In Blog

Erasing History

by Phyllis Creighton

A talk given at Beaches Public Library in Toronto, Sept. 2015.

I speak to you tonight as a citizen, but also as a historian involved in shaping our collective story and our knowledge of it for many years. In my career at the Dictionary of Canadian biography/Dictionnaire biographique du Canada I have worked, as a researcher and editor, at creating a source of knowledge of our country that is npw readily available – on line – and much used by academics and the public, and even schools.

What is happening in Canada to basic knowledge and its sources as a result of federal government decisions and actions to reduce budgets, cut research institutes, and dismantle libraries, dispersing or destroying accumulated print and archival material, is of acute interest to all of us.

Librarians and archivists have a right to be among the truly shell-shocked in Canada today. What they treasure has been under attack by the Harper government for years. This talk focuses on how libraries, archives, and research institutions have been reduced in scope and services, intellectual capital destroyed, and the endeavour to reshape our history launched. The target is not just, self-evidently, to reduce the research capacity of the federal government and its reliance on scientific evidence in policy-making—and the impact to also lessen the ability of both the opposition and the public to keep government accountable. It is also, by reducing the available source material, to narrow our collective understanding of what Canada has been and to enable a new mythology about our country to be created. We have a vital interest in thinking about these developments, especially since the effect of the sweeping destruction and reorientation is to put at risk a progressive, science-based future for Canada, with a proud, honest, transparent history!

We need to go back three and a half years. In the federal government’s austerity March 2012 budget, Harper cut Library and Archives Canada by $9.6 million over three years. That quickly caused a 20 per cent cut in Library and Archives staff and the staff resource centre closed. Reduction continues. The 2014 budget was 58 per cent of the (inflation-adjusted) 1990-91 one. The impacts included 215 staff let go, including 21 of 61 archivists and their assistants. The result? Library and Archives Canada is now a shell of its former busy self, with whole empty exhibition rooms and skeleton service in its Ottawa building.[1]

This is the body that has stood as a safe repository of papers, photographs, paintings, films, and artifacts. Voices/Voix, a non-partisan coalition of more than 200 Canadian organizations committed to defending our collective and individual rights to debate and to dissent, notes on its website, that according to the relevant Directive on Recordkeeping, “information resources and records and information resources determined to ‘no longer have operational value’ may, at the discretion of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, be disposed of.”[2] That’s a power and potential for wide scale disposal and significant destruction. You can understand the mock funeral held by some 150 archivists called ‘Archivists’ on to Ottawa Trek’ on 28 May 2012 –and the “Save Library & Archives Canada” campaign led by the Canadian Association of University Teachers to inform the public about the implications of the cuts and coordinate citizen responses.

Anne Kingston, in her sensational current Maclean’s article “Vanishing Canada: why we’re all losers in Ottawa’s war on data,” notes the erosion is so bad that author Jane Urquhart, who gave her papers to LAC in 1990, couldn’t access them a few years ago. The edict to eliminate redundant, outdated, or trivial material is broad and vague, and there are no published criteria for elimination, or transparency, or oversight. Also no additional money in the 2015 budget. Other impacts in the new regime: in person access had been reduced in February 2012 in a new approach of service delivery, and, of course, now, reduced staff means less assistance for researchers, academics, writers.

Much was made of the intent to digitize archival collections, but the cuts included half of the staff involved in that work! The dream of full digitalization is as empty as the spaces in LAC. The finding aids for digitized materials are incomplete, and records languish uncollected and unprocessed, according to the auditor general’s 2014 report. Researchers are directed to use digital interface that is often cumbersome and useless.[3] Some digitization has, reportedly, been farmed out to commercial firms and material made available for sale. The National Archival Development Program, which sought to build a broad diverse record of our past and oversaw Archives Canada, a database making material in small archives scattered across the country accessible to the public, has also been terminated. Archivists, historians, and public sector unions claim the loss of this program jeopardizes Canada’s historical record.[4]

But something more sinister also happened. A new code of conduct for archivists and librarians was put into effect early in 2013 stressing loyalty to the federal government, not only at work but off work, which included “both a muzzle and a snitch line,” the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers Jim Turk observed, claiming the government is silencing and undermining its professional staff [5]. Naturally there was a chilling effect on engaging with academics and the public, conferences and teaching being identified as ‘high risk’ activities, with participation in them subject to approval by management.[6] As a result of political pressure, a revised improved code was substituted. But “[e]mployees are still encouraged to report on their colleagues for any failure to comply with the code, a shameful policy that contributes to an unhealthy workplace.”[7]

