Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: December 2014


Archives Canada building

Canada’s archives need some Christmas joy

If anyone deserves a Christmas present this holiday season, surely it is the Canadian archival community.

The past few years have not been kind to archives–through no fault of their own–and unless the situation improves, Canada’s understanding of its past will be decidedly poorer.

Let’s start with the 2006 federal census.

For the first time in Canadian history, participants were asked to indicate–by checking a box–whether their responses on the short form could be made public after ninety-two years.

Canadians completing the census had never been asked this “opt-in” question before.

The result of this new requirement is a deeply flawed record.

Just under 50 percent of Canadians chose to keep their census information permanently

inaccessible.

The statistical integrity of the entire national census as a source of genealogical and historical information, of population trends and movements, and especially about everyday Canadians, has been forever compromised.

The 2005 Statistics Act calls for a mandatory review of the opt-in question to determine the impact of this amendment on the usefulness of the census.

This parliamentary review must take place at least two years before the taking of the 2106 census.

The deadline has passed.

Canadians need to be heard on this issue and either succeed in having the opt-in question eliminated or, at the very least, changed to an opt-out question.

Then, there is the Auditor General’s fall 2014 report which found that Library and Archives of Canada spent over fifteen million dollars developing a trusted digital repository only to abandon the initiative.

This development is discouraging for digital record acquisition and preservation.

Government departments and agencies may produce and collect a wealth of information, but there is no guarantee that these records are complete today or will be accessible in the future, especially the vast majority that exist in born-digital formats.

Without proper digital management of these records, including content-rich metadata to make them searchable and understandable, and without ongoing preservation to ensure their accessibility, these born-digital records are going to be lost or, at best, incomplete– unintelligible, inaccessible, or inauthentic.

In fact, some government departments may not even know the extent or location of all their electronic records.

Unlike analog records, which can sit for decades before being evaluated for possible archival retention, decisions about what digital records need to be kept and how they are to be preserved must be made today because of their ephemeral nature.

In response to the auditor general’s report, Shelly Glover, the minister of Canadian Heritage, stated in a press release on 25 November that the LAC “operates at arms-length from the government….and is responsible for their day-to-day operations.”

In other words, these are the LAC’s problems and the LAC alone is accountable.

But how can the LAC be expected to fulfill its mandate given deep funding cuts to its budget?

If the integrity of government electronic records is in doubt, then there can be no accountability.

That brings up another crucial archival issue.

Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada, has publicly admitted–most recently, on CBC radio’s “The House”–that her office cannot meet its mandate without more funding and more staff.

Legault also indicated that the three-decade-old legislation is in need of an overhaul.

She’s right.

Canadians need open access to government records, subject to specific restrictions (including passage of time to protect privacy), to ensure transparency.

That is how a democracy is supposed to work.

Why should Canadians be expected to wait longer, or as was suggested in the past few weeks, pay more for access?

Reliable record-keeping systems and appropriate access to records are at the heart of government accountability.

All governments use the rhetoric of transparency and accountability, but the reality is a political and bureaucratic culture in which the default is secrecy.

Canada needs to revise and update the Access to Information and Privacy acts to take into account the new record-keeping realities of the digital world.

Santa can’t come soon enough.

As author Charles Foran warned in the Literary Review of Canada, “We are not staring out from the cliff edge of profound change so much as watching the ground crumble beneath us, a collapse suitably heedless, remorseless and fast.”

For this holiday season, then, Canadian archives must be given the means and funding to build the necessary national infrastructures to get off that crumbling bridge and move with assurance from the age of analog to digital archives.

Citizens and researchers must have access to reliable and meaningful documentary heritage.

Now, that’s a Christmas present.

This article was originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix on December 26, 2014.