pay attention to boring stuff, like the relationship between the archives and other federal government departments, budgets, and workloads. For instance, the Federal Court hearing heard that the analyst assigned to the Douglas file was under some pressure to complete the review. Given the circumstances, it’s easy to imagine how that individual might have been tempted to accept CSIS’s recommendations about what to remove from the Douglas file without fully exercising her or his own independent judgment.
Engaging with hiddenness also means challenging the common sense assumptions that influence the work of analysts like CSIS’s access to information and privacy coordinator Nicole Jalbert. During the hearing last March, Jalbert was asked if there were guidelines to help analysts determine what information was sensitive and shouldn’t be disclosed because it bore on current security and intelligence operations. Her answer was no.
“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “When you are working in the milieu that we are working in, you are aware of what is relevant and what isn’t.”
Perhaps most fundamentally, engaging with hiddenness means demanding more of ourselves. The Access to Information Act is an act of Parliament. It’s something we’ve created — and can change. University of Ottawa professor and lawyer Amir Attaran, who represents Bronskill, observes that compared to the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada’s access to information provisions are the most restrictive. While there are likely many reasons for that, in part it reflects the country’s public culture: Canada doesn’t have a strong tradition of openness in government — and it won’t until we start demanding it.
It’s not that states can’t or shouldn’t keep secrets. We just need to make sure everyone knows in no uncertain terms why and how we’re going to do so, who can make those decisions, and what criteria they’ll use. Strong democracies expose how they hide things.