Studying Canada’s Cold War? Go East, young scholar … and maybe skip Ottawa

Simon Miles

It all started with a finding aid. Trawling through the finding aids at Romania’s Arhivele Naţionale, I came across a run of files on Canadian assistance to the Romanian nuclear program. I knew that Romania’s Cernavodă Nuclear Power Plant runs on a CANDU reactor provided by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, a deal negotiated during Pierre Trudeau’s time as prime minister. I had read work on the beginnings of these negotiations, during the 1960s, when Romanian leaders were already trying to parlay their fraught relations with the Soviet Union, their ostensible patron, into economic opportunities with the West.

But here was a full run of materials on negotiating a civilian nuclear agreement, some of the most closely held non-military technology. Not only was it a window into how two non-superpowers bridged – but also exploited – the Cold War divide, as a Canadian at a US institution, I can’t resist a good bit of CanCon.

Throughout the research process for my book On Guard for Peace and Socialism: The Warsaw Pact, 1955–1991, I get the same questions. Based on unfortunate stereotypes about the former Eastern bloc and accurate assessments of the budgetary constraints some of Europe’s poorest countries face, most people assume access is limited, facilities are decrepit, and that writing an international history of the Eastern bloc during the Cold War, one which focuses on military (especially nuclear) policy and intelligence, as well as diplomacy, is tantamount to tilting at windmills.

Nothing could be further from the truth – so long as one stays in Eastern Europe. In the post-communist transition, governments have committed to transparency when it comes to their communist past and, though imperfect, this historian has been able to access materials from the highest levels and at the highest levels of classification. Many a time, I have come across the originals of materials that spies like Oleg Penkovsky risked – and lost – their lives to get across the Iron Curtain into the hands of Western policy-makers.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that in Canada, these materials remain under lock and key, kept hidden from Canadians and scholars around the world. In Romania, these files are declassified. In Ottawa, they are not. Of course, some details of the CANDU should remain classified for the physical security of the dozens of active reactors in the world today. But that does not extend to negotiations over their provision approximately half a century ago between Canada and a since-deposed regime.

This is not the first, and sadly will not be the last, warning about the sorry state of Canada’s declassification regime. Here at Canadian Eyes Only and elsewhere, others have sounded the alarm. It does not have to be this way. In Bucharest, Prague, Warsaw, and yes, even Moscow, the same documents from the other side’s perspective are available to researchers. That the government of Vladimir Putin has made more Cold War archives accessible than Canada’s should give anyone pause. So dire is the situation, that a scholar working on Canada’s Cold War could reasonably expect to find more materials from the archives of Ottawa’s former foes than in the archives of the nation’s capital itself.

Romania’s leadership still has a way to go in overcoming the challenges of transition from communist dictatorship to democracy, of that there can be no doubt. They, as well as their Canadian counterparts, are dealing with a complicated past. But they understand something which seems sadly to be lacking in official Ottawa: sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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