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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Cuts to Canadian archives suit the Harper Tories in more ways than one

| June 4, 2012
Daniel Caron, Archivist of Canada

Last Thursday, the Archivist of Canada got up on his hind legs and tried to explain why there’s nothing to fear from the deep cuts to Libraries and Archives Canada being made by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

No one should worry just because "Libraries and Archives Canada is doing its part to support the Government of Canada's effort to reduce the deficit," Daniel Caron assured the annual meeting of the Canadian Library Association in Ottawa, because now in our new virtualized Canada "LAC will make use of social media and crowd sourcing!"

As a matter of fact Caron told the astonished librarians and archivists, and I'm not making this up, LAC now has a Twitter account with 600 followers! What's more, he added, "our official Facebook account has just been launched."

Now, I'm no archivist (neither is Caron, who has a PhD applied human sciences), but knowing about his Facebook and Twitter initiatives, I guess we should all feel reassured. After all, why would anyone worry that the announced cuts of close to $10-million to LAC will result in elimination of 30 per cent of the agency's archivists and archive assistants and half its circulation and digitization staff, end its interlibrary loan program, make scholars who want to use the national archives line up for appointments instead of just walking in the door, and kill federally supported archiving programs all across the country?

Of course, part of the problem with a story like this is that it's not very sexy from the standpoint of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, especially while someone is mailing chopped-up body parts to political offices. Yeah, a few reporters made it out the day before when some archivists staged a mock funeral on Parliament Hill, but you could tell from their coverage their hearts weren't really in it.

Arguably, though, the cuts to LAC have more serious implications than such tinder dry accounting alone implies. To be blunt about this, we're in danger of losing documentation needed not just by historians, but by people who might want access to the facts in order to criticize or argue with Harper's government.

So, is anyone collecting and preserving the tens of thousands of official government documents that are disappearing almost daily from the Government of Canada's official Website? Can we even be confident that Hansard, the record of Parliament, will be preserved in a form that can be made permanently accessible to the public?

The preservation problem is made worse since another (coincidental?) policy means the government of Canada has stopped posting searchable and easy-to-download PDF documents on its website, using only HTML code -- making it extremely easy for the Harper Government to ensure inconvenient facts disappear quickly down the Memory Hole. Supposedly this is being done to make the government's web presence more accessible to the disabled.

All this may add up to a violation of LAC's statutory requirement "to acquire and preserve the documentary heritage," and "to make that heritage known to Canadians and to anyone with an interest in Canada and to facilitate access to it…." (Emphasis added.) But don't expect this particular law to be enforced with any vigour or enthusiasm.

Very little of this important story has been reported in part because of its technical nature, as well as the mainstream media's widespread pro-Harper bias. In addition, the best sources for this information, civil servants from LAC, know that it's worth their jobs and perhaps even their pensions if they dare to speak up and put what's going on in plain English instead of the slippery platitudes of their bosses.

So reams of irreplaceable government documents are heading for the shredder, and there are even stories of archivists taking them home and storing them in their garages to preserve them for history! Presumably that's a firing offence too.

What's next, one wonders, archivists being forced to memorize the debates of Parliament like minor characters in Fahrenheit 451? (Except, of course, that it doesn't have to get that hot to destroy ephemeral on-line government of Canada documents.)

This kind of thing obviously suits the Harperites -- just as it suited them to eliminate the long-form census thereby depriving their opponents of the ability to counter such ideologically motivated fantasies as their fiction-based approach to criminal justice with empirically measurable facts.

And I guess from the perspective of a senior public servant there are only two ways you can respond to a problem like this: You can follow the example of Canada's Chief Statistician, Dr. Munir Sheikh, and resign rather than be part of Harper's effort to vandalize the country’s ability to collect factual statistics by eliminating the long-form census. Or you can do like Caron and toe your employer's line, blowing off people who argue with you as "those who would wrap themselves in the Canadian flag while digging in their heels to protect the status quo."

Well, in fairness to him, with the Harper crowd in power, you can't really explain your reservations -- if you happen to have any -- and keep your position.

One of the very few mainstream media voices critical of the Harper Government, Globe and Mail political correspondent Lawrence Martin, told the still-stunned archivists at their closing session Saturday that policies like these aim to suffocate information.

"The effort generally is to suppress information so the prevailing ideology can be less challenged," he said. No one in the room seemed to disagree. And it's increasingly difficult for anyone else to argue he's wrong.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Dairy.

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