Bill Waiser

On to Ottawa Trek

Government accountability and history under siege

Eighty years ago this month, more than 1,000 single, homeless and unemployed men clambered atop a CPR freight train and set off for Ottawa.

Few expected the On-to-Ottawa Trek, as it became known, to make it through the mountains. But the trekkers were determined to confront prime minister R.B. Bennett and his handling of the unemployed during the Great Depression.

As the trek headed across the prairies in the late spring of 1935, gaining momentum and public support, the Conservative government ordered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to stop the men in Regina. Violence erupted when the Mounties decided to arrest the trek leaders at a peaceful Dominion Day meeting.

The riot resulted in two deaths, hundreds injured, thousands of dollars of damage to downtown Regina, and a black eye for Bennett and his heavyhanded actions.

Two books had been already written about the trek and riot when I decided to tackle the topic in my All Hell Can’t Stop Us. But I had a new piece of legislation to facilitate my research – the 1982 Access to Information Act.

Through access requests, I was able to secure previously closed RCMP documents that demonstrated how senior police officials essentially viewed the trek as a revolution on wheels. They were prepared to use any means to crush the movement, even it if meant provoking a riot.

Prime Minister Bennett did not have to worry about access legislation at the time of the trek and riot in 1935. But imagine that he did and decided to pass legislation that retroactively exempted these particular mounted police records from access requests.

History would effectively be erased.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government are doing exactly that through the omnibus Budget Bill (C-59).

The records of the defunct long-gun registry have been made exempt from access requests or any other proceeding under the Access to Information Act. And the Harper government made this change retroactive, even though there was an outstanding access request for these records before the bill to destroy the records was given royal assent.

In other words, the Harper Conservatives are turning back the clock, as if the access request was never submitted.

Prime Minister Harper and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney have both maintained that they are fixing a loophole. Sadly, this claim is reminiscent of comedian W.C. Fields, who insisted that he was looking for loopholes when caught reading the Bible later in life.

There are no loopholes in the Access to Information Act.

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.

The Harper government – any government for that matter – cannot simply rewrite the access law to protect the RCMP or anyone else from being prosecuted for being in violation of the act. Nor should any government counsel anyone to break the law – in this case, the Access act.

Such a move is unprecedented and deeply troubling. It effectively means that Canadians can no longer hold the government to account on this matter. It also sets a terrible precedent.

Does a future policy change now mean those records can be destroyed, too? And what of the role of Library and Archives Canada and its legislated responsibility to determine the archival value of records?

Canadians need to get behind Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault and support her efforts to ensure that the access act is respected and enforced. Otherwise, our fundamental right to holding the federal government to account will be compromised, if not lost.

And we will have no one to blame but ourselves for allowing it to happen.

The trekkers certainly would not have stood for it.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Waiser is distinguished professor emeritus in history at the University of Saskatchewan. His father, Thaddeus, was a guest of R.B. Bennett in the Hope DND relief camp during the winter of 1933-34.

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