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Access-to-info system at Library and Archives Canada in 'bleak state': watchdog

OTTAWA — Library and Archives Canada is frequently failing to answer formal requests for historical records in a timely way, says a new report from the federal information watchdog that calls on the Liberal government to make fundamental changes.
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A Government of Canada sign sits in front of a Library and Archives Canada building next to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on November 25, 2014. A new report says Library and Archives Canada is frequently failing to answer formal requests for historical records in a timely way. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Library and Archives Canada is frequently failing to answer formal requests for historical records in a timely way, says a new report from the federal information watchdog that calls on the Liberal government to make fundamental changes.

The special report by information commissioner Caroline Maynard, tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, says almost 80 per cent of the requests processed by the national archives did not meet time-frames set out in the Access to Information Act.

Maynard notes the growing public criticism of Library and Archives by academics, researchers and journalists over the excessive wait times.

Many records held by the institution, though often decades old, are still vetted through the Access to Information law. Information related to national security, defence, international affairs, personal matters, legal advice and a host of other areas might be stripped from the records prior to disclosure.

Maynard points to two key problems — time-consuming consultations between the archives and other agencies on what information can be released, and the lack of a framework across government for declassifying sensitive records.

These two issues create significant backlogs within Library and Archives given its unique mandate, but also affect access in many other institutions, Maynard says in her report.

"Both are areas where I had previously signalled that action was required. As timeliness across the system continues to deteriorate, the consequences of inaction can no longer be ignored."

The report says a "rigorous and strict consultation regime" is required — one that can be enforced and followed by all institutions in order to ensure the processing of access requests in a timely manner.

"Canada is in urgent need of a declassification system," the report adds. "A good declassification program should seek to open records up so they are made available beyond the access to information system."

Canada is the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance — which also includes Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the United States — without a national declassification program.

"We don't have a program, and I think it's something that will help Canadians access our history," Maynard said in an interview.

During her investigation, Maynard learned that an Interdepartmental Declassification Working Group will launch a pilot project to declassify records of the Joint Intelligence Committee dating from 1943 to 1960 and held at a variety of agencies.

In addition, Public Safety Canada is spearheading declassification projects, the report says. "It remains to be seen if this work will yield tangible results."

Maynard says Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has agreed to implement most of her recommendations to remedy what she calls the "bleak state" of the archives' Access to Information program.

However, Maynard adds she is disappointed by "an apparent lack of engagement to make concrete and positive improvements."

In a letter appended to Maynard's report, Rodriguez said, "My department will continue to work closely with LAC to ensure that access requests are processed more quickly and efficiently."

In her own statement, national Librarian and Archivist Leslie Weir said she was setting up a task force that will be responsible for renewing Access to Information policies and procedures, and charged with developing a plan with clear milestones.

"LAC supports open, transparent access to the records of the Government of Canada."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2022.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press