Paper out, digital in for B.C. records under proposed bill

The public could soon get quicker, easier access to historical records under a B.C. government plan to do away with paper files and store almost everything online, Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk said Thursday.

Virk introduced legislation that would create new digital archives and eventually make it mandatory for ministries to keep most records electronically.

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If approved, the Government Information Act will replace the 1936 Document Disposal Act.

“It’s an era of going online and retrieving information online,” Virk said. “So we want to make sure that we provide that to the public.”

The province creates about 40,000 banker boxes of paper records yearly. Those documents are stored in four warehouses around the province until the material passes its best-before date and is either destroyed or retained for its historic value.

Under the legislation, a new chief records officer would oversee the transition to digital storage, expected to begin this spring and last about three years.

Officials say digital archives will better preserve the province’s heritage while allowing people to search and retrieve historical information from anywhere in the world.

But NDP critic Doug Routley said online archives mean nothing in a government that has created an “oral culture” and avoids documenting its decisions. “It’s just as impossible to archive deleted emails as it is to archive shredded documents,” he said. “This is the real problem. … You can’t store what’s not there.”

Routley said the Opposition plans to introduce “Duty to Document” legislation this session that would require the government to keep better records.

“Throughout the organization that is the good ship B.C. Liberal, we’ve got people responsible for these issues that have a record of acting in absolute contempt of open government,” he said.

The new legislation also does nothing to solve a long-running dispute between the government and the Royal B.C. Museum over the storage of documents in the B.C. Archives. For more than a decade, the government has elected to store historical records in warehouses for $6.72 a box, rather than pay the museum’s $454 a box archival fee.

Elizabeth Denham, B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner, reported last year that 33,000 boxes of historical documents were languishing in warehouses, with more than 3,000 boxes arriving each year.

“I was shocked when I found that there were no records for the last decade transferred and preserved in the provincial archives,” she said. “That’s a huge gap.”

Neither Denham nor museum officials would comment on the new legislation Thursday.

The government said it continues to work with the museum to resolve the dispute.

Virk was unable to say how much it will cost to preserve historic paper records held in warehouses.

“The first step would be for us to prevent new items from entering those warehouses,” he said. “Then, of course, we’d have to look at business plans in terms of how to deal with documents we have gathered.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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