Alan Barnes to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics

On October 23, 2022, Alan Barnes gave a presentation to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on the challenges facing historians. Barnes is co-leader of the Canadian Foreign Intelligence History Project and a previous contributor to Canadian Eyes Only.

Presentation by Alan Barnes

Canadian Foreign Intelligence History Project

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee:  Thank you for this opportunity to address you on the important subject of Access to Information.

I would like to raise a topic that has received little attention so far – the difficulty of accessing historic government records. The discussion of Access to Information has largely focused on problems of accessing current records, but there are also major impediments to obtaining government records that are many decades old.

The access system was never designed to deal with such historical records. When the Act was first implemented it was not intended to replace existing mechanisms for accessing government records, but in practice, that’s what has happened.

Today there is no mechanism for the declassification and release of government records after a certain period of time. The so-called “thirty year rule” does not exist in Canada.

Canada is the only member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance that does not have a system for declassifying historic records.

My particular field of study is intelligence history, but this problem affects a wide range of historic records on intelligence, security, international affairs and defence.

Most Canadian government records on intelligence and international affairs since the 1950s will therefore remain closed until someone makes a specific request via ATIP.

These requests are then reviewed through the same process that is used for current records. Reviewing officers have no knowledge of the historical context of the records and generally apply the same considerations of what to redact, even though any sensitivity has diminished substantially with the passage of time.

The government has no mechanism to track what historic records have already been released, and so departments spend considerable time re-reviewing records that have been released elsewhere.

Frequently the review takes years to complete and in many cases results in complaints to the Information Commissioner because of unreasonable redactions.

The current system creates a major problem for Library and Archives Canada because it means that the great majority of government records on intelligence, international affairs and defence will never be accessible to researchers. Researchers are forced to use the ATIP process, which means they can only nibble at the edges of the vast quantity of government records held by LAC.   

This also affects other departments which continue to hold substantial archives of historic records, including the Privy Council Office and Global Affairs. These records have not yet been transferred to LAC, even though most are decades old. For example, PCO still holds records from the Second World War.

The answer to this situation is obvious: Canada should establish a declassification framework, separate from the overtaxed ATIP process, that would pro-actively review and release records after a set period of time. Our allies have already shown how this can be done.

In fact, some limited steps have been taken in this direction. Public Safety Canada is leading an inter-departmental “declassification project” looking at ways to make historic documents on intelligence and security available to the public. So far, however, this effort has not resulted in the release of any records.

I believe the Committee should consider inviting officials from Public Safety to provide testimony on the work of the “declassification project,” and the prospects for making more historical records on intelligence and security available to Canadians.

The government has rightly emphasized the importance of transparency concerning intelligence and security matters in order to build public confidence in the work of these agencies. Making more historical records available would help to enhance such transparency.

Canadians deserve to have a sound understanding of their history, including in the fields of intelligence, international affairs and defence. Proper access to historical records is vital to such an understanding. But these records are currently being kept hidden by an act of Parliament so restrictive that researchers cannot do their work.

Thank you. I look forward to taking your questions.

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