Health Canada Library Closure

Health Canada moved its physical collection to the National Research Council last year. That led to many scientists to use workarounds like creating their own libraries and using co-op students' university library cards. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Managers at Health Canada admitted that changes to the department's library services would lead to risks to the department's credibility and its ability to produce evidence-based decisions, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

The managers' concerns have one observer saying that if the federal health minister doesn't reverse the changes, "she's putting Canadians at serious risk."

The Access to Information documents reveal management's point of view during a number of changes that saw staff cut, the physical library moved across town to a National Research Council facility and scientists forced to use a new computer system called Infotrieve to get research material.

'These kinds of practices introduce risks to the department's credibility and its ability to produce evidence-based decisions'- Presentation to Health Canada managers obtained through Access to Information

One presentation to Health Canada's Corporate Services Branch in March 2013 acknowledges problems with changes to the computer system in particular.

According to the presentation, the number of requests for research material had already dropped by 80 to 90 per cent.

Employees were apparently using "work-arounds" to get the information they needed, such as accessing university libraries through co-op students.

"These kinds of practices introduce risks to the department's credibility and its ability to produce evidence-based decisions," one slide says.

Employees' concerns

This echoes the concerns of employees listed in a consultant's report delivered to senior management at the same time.

An email among senior managers at the time described those concerns as "very real."

A draft of that report was leaked to CBC News earlier this year.

A spokesperson for Health Canada told CBC News at the time that the draft report contained so many factual inaccuracies that management decided to ignore the recommendations that called for a reversal of the changes.

Yet in the documents obtained by CBC News, the final report is very similar and the recommendations remain the same.

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says this raises a clear question for federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose.

"Does she listen to the recommendations of the consultant they hired, and her ministry has acknowledged came forward with appropriate recommendations? If she doesn't, she's putting Canadians at serious risk."

Libby Davies, health critic for the NDP, agrees.

'The Conservatives have declared a war on science'- NDP's health critic Libby Davies

"It's so important that the minister herself dig into this. Get to the bottom of this. Speak to employees who actually do have the information and the people who are affected by this decision," she told CBC.

Davies adds that what's happening at Health Canada is indicative of a larger problem.

"What's happening at Health Canada is obviously very serious. But it is a component of a much more serious environment ... that the Conservatives have declared a war on science," Davies said.

According to the access document, senior managers had already made the decision to make the changes to the library before the consultant was hired to gauge the impact on scientists.

But managers were trying to address some of the employees' concerns.

The managers created a "red tape proposal" to address some of the employees' frustrations with the new computer system.

For example, one suggestion would allow employees to order documents through Infotrieve, up to a cost of $150, without getting every single request approved first. 

It also recommended supervisors stop telling their staff to not use the system because of "perceived costs."

A statement from Health Canada sent to CBC News on Friday said some changes have been made in the past year.

Now, all costs related to Infotrieve services are paid for by the Corporate Services Branch rather than individuals, which was one of the largest barriers identified by staff.

The statement says the number of requests processed by the library is on the rise, reaching 3,116 in 2013/14.    

The health minister declined to do an interview to comment on these latest documents.

But in a statement from her office, Ambrose says her government "is committed to evidence-based decision making based on science to protect the health and safety of Canadians."

"Health Canada has improved the level of information access by digitizing records, and focusing on improved online access to the latest data," the statement added.