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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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

Bella Coola’s new WildSafeBC co-ordinator, Rae Kokeš, has spent the last 10 years in Africa working in lion, human, conflict, and is a wildlife biologist by trade. (Photo submitted)
From the savannas of Africa to the Bella Coola Valley

New Wildsafe BC coordinator ready to tackle wildlife conflict

Bella Coola Valley Ridge Riders Horse Club board member Annika Granander watches, and participates in the gymkhana Sunday (Photo submitted)
Sunshine and smiles all around Bella Coola Ridge Riders Horse Club gymkhana

The event was the first of the year, with COVID-19 safety precautions in place

A build up of lint in a clothes dryer is believed to have caused a house fire in Alexis Creek Sunday evening, April 4, 2021. (Photo submitted)
Clothing dryer suspected cause of Alexis Creek home fire, owner wants to warn others

Neil Miller is thankful he still has his horses, community support and his life

This will be the second year the Bella Coola Valley Rodeo won’t take place due to the pandemic. (Michael Wigle file photo)
Bella Coola Valley Rodeo cancelled for 2021

Club organizers say next year’s rodeo will be bigger and better than ever

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

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 woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. CDC updates info, acknowledging small respiratory droplets can spread COVID-19

Large droplets, not aerosols had been fixture of public health messaging for many months

A picture of Shirley Ann Soosay was rendered from a postmortem photographer and circulated on social media. (DDP graphic)
B.C. genealogist key to naming murder victim in decades-old California cold case

In July 1980, Shirley Ann Soosay was raped and stabbed to death

Most Read