Austerity policies brought other losses. The termination of the Interlibrary Loans Program broadly affects scholars and thinking Canadians, cutting access across the country to national library archives and archives materials, limiting the means of knowledge and constraining research. The public used to have free access to computers and high-speed internet at libraries across Canada, but the elimination of the Community Access Program, serving rural and remote communities, as well as more vulnerable or impoverished citizens, is another public loss.

In my years at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography/ Dictionnaire biographique du Canada—which is one of the best in the world!—the published volumes, now accessible on line at have come to span the centuries from 1000 to 1930. We are working on the next volume to cover distinguished Canadians who died in the period 1931 to 1940. I spent a great deal of time for half a dozen years in archives to do the research that determined our choice of individuals for inclusion. If you don’t have archived records, you can’t create a good biography, and the difficulty applies to all historical work. The destruction and reductions put at risk maintenance of the scholarly standards in our work – which is much used by the public and by schools with too little time for teaching history.

But there’s not only reduction in historical material and in access to it. Obvious strong efforts have been made to reinterpret our past so as to portray Canada as a nation grounded in bravery and war. The federal government spent $28 million in an endeavour to tout the glory of the War of 1812 and the victory over American aggression as foundational in the story of our country. The myth that in victorious warring lay our roots was not unconnected to the simultaneous desire to praise and give prominence to our brave fighters in Afghanistan and to the need to sell the switch in our foreign policy from peacekeeping to warring. But Canada did not exist in 1812, and Canadian interest in the myth of the importance of this war failed to ignite. In place of celebrating the scientific cutting edge of research stations in the Arctic, the government chose to romanticize the 1845-46 Franklin expedition in the North, a British venture,-by trumpeting the discovery of the Erebus – a photo op for Mr Harper that scientific records, however important and revealing, don’t provide.

Archives also matter to the public in a personal sense. In my work at Ontario Archives I saw how many people were pouring over records, eager to piece together their family tree and the stories of their ancestors’ endeavours. Watching and reflecting, I came to the conclusion that records matter to a great many people who want to know where they came from, who their kith and kin are, what their family story is. One’s identity and the meaning of one’s life, it would seem, hinge on having a historical family framework. In our fast-changing, often bewildering world, many desperately need and search for their roots.

The destruction of records and books is not confined to the national Library and Archives. At the same time, as part of a $5.2 billion program cut for deficit reduction, libraries in at least a dozen federal government departments were being closed, or staffs and services greatly reduced—Agriculture Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Environment Canada, the National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment, Health Canada, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Industry Canada, Transport Canada, the National Capital Commission, National Defence, Natural Resources Canada, Parks Canada, the Public Service Commission of Canada, and Public Works and Government Services Canada. These libraries contained highly specialized information relating to their department’s mandate, often not available elsewhere, with information sources identified and credibility and relevance assessed, and gave access to sources in multiple formats. In other words they provided accurate, authoritative information for public service employees who were engaged in scientific research, giving government knowledge based policy advice and Canadians programs. Institutional memory has been eroded.

On a personal note, when I served for seven years on the Health Canada advisory committee on reproductive and genetic technologies, its staff provided superb scientific reports and articles to inform our thinking, demonstrating the calibre of their commitment to knowledge. But the Health Canada library was closed in March 2013. All the books were dispatched to become ‘closed stacks’ at the National Research Council’s Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information, to which Health Canada personnel themselves had no direct access, and collection development of books ceased. The entirely predictable result? Lack of access to library resources undermines the capacity of Health Canada to make evidence-based decisions. One Health Canada employee observed, “If we are not already over the threshold [of becoming a non-competent regulator] Health Canada is perilously close.” [8]

