Politics

Ex-PMs' archived papers include love letters, $500 — even a molar

Love letters, $500 and even a back tooth are among the items found when archivists have gone through former prime ministers' personal papers for preservation.

Archivists at Library and Archives Canada pounce on papers of departing politicians

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, left, jokes with former archivist Bruno Lemay. The two worked together to select Chrétien's personal papers for donation to Library and Archives Canada. (Elizabeth Mongrain/Library and Archives Canada)

The day after a federal election, while many civil servants are focused on the future and the continuation or transition of the government, one group of public servants is busy sifting through the past.

Archivists from Library and Archives Canada begin the task of sorting, cataloguing and preserving the official papers of politicians whose terms have come to an end.

And they find some interesting things.

Love letters, $500 and even a molar are among the items found by archivists going through former prime ministers' personal papers for preservation.

The first two belonged to former prime minister Jean Chrétien.

Élizabeth Mongrain was the one of the archivists from Library and Archives who combed through Chrétien's personal papers to decide what was worth keeping for historical records.

"Mr. Chrétien was not a big writer," Mongrain recalls, compared with his former boss, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Still, she found some interesting items, including five $100 bills tucked into documents dating back to the 1960s.

Mongrain also found love letters between Chrétien and his wife, Aline, written early in his political career.

She was able to return them in time for their 50th wedding anniversary in 2007.

Former prime minister Mackenzie King campaigns from the back of a parked car. Somehow, one of his teeth found its way into the archives. (F.J. Skitch/Library and Archives Canada)

But the finds are not always so pleasant for the archivists who must dig through boxes of material.

Archivist Paulette Dozois found former prime minister MacKenzie King's molar when searching through his records.

"I wore white gloves," she said.

Archiving Conservatives' papers

These were some of the stories told during a presentation by Library and Archives this week, to demonstrate the department's role in the wake of a federal election. Mongrain is the archives' manager of government and political affairs.

Under the law, politicians do not have to donate their personal papers to the Library and Archives, but they must promise to never destroy them. Some have chosen to donate them to local universities, or libraries in their home provinces.

Mongrain said her team meets early the day after the election. Each member gets a list of defeated MPs and cabinet ministers.

Mongrain's team has to work fast, because "MPs and ministers have about two weeks to get out of their offices."

So her team offers to help and even pack up the personal papers if that's what's needed.

Since Oct. 19, Library and Archives staff have offered to archive the personal papers of all former Conservative cabinet ministers, including former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Harper has already said he will donate his material.

Any material collected is taken to a temporary storage facility, known as the deposit service. There, the material will be sorted, with only some of it making it into the archives' permanent collection.

Opposition's papers also sought

It's not just former prime ministers and cabinet ministers who can have their papers requested by Library and Archives. The archives also sent offers to 18 former NDP MPs as well.

Mongrain recalls watching Independent MP Chuck Cadman side with the Liberals in 2004 to prevent an election call that spring. He died of cancer a few months later. His papers were archived.

Work has already begun to archive the work of the new Liberal government, starting with the mandate letters for each cabinet minister released to the public by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month.

As for the $500, that was returned to Chrétien. No one could answer what happened to King's tooth.

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