Security intelligence expert Wesley Wark poses at the University of Ottawa’s Social Sciences Building in Ottawa, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The Trudeau government is looking at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Security intelligence expert Wesley Wark poses at the University of Ottawa’s Social Sciences Building in Ottawa, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The Trudeau government is looking at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Trudeau government eyes national declassification centre for historical spy documents

Requests filed under Access to Information Act are currently the main means of making security records available

The Trudeau government is looking at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.

But getting federal departments to unseal large numbers of secret records “will be a challenge without an overarching policy and resources,” concedes the internal note prepared earlier this year for the deputy minister of Public Safety Canada.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the memo through the Access to Information Act.

Canada’s key intelligence allies have policies and practices that allow them to declassify historical security records and make them available to the public through national archives, presidential libraries or academic institutions, it notes.

The memo says the absence of such a standardized approach to intelligence materials in Canada creates a government-wide “information management challenge.”

Requests filed under the Access to Information Act are currently the main means of making security records available to the public.

However, the federal information commissioner, an ombudsman for users of the law, said that last year almost 20 per cent of complaints to her office were related to national security records.

Timothy Andrews Sayle, a history professor at the University of Toronto, has open access requests for records concerning intelligence from the 1940s, over 75 years old in some cases.

Sayle said it would be unconscionable to allow one of his graduate students to choose an intelligence topic for a thesis or dissertation. “The documents might arrive seven, eight or nine years after requested, if they were to ever come at all.”

Canada has a rich and important history in the national security arena, much of which remains unknown because of a lack of systematic access to archival records, intelligence expert Wesley Wark noted in a discussion paper for the federal information commissioner this year.

As a result, the Canadian literature on national security and intelligence “lags seriously behind” that of main allies, wrote Wark, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs.

Since late 2018, the government has been developing a national security and intelligence declassification framework intended to ensure a consistent approach to record disclosure, the Public Safety memo says.

Zarah Malik, a Public Safety spokeswoman, said the department is working with other federal agencies on finalizing the framework but “is not able to share a copy at this time, as it is still in the drafting and consultation stages.”

The memo to the deputy minister says federal officials are also looking at longer-term policy solutions that could involve legislative amendments, budgetary requests for resources or establishment of a national declassification centre.

The memo is encouraging, but short on specific action and timelines, Wark said.

Without access to records on national security and intelligence, Canada simply has no evidence-based history of security work, he said.

As a result, an important tool for improving the performance of Canadian agencies and for “raising awareness among Canadians of the practice, significance and challenges of national security is lost,” Wark added.

Sayle, who was invited to propose ideas to Public Safety on the subject last year, said he is mildly optimistic that a declassification policy or framework will allow useful material to be released and improve the current situation.

“I am not sure it could get worse. But will it get better? Unfortunately, I do not have a lot of hope,” he said.

“When it comes to disclosure, we have the legislative framework that allows it. We don’t lack for rules and policies, we lack our government’s political will to share its history.”

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

spy

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Mayor Walt Cobb waves from atop a tractor as he turns onto Oliver Street in the Daybreak Rotary’s annual Stampede Parade. Patrick Davies photo.
Lack of funding, volunteers has Daybreak Rotary bowing out of Williams Lake Stampede parade

Club learned this week it won’t be receiving local government funding, for the second year in a row

A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
30 new COVID-19 cases, five more deaths in Interior Health

This brings the total number of cases to 7,271 since testing began

Williams Lake’s Brock Hoyer films a segment of the newly-released The Way Home in the city of Revelstoke. (Ryen Dunford photo)
Brock Hoyer stars in new snowbike film: The Way Home

The film is completely free and was released on YouTube on Jan. 22, 2021

The body of Kenneth Seymour Michell was discovered Jan. 14, 2021, behind a Williams Lake business a day after he was released by a judge on conditions. (Photo submitted)
Family looks for answers after Indigenous man dies by suicide following release from custody

System does not care about Indigenous peoples, says First Nations Leadership Council

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
456 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., 2 deaths

Since January 2020, 78,278 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in B.C.

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

The late Michael Gregory, 57, is accused of sexually exploiting six junior high students between 1999 and 2005. (Pixabay)
Former Alberta teacher accused of sexually assaulting students found dead in B.C.

Mounties say Michael Gregory’s death has been deemed ‘non-suspicious’

According to a new poll, a majority of Canadians want to see illicit drugs decriminalized. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Majority of Canadians think it’s high time to decriminalize illicit drugs: poll

More than two-times the B.C. residents know someone who died from an overdose compared to rest of Canada

Interior Health officially declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Creekside Landing in Vernon on Jan. 3, which was followed by the first death from the virus 10 days later. (Kaigo photo)
COVID outbreak over at Vernon care home

Creekside Landing cleared of coronavirus, despite additional death in last day

(Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents can reserve provincial camp sites starting March 8

B.C. residents get priority access to camping reservations in province

Two women were arrested in Nanaimo for refusing to wear masks and causing disturbance on a BC Ferries vessel. (File photo)
B.C. ferry passengers arrested and fined for disturbance, refusing to wear masks

Police said woman threatened their pensions in Feb. 21 incident aboard Nanaimo-bound boat

Most Read