by Peter Harries-Jones
August 27, 2015.
Did you know that the present Federal Government has reduced access to the Internet and access to libraries for a large portion of our population under the guise of saving money and protecting us from terrorism?
Public libraries and community centres are generally funded by the municipality in which they are located. However, to offset relative unevenness in the spread of new electronic technology, the Government of Canada introduced the Community Access Program (CAP, also known as C@P). The program began in 1994 and was administered by Industry Canada as part of their Youth Initiative. The federal agency began by asking which Canadians could be designated as being on the other side of a “Digital Divide” and soon found out that their focus should be in rural communities where Internet access was scarce. After financial help in obtaining computers and Internet access, the CAP began promoting skills required for using digital technology. The program ensured public access to skill- teaching programs in rural and other selected areas. According to Statistics Canada in 2001, those in highest need of these services were older Canadians, Canadians with low income or low education, new immigrants, Aboriginals, and francophones.
By 2012 Statistics Canada reported that nearly 1 in 5 Canadians depended on free public access at libraries, retail and community locations in order to connect to the Internet. It confirmed that access to the Internet is still tied to income, and only 58% of Canadians in the lowest income quartile had access to the Internet at home. For example, there were 209 sites in Nova Scotia alone providing free Internet access to the public through the Community Access Program.
In April 2012 this program was cut without consultation. The explanation that was offered was that the program had served its purpose. Three years later, reports in the media began to circulate that Canadian public library computers protect people participating in criminal activity. It seems no coincidence that these media reports appeared at the same time as Canada’s Bill C-51, known as the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015, was discussed in Parliament. The Canadian Library Association has wholeheartedly refuted these allegations. Public libraries use software to ensure that private health, banking and other personal information will not be compromised when the next individual logs on. Policies about Internet-use in public libraries do not permit illegal activities on library computers. In effect, public libraries remain committed to providing both free and safe access to the Internet, while ensuring that library-staff continue to cooperate with law enforcement as required.
There has been further limitation of access to libraries in the same time period. This involves restrictions on federal prisoners. The Association has sent a position paper to Don Head, Commissioner of Correctional Service of Canada, to Steven Blaney, Minister of Public Safety and to Peter MacKay, Minister of Justice and Attorney General, protesting both the cut in library services and cut in access to libraries and books available for federal prisoners. The paper notes that while prisoners’ literacy skills may be quite low (Grade 8 or lower), limiting access to reading material blocks their ability to improve their education, and hinders development of social skills that would increase their job opportunities after their release. The Canadian Library Association stated that it supports the fundamental right of people who are incarcerated to read, learn, and access information.
As one senior Ottawa librarian (who wished to remain anonymous) commented to me “Under the guise of cutting costs, several key programs which support public access to the Internet via public libraries have been cut. Canada seems committed to creating a society of two tiers: the information haves and information have-nots. In the so-called Information Age, this is not acceptable in a modern democracy.”
In fact, the present government has directed federal departments to delete older publications from their own websites. The senior librarian commented, “At the moment federal libraries in Canada have no legal standing. They exist only at the discretion and whim of their Deputy Minister. This is why federal libraries have been closed or severely reduced. And it is why the federal government can cut funding of Library and Archives Canada so that it cannot preserve even electronic publications from the federal government.
“These actions all create a large hole in the corporate memory of our federal government. I would like to see a government that is committed to creating laws, regulations, policies and programs ensuring that Canada’s published information heritage is both fully preserved and easily accessible for future generations.
“While it is commendable that the most recent versions of publications are generally accessible via the federal government websites, there is no mechanism in place to ensure that federal departments and their agencies preserve and make easily accessible older versions of those same publications. In fact, there is no law, regulation or policy that protects this aspect of Canada’s published heritage.
“Government libraries have always maintained a collection of each department’s publications as well as publications of universities, scholarly publishers, think tanks and other government’s publications. Yet some of those libraries, including the Library of the Geological Survey of Canada, the Library of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada – formerly Labour Canada – are now closed. Either access to the library is severely restricted or their books are now in the dumpster.
“These libraries are the oldest and the best in Canada. Believe it or not, apart from the Library of Parliament, Library and Archives Canada, and Supreme Court of Canada Library, the rest can be closed at any time.
“As for the unpublished information records of the government, these too must continue to be preserved through legal and policy backing and made accessible under the Access to Information Act. We, the public, have a right to know.”
Peter Harries-Jones is an emeritus professor at York University, interested in communication studies, systems theory and ecology. He is the author of a book on Gregory Bateson’s ‘ecological epistemology,’ and co-edited the internet journal SEED together with Edwina Taborsky. He is also a member of the organizing committee of Our Right to Know.