At one level, I’m ambivalent about his announcement. A previous iteration of the committee reviewed the Access to Information Act back in 2016 and offered 32 recommendations, most of which have since been ignored.
As Kelly himself has said, “You’re certainly not going to be able to flip a switch and instantly go from a culture of secrecy to a true coalition of openness by default.”
Nonetheless, it seems to me that this review does offer an opportunity for real change.
From where I sit, there are two relatively distinct elements to Canada’s access to information regime: one focuses on the release of historical records; the other is concerned with the openness of contemporary ones.
While the latter is mired in politics, the former is ripe for reform.
Regrettably, however, advocates too often treat the two like a package, and thereby prevent the easier case from being communicated effectively.
As a historian of Canadian foreign policy who has spent countless hours in Canadian, American, and British Archives, I have experienced first-hand the absurd lengths that Ottawa goes to protect records that our allies have often already declassified.
In the United Kingdom, most government documents are transferred to the National Archives after 30 years and all-but-automatically opened to the public immediately thereafter. For many of those records, the wait period is now being reduced to 20 years.
Australia, Ireland, Israel, and Germany operate under similar rules.
In Canada, on the other hand, all files remain closed indefinitely.
Researchers are therefore forced to identify and itemize each one that interests them (for me, this has meant hundreds of records); they must formally request that each one be opened individually; and someone from Library and Archives Canada must then review the requested material – even if it’s from over 70 years ago!
In Canada we therefore spend hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars every year paying people to examine ancient records that other countries have already released.
The University of Toronto historian, Tim Sayle, and Duke University’s Susie Colbourn have explained the absurdity of this approach as well as anyone here and here.
And I have a hard time believing that any serious member of Parliament who has heard their pleas could disagree.
Put differently, there’s a big difference between a document outlining Canada’s strategy in its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 1946 and one summarizing government deliberations about freeing the Two Michaels last year.
There is no reason to treat access to them the same way.
Kelly’s committee is well-positioned to effect real change by making this simple and obvious distinction.
Surely MPs could work together to change the rules on releasing documents that were published before many of them were born.
And if they do so, they will conveniently free up staff resources to start working through the backlog of access requests on more current documentation.
In sum, let’s hope that Kelly’s committee reaches for the low-hanging fruit. Canada’s needs its own 30-year rule. Now is the time to make it happen.
For more on this issue, follow Sayle and Colbourn on Twitter @timsayle and @secolbourn.
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