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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national-security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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at ways to pry open Canada’s neglected national security vaults, possibly through creation of a centre to declassify historical documents, a newly released memo reveals.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

RCMP did not commit offense in arrest which seriously injured Lake Country man, finds IIO. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News/Stock)
Vernon police didn’t use excessive force in domestic takedown: Watchdog

‘One stepped on him and one had his knee in his neck,’ woman told IIO

A fifth wheel fire came dangerously close to a Lake Country home Wednesday afternoon. (Lake Country Fire Department photo)
RCMP, neighbours save Lake Country house from fire

Fifth wheel up in flames next to home

Southbound traffic was reduced to single lane on Highway 97 as a vehicle involved in a collision was being retrieved by a tow truck on Thursday morning, May 6, 2021. (Jennifer Smith-Vernon Morning Star)
Collision causing delays on Highway 97 near Vernon

Southbound traffic reduced to single lane

(Pixabay photo)
Morning Start: Kentucky has more bourbon than people

Your morning start for Thursday, May 6, 2021

An aerial rendering of the new intersection at Vernon’s 39th Avenue, featuring a double roundabout. The city announced the completion of the north-south transportation corridor Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Contributed)
New north-south transportation corridor completed in Vernon

Drivers, cyclists and pedestrians now have a new way to get across town

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O���Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Salmon Arm Silverbacks forward Sullivan Mack gets a boost into West Kelowna goalie Johnny Derrick from Warriors forward Tyson Jugnauth during West Kelowna’s 5-4 B.C. Hockey League pod play win Wednesday, May 5, at Vernon’s Kal Tire Place. (Tami Quan Photography)
West Kelowna Warriors hold on to edge Silverbacks

Warriors up three with five minutes to go, give up two late goals but end up with 5-4 BCHL win over Salmon Arm

Members of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. (File photo)
B.C.-wide #DayOfMusic to feature 100-plus free virtual concerts May 15

‘Our colleagues across the province have figured out new ways to perform and connect,’ VSO boss says

Two passengers were recently fined thousands of dollars after they faked their pre-flight COVID-19 test results. (Paul Clarke/Black Press)
2 passengers in Canada fined thousands for faking pre-flight COVID-19 tests

The government issued a warning Thursday to others thinking of doing the same – do it and you’ll be ordered to pay

(File)
With revenge porn on the rise in 2021, B.C. seeks feedback for new legislation

New legislation could help victims take down images and receive compensation

(Kamloops This Week file photo)
Federal police unit takes over probe of B.C. regional district’s spending

Financial Integrity Sensitive Investigations Unit is now reviewing the case

Photo: Kathleen Saylors
Grand Forks votes down letter to support Penticton in homeless shelter battle

Grand Forks city coun. Neil Krog insisted Penticton’s issue with Victoria is about city bylaws, not homelessness

A black bear made a visit to downtown Vancouver Tuesday, May 4. The animal was spotted on train tracks in Gastown shortly after at 2:30 p.m. (Twitter/Craig Minielly)
VIDEO: Black bear spotted meandering around downtown Vancouver

The bear was reportedly tranquilized by conservation officers Tuesday afternoon

Flow Academy is located at 1511 Sutherland Avenue in Kelowna. (Michael Rodriguez/Capital News)
Interior Health locks out Kelowna martial arts gym following COVID violations

Actions were taken after all other steps to gain compliance were exhausted, says health authority

Most Read