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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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

Swoop Airlines. (Contributed)
COVID-19 case reported on Abbotsford-bound flight last week

Affected flight landed in Abbotsford on Nov. 16

The Abbotsford Pilots and all other junior teams in B.C. have been paused from competition after new restrictions put in place to battle the spread of COVID-19.
Abbotsford Pilots, PJHL grounded after new restrictions

Games won’t played until after Dec. 7 at the earliest, minor hockey limited to local competition

Last year’s Realtors Care Blanket Drive collected 192 bags of warm clothing and blankets for the Abbotsford-Mission area. The 2020 version is collecting only cash donations. (File photo)
Annual Realtors Care Blanket Drive adapts to pandemic

Campaign across the Fraser Valley asks only for cash donations in 2020

Abbotsford’s Chase Claypool celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown on Sunday. (Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers)
Abbotsford’s Chase Claypool scores 10th touchdown

First wide receiver since 1960 to record 10 touchdowns in 10 games, Steelers still unbeaten

Former BC Lion Angus Reid was the keynote speaker at the 10th annual National Philanthropy Day lunch in Abbotsford on Nov. 16.
Three awards presented at National Philanthropy Day lunch

Event in Abbotsford honours those who have made a difference

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the project site in Kitimat. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
Forty-one positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak in Kitimat

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

Workers arrive at the Lynn Valley Care Centre seniors home, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Rapid tests ‘not a panacea’ for care homes, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

B.C. lacks capacity for daily tests of thousands of workers

(Delta Police Department photo)
Cannabis edibles found in Halloween bag lead B.C. police to illegal lab

Delta police arrested a man and a woman while executing a warrant at a residential property Nov. 20

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

A woman being arrested at a Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear a mask on Nov. 22.(@Jules50278750/Twitter)
VIDEO: Woman arrested for refusing to wear mask at Kelowna Value Village

RCMP claims the woman was uncooperative with officers, striking them a number of times and screaming

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

B.C. Liberal MLA Shirley Bond questions NDP government ministers in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 19, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Cabinet veteran Shirley Bond chosen interim leader of B.C. Liberals

28-member opposition prepares for December legislature session

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, November 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-19: What do rising positivity rates mean for B.C.? It’s not entirely clear

Coronavirus cases are on the rise but the province has not unveiled clear thresholds for further measures

Most Read