Canada·CBC Investigates

Government accused of hoarding Canadian history in 'secret' archives

Some of Canada’s leading historians say the federal government is putting the country’s historical record at risk by hoarding piles of documents inside secret archives that together would make a stack taller than the CN Tower.

'You're hiding the historical record from the Canadian people,' historian says

Historian Dennis Molinaro discovered that millions of pages of historical documents are being held by government departments in what he calls 'secret archives.' He's launched a petition to try to convince the government to make them public. (CBC)

Some of Canada's leading historians say the federal government is putting the country's historical record at risk by hoarding piles of documents inside secret archives that together would make a stack taller than the CN Tower.

Historian Dennis Molinaro of Trent University discovered ministries and agencies are stockpiling millions of decades-old papers rather than handing them over to Library and Archives Canada for safekeeping and public access. He's launched a petition to try to convince the government to set them free.

The Canadian Historical Association (CHA) has joined his campaign and is calling on the government to mark Canada's 150th anniversary by overhauling the laws on access to government records.

"It's very disturbing that there are caches of documents about which we know very little. We don't even know the extent of this," said CHA president Joan Sangster, a colleague of Molinaro's at Trent in Peterborough, Ont., where she teaches labour and women's history.

Joan Sangster, president of the Canadian Historical Association, supports a petition calling for the government to immediately begin the process of transferring all historical government documents to Library and Archives Canada. (CBC)

As part of his research, Molinaro has been asking government departments to hand over information about Canada's Cold War domestic spy and surveillance programs run by the RCMP. Last fall, the federal government initially refused his access-to-information request for the papers (which were never transferred to the national archives) concerning a 65-year-old top secret RCMP wiretapping program dubbed Project Picnic.

One day after CBC News reported on Molinaro's battle with the bureaucracy, officials notified him they would release the 1951 "secret order" that authorized the wiretapping program targeting suspected Soviet spies and other subversives, signed by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent.

'Secret or shadow archive'

Access-to-information officials have told Molinaro the Privy Council Office holds at least 1.6 million more pages from the era, many of which could concern Cold War counter-espionage programs. He's also learned many more intelligence-related records dating back four, five and six decades are being held by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and the departments of Justice and Foreign Affairs.

He's been told in email exchanges that there's currently no public list to help him — or any other researcher — understand, let alone access, these mountains of papers kept inside closed government storerooms.

"The government seems to be, in essence, running some kind of secret or shadow archive," Molinaro told CBC News.

Keeping millions of records from the national archives is "appalling," he said.

"You're hiding the historical record from the Canadian people."

Molinaro's research found Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent and three of his cabinet ministers secretly authorized the RCMP's first wiretapping operation. (Canadian Press)

He says the problem extends far beyond his own research interest of domestic surveillance.

"Think of how many events from the Cold War ... The Cuban Missile Crisis … RCMP counter-intelligence operations, foreign intelligence operations," he said. "What else is there on other topics? On Indigenous affairs and relations? What else is in different government institutions on a variety of topics?

"We don't know."

CBC News asked various government departments to identify how much historical material they keep that's more than 30 years old — and why.

The Privy Council Office (PCO) revealed it has "1,430 cubic feet" (40.5 cubic metres) of government records dating back many decades.

PCO says transfer of these cabinet documents, discussion papers and records to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is "time-consuming" and first requires wide consultation to ensure classified information isn't released improperly.

The office says it's looking at recommendations to declassify a large block of "legacy" information from 1939-1959, and considering transferring cabinet minutes and documents from the 1980s to LAC.

The CSE, Canada's electronic spy agency, acknowledges it, too, is struggling to sort 128 linear metres of boxes of "legacy" records that are more than three decades old before handing them over to LAC.

The Foreign Affairs Department, Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP all declined to say how much historical material they continue to store.

The federal government has rules on how records must be preserved across its 175 departments and agencies.

LAC works with each department to identify what small fraction of records might be of historical interest, director general Robert McIntosh told CBC News.

However, government departments can hold on to sensitive materials indefinitely.

McIntosh acknowledges material has been accumulating for decades and departments lack the people and time necessary to sort through the files.

Compounding the problem is the fact LAC has no record or catalogue of those unsorted records.

Under the current system, he says, government institutions make the call on what to release. 

Calls for '30-year rule'

NDP MP Murray Rankin has sponsored Molinaro's petition, which calls for the government to immediately begin the process of transferring all historical records to the national archives, and for legal reforms "to ensure historical material does not remain hidden outside of LAC."

Rankin, a legal scholar and the NDP's House leader, says Canada has failed to impose any legal requirements to force government departments to release historical records to public archivists within a certain time frame — similar to the "30-year rule" in place in other Western countries.

"It's a question of political will," he said. "Some countries do this a lot better than Canada. The Americans do. The Swedes do. The British do. We have to catch up."

NDP MP Murray Rankin is sponsoring Molinaro's petition. He says many countries do a better job than Canada of making historical government documents available to the public. (CBC)

He acknowledges Canada needs safeguards to allow government departments to withhold records to protect national security or ongoing operations.

But he says there has to be an end-date to the secrecy and that Molinaro's experience is emblematic of deeper problems.

"There's something like over a million pages of documents available on wiretapping in the Cold War. They won't make that available. They say, 'Make your request a little bit more narrow, Professor Molinaro.' It's a catch 22 for an historian," he said. "How can you narrow your request if you don't really know what you're looking for?"

He says this is an issue for all Canadians — not just historians.

"Our country is 150 years old now," Rankin said. "It's time for us to understand what we have as a history."

He said many Canadians grew up thinking, for example, that the "treatment of First Nations was benign."

But he says that changed in part because of the work of historians and archival research, including books like Clearing the Plains, which revealed the devastating treatment of Indigenous people as the West was settled.

"Historians have brought our history alive, and if they can't have access to the raw materials to do that, we are impoverished as a people."


Dave Seglins

CBC Investigations

Dave Seglins is an investigative journalist whose recent work includes exposés on global ticket scalping, offshore tax avoidance and government surveillance. He covers a range of domestic and international issues, including rail safety, policing, government and corporate corruption.