Earlier, in April 2010, because of budget cuts, the National Research Council, Canada’s leading research organization, began laying off employees — 86 in all. These layoffs affected our national science library and leading publisher of scientific information, the Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information, which reportedly was to be reduced by nearly 70 per cent. Fisheries and Oceans were slashed: the St Andrews Biological Station in New Brunswick, which focused on aquatic science, had funding cuts, with some seven scientists and librarians laid off, its library to close in 2013 and its Contaminants and Toxicology program to end. Then in April 2013 massive downsizing hit the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It had to close its oceans contaminants research program and its world class libraries, seven of nine of them by January 2014. Two of them had been collecting books and technical reports for more than a century, a treasure trove of scientific information. At the DFO’s Freshwater Institute Library in the University of Manitoba, a library that serviced the whole central and Arctic region, bound reports, books, maps, charts, dating back to 1880 were opened for the public to take without any record of disposition—“scavenged,” heartbroken scientists anonymously reported. How valuable was the material? One scientist who used the library frequently observed: “Old environmental impact statements done for past projects were at the top of the rescue list, in part because they offer baseline data on such things as fish populations and toxicology as well as novel methods to do assessments.”[9]

Other libraries were burned, or thrown into dumpsters to be carted off to landfill. “[W]e have trashed a network of world-class marine and fisheries libraries, the envy around the world! The rest of the world cannot believe what is happening in Canada on this issue,” Peter Wells, a prominent marine environmental scientist at Dalhousie University said.[10] Burt Ayles, former regional director for freshwaters, central Canada and Arctic, said the loss of the fisheries “library and its impact on fisheries and environmental science is equivalent to Rome destroying the Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt” – the largest collection in the ancient world.[11] Canada, a country surrounded on three sides with ocean and “a world leader in research on sustainable fisheries and oceans,”[12] is left without valuable records of what was discovered in the past, and without research and monitoring capacity for pollution — or ability to manage impacts on marine wildlife or commercial fish stocks, which are traditional foods of more than 300,000 aboriginal people.[13] And, despite claims otherwise, DFO statistics show that only 1 in 20 of the department’s 600,000 books has been digitized.[14]

What had been accomplished with that now deliberately lost scientific capacity? Peter Ross, a dismissed research scientist, noted:

“Past scientific discoveries such as high levels of PCBs in Inuit foods, dioxins in pulp and paper mill effluent, and DDT-associated eggshell thinning in seabirds formed the basis for national regulations and an international treaty (the Stockholm Convention) that have led to cleaner oceans and safer aquatic foods for fish, wildlife and humans. Canada was a world leader in spearheading this profoundly important treaty, drawing on ground-breaking scientific research in tandem with the knowledge of aboriginal communities.”[15]

According to an Environment Canada infographic cited by investigative journalist and widely read Albertan author Andrew Nikiforuk about 14 per cent of Canada is covered by lakes, rivers, wetlands, marshes and marine waters of estuaries—fragile freshwater habitats, and that these are vital to our ecology and economy and under severe threat by drainage, land reclamation, pollution, overuse, and development. Yet the 2012 omnibus budget Bill C-38 – in a fine bit of Newspeak named the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act–gutted the Fisheries Act.[16] and the second omnibus budget Bill C-45 that year removed environmental protection from 99 per cent of Canada’s lakes and rivers in the Navigation Protection Act, and the goal seems clear: resource exploitation,” to quote Nikiforuk. It is common knowledge that many many consultations with corporate executives of the fossil fuels industry took place before these omnibus bills were drawn up. The New York Times opined that the suppression and monitoring of science by the Harper government was “designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush—the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences.” [17]

Many scientists deny that these cuts and dramatic closures have to do with cost cutting. The government also has engaged in muzzling its scientists – as CBC TV with Rick Mercer rants and a full show on Death of the Labs, CBC radio in an Ideas program, as well as newspaper and magazine articles have set out in some detail. Taking all the closures, book burning, and muzzling into account, the scientists have drawn historical parallels, comparing the government’s “concerted attacks on environmental science to the rise of fascism and the total alignment of state and corporate interests in 1930s Europe.” Acclaimed Dalhousie University biologist Jeff Hutchings asks: “You have to look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?”[18] Good questions for us all to reflect on in these weeks before the October 19th federal election!

For historians as well as, judging from the protests, municipal and regional officials, social workers, companies, and Chambers of Commerce, the biggest loss of data and of basic information about our society and times comes from the federal government’s abolition of the long-form mandatory census in 2010 and its replacement by the voluntary one. My colleague Margrit