Mulroney felt snubbed by Library and Archives deal with Paul Martin: documents

After learning that Library and Archives Canada helped underwrite an oral history project for former prime minister Paul Martin, Brian Mulroney wrote to find out how he could “recover these expenses to which I am clearly entitled.” The letters offer a glimpse of the ad hoc approach to past prime ministers' treasured documents.

Former LAC head admits there's a 'perception of unequal and unfair treatment between former prime ministers'

Former prime ministers Brian Mulroney, left, and Paul Martin leave the church following the funeral of Jean Lapierre and Nicole Beaulieu in Montreal April 16, 2016. (The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)

In the fall of 2008, former prime minister Brian Mulroney was feeling slighted.

After reading an article in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper about a project Library and Archives Canada helped to fund involving former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, Mulroney wrote to Canada's chief librarian and archivist to ask for similar compensation.

A copy of the letter Brian Mulroney sent to Library and Archives Canada back in 2008. (LAC/Access to information documents)

"I was surprised to learn that the National Archives had subsidized research for Paul Martin's memoirs to the tune of $188,000 because no such offer was ever made to me," Mulroney wrote in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News.

"I do not in any way begrudge Mr. Martin this research assistance but fairness requires that the policy should apply to all Prime Ministers. Because I had to assume all research costs for my memoirs personally, I would be grateful if you could advise me how I can recover these expenses to which I am clearly entitled."

Mulroney's autobiography, Memoirs: 1939–1993, was published in 2007.

In his two-page response, Ian Wilson, then the head of Library and Archives Canada, confirmed that Library and Archives teamed up with Queen's University and former MPP Sean Conway to conduct a series of oral interviews with Martin and helped to underwrite the project.

That research became the backbone of Martin's 2008 memoir Hell or High Water: My Life In and Out of Politics. (Martin even thanked the library in the book's foreword.)

LAC agreed to reimburse Queen's for Conway's salary, benefits and travel expenses, and provide office space — but maintains it didn't directly back his book financially.

"The various drafts, all his memoirs, the research and the extensive writing and rewriting of the text were all done without public funding," Wilson wrote.

"That being said, however, I will acknowledge that LAC does treat every former prime minister somewhat differently. There is no established policy."

No legal requirement

The letters offer a glimpse of the ad hoc approach the national archives takes to acquiring former prime ministers' treasured documents.

Financial support for obtaining documents and oral histories from former prime ministers is offered on a case-by-case basis and as the Treasury Board allows, wrote Wilson.

"I am aware that this may lead to the perception of unequal and unfair treatment between former prime ministers, but I saw no other opportunity to improve the current situation than by the step-by-step process," he said.

Unlike the United States, Canada imposes no legal requirement for former prime ministers to hand over their records to the national archives.

Before 1993, there was little in the way of federal financial support for archiving the work of former prime ministers.

"Following a decision of your government, public responsibility for former prime ministers was acknowledged and LAC received special funding to support the preservation of their personal papers and related office expenses within very strict limits," Wilson wrote.

"All of your successors later benefited from your decision."

The Library and Archives Canada building next to Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Elizabeth Mongrain is LAC's manager for acquisitions, the one tasked with proactively reaching out to politicians to get their papers and memories on the permanent record. She starts her job months before a federal election, contacting MPs and ministers who aren't running for office again — those whose careers have been earmarked by LAC for their potential historical significance.

"There's a few cabinet ministers​ that we will have to contact to make sure that they don't destroy their records if they want to benefit from the storage service or donate them officially to our institution," she said.

"It's the same thing for the prime minister, of course. If a prime minister is losing their election or announcing they're leaving, Library and Archives Canada will be interested in getting their records or at least making sure their records are preserved."

The LAC has managed to acquire nearly every prime minister's records — except two. R.B. Bennett's papers are at the University of New Brunswick and John Diefenbaker bequeathed his papers to the University of Saskatchewan.

The archival process is offered to departing prime ministers as part of their transition package.

"Each outgoing prime minister has different wants. I think we seek to accommodate them as best we can," said Robert McIntosh, the library's director general of archives. For example, he said, some former prime ministers want office space, while others do not.

"I think what is most critical is that LAC, on behalf of Canadians, is in a position to acquire and preserve the best and most comprehensive record of what these very, very significant individuals did in their time in office."

Access restrictions

Prime ministerial records are not subject to Canada's access to information laws but the library uses "the spirit" of the ATIP legislation to make its access recommendations to former prime ministers or their estates, said Mongrain​.

Most prime ministerial records are closed to public access for a minimum of 30 to 40 years from their date of creation.

LAC can restrict a former PM's records instead of closing them totally, which allows researchers to access them as long as they promise not to publish the information.

"It is not our goal to acquire records that we cannot open and if we know there's no way we can ever open something, we are usually not interested in acquiring them," said Mongrain.

It will still be years before portions of Mulroney's papers are made public. His PMO communications, for example, will remain closed until at least 2034. Then the LAC will determine "if it is suitable" to open the files.

A number of Martin's records — including communications and correspondence from his years as prime minister — are closed until 2050.

McIntosh said an emerging challenge for archivists is the vast volume of digital records they have to preserve.

"You know how fragile digital information is. We are working very, very hard to ensure that with this new kind of record, we ensure that their authenticity is preserved," he said.

Those donating material to LAC are entitled to tax receipts but their value is kept secret from the public.

"The Library and Archives Canada is not in the business of establishing fair market value," said Mongrain.

With files from Ken Rubin.