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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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

Patricia Berston of Quesnel recently won $200,000 through Casino Royale II, a scratch and win game offered by the B.C. Lottery Corporation. (B.C. Lottery Corporation Photo)
Quesnel woman wins $200,000 playing scratch and win game

Patricia Breston won while playing Casino Royale II

Spectators won’t be able to enjoy Quesnel Kangaroos action like captain Alessio Tomassetti scoring a goal until at least September of 2021. (Sasha Sefter - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)
Quesnel Kangaroos’ CIHL championship defence on hold

The CIHL has canceled its 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 restrictions

Quesnel council has committed to considering signing on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to developing and adopting an anti-racism strategy for the city and to conducting anti-racism sensitivity training and improving the knowledge of staff and council regarding local Indigenous culture and history. (City of Quesnel Photo)
Quesnel council commits to developing, adopting anti-racism strategy

Council will also consider signing onto the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Quesnel Search and Rescue has found a missing snowmobiler on Yanks Peak, near Wells. They are being assisted by the Wells RCMP, Wells Snowmobile Club and Central Cariboo and Prince George search and rescue teams. (Quesnel Search and Rescue)
Search and rescue crews locate missing sledder near Wells

Mike Harbek spent the night on Yanks Peak and was located by helicopter Monday afternoon

A rider carves a path on Yanks Peak Saturday, Nov. 21. Two men from Prince George went missing on the mountain the next day. One of them, Colin Jalbert, made it back after digging out his sled from four feet under the snow. The other, Mike Harbak, is still missing. Local search and rescue teams went out looking Monday, Nov. 23. (Sam Fait Photo)
‘I could still be the one out there’: snowmobiler rescued, 1 still missing near Wells

As Quesnel search and rescue teams investigate Yanks Peak, Colin Jalbert is resting at home

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. daily COVID-19 cases hits record 941 on Tuesday

Further restrictions on indoor exercise take effect

A fentanyl test strip is used at Vancouver Coastal Health in Vancouver, Tuesday, January, 21, 2020. The test strips will be made available to drug users to ensure that their drugs are safe and free of Fentanyl. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Drug overdoses lead to 5 deaths each day in October; drug toxicity continues to increase

COVID-19 crisis continues to exacerbate the overdose crisis

An employee of the Adventure Hotel was taken to hospital on Nov. 20 after she confronted a customer of Empire Coffee about not wearing a mask. File photo.
Nelson hotel employee suffers heart attack after being assaulted in anti-mask incident

An accountant at the Adventure Hotel is in hospital in Kelowna

Damien Smith, with father Thomas Smith, is “frozen” with joy as he watches a special message Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds recorded for Damien’s 9th birthday on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. (Contributed)
Shuswap boy celebrates 9th birthday with family, community and Ryan Reynolds

People from around the world send birthday cards showing young Canoe resident he’s not alone

(Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Refuse to follow B.C.’s mask mandate? Face a $230 fine

Masks are now required to be worn by all British Columbians, 12 years and older

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in first few months of 2021, prime minister says

Beaver Creek RCMP Cpl. Robert Drapeau, left to right, Gary Bath, Lynn Marchessault, Payton Marchessault, Rebecca Marchessault and Tim Marchessault pose in this recent handout photo near the Canada-U.S. border crossing near Beaver Creek, Yukon. A family reunion trip for the woman from Georgia that left them stranded ended on a bright note when Bath drove them to the Alaskan border following an appeal for help. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Gary Bath *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Help from B.C. man allows American family to reunite in Alaska

Lynn Marchessault drove from Georgia to the Alaska border to join her husband, who serves in U.S. military

(Pixabay.com)
Man, 28, warned by Kootenay police to stop asking people to marry him

A woman initially reported the incident to police before they discovered others had been popped the question

Most Read