A Country Without a History?: Dispatches from a Stuck Historian

Susan Colbourn

Access is the coin of the realm for historians. We rely on access to the records of individuals and agencies, using everything from scraps of paper and archived emails to meeting minutes and position papers. Where possible, we often hope to gain access to those intimately involved with our subject of research to hear their recollections – or to take advantage of records left behind by someone in years prior with that same kind of exclusive access.

Put simply, writing history requires sources. The glimpses into the past found in written records – the events they describe and the moods they capture – are what makes it possible for historians to figure out what happened, why it mattered, and why it’s worth revisiting and recounting today.

But what if the sources you need aren’t accessible?

This isn’t an abstract problem. Restrictions to archival access have made the headlines, thanks to pandemic closures. So, too, have the fundamental flaws of Canada’s Access to Information Act.

For me, the problem is also personal. I have spent the past few years squirreling away material to write a history of Canada’s Cold War.

There’s only one hitch: I don’t know if it will ever be possible for me to write that book.

At least not the way I would want to –– with a broad base of archival material to show how successive governments in Ottawa navigated the complexities of their world. Right now, the documents to do that just aren’t available.

Stacks of archival records from the Cold War remain inaccessible at Library and Archives Canada. Take, as just one example, this run of folders on the Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian states, starting with the first one in 1955. Open the tabs in the online catalogue and there’s a list of 32s. In other words, even though it’s been 67 years since the first conference, we still can’t see Canadian assessments regarding how and why this gathering might have mattered from Ottawa’s vantage point.

By the time we are into records from the 1970s and 1980s, the situation is far worse. (Reminder: it’s 2022, so some of these documents are over fifty years old!) For starters, there are no volumes of Documents on Canadian External Relations to consult. On some topics, huge runs of records produced by External Affairs or National Defence remain closed. The bulk of the files dealing with the nearly continuous and often painfully arcane arms control talks about conventional forces in Europe that spanned most of the 1970s and 1980s, the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) negotiations, are not accessible. There are over 100 of these folders, each of which, I’d guess, is sizable given the conventions of diplomatic reporting.

Anyone familiar with the state of Canadian international history knows that we do have some excellent histories dealing with the 1970s and 1980s. My point is that on major episodes in Canadian diplomacy, many of these histories are now decades old. Yet, despite the passage of time, there are few, if any, additional archival records with which to revisit and revise the conclusions put forward in the existing literature. (Even where we have more recent histories based on a more fulsome archival record, many have been written by scholars with exclusive access to External Affairs records. When working on a recent project, for instance, I had hoped to run down some of the original documents used to account for one aspect of Pierre Trudeau’s foreign policy. I plugged the citations into the LAC catalogue, only to discover the records spanning from 1975 to 1981 are still closed.) What can an interested historian such as myself do to change that?

I can, of course, file for the release of these and many other records through the Access to Information Act. And after filing for their release and paying my $5 per request, I’ll wait. And wait. And probably wait some more. In a recent report, the Office of the Information Commissioner flagged the immense delays at Library and Archives Canada. Almost 80 percent of requests have not been completed in the timeline laid out in the Act. Review of files can take months, and often years.

Even if these requests are answered, it’s no guarantee that the information will be released. There are numerous reasonable arguments for reviewing and withholding some information, but that is a small fraction of what is withheld under the current system (where, for instance, it has been par for the course to redact public records like the Hansard).

Add to the list of problems the dearth of resources earmarked for this work. A recent story recounting the problems accessing historical records revealed that the entire Access to Information and Privacy team at Library and Archives Canada is only eight people. No matter how hard that team works – in my experience, incredibly hard! – they simply cannot process the backlog of records yet to be reviewed and released. It is an impossible and often thankless task. (Thanks, team – you have made nearly everything I have written about Canada possible!)

But without any transparent, systemic framework for the review and release of historical records, waiting is not a viable strategy for a historian. Well, at least not a historian who ever hopes to publish something.

Together, these issues have created a system that demands two things in short supply for scholars, particularly those in the early stages of their career: time and money. In my case, the history of Canada’s Cold War I’d like to write will require filing hundreds of requests at Library and Archives Canada, plus even more to hunt down records not yet transferred to LAC and with no finding aids. I have no reasonable metrics to estimate how long it might take me to research that history, much of it waiting for files to be reviewed for release, let alone write it. As a coping mechanism, I’ve settled on vaguely referring to it as a “medium- to long-term project.”

There is so much of Canada’s international history left to be written. Unfortunately, the current system actively prevents people from writing it.

2 thoughts on “A Country Without a History?: Dispatches from a Stuck Historian

  1. Pingback: CIH/HIC

  2. Pingback: Studying Canada’s Cold War? Go East, young scholar … and maybe skip Ottawa – CIH/HIC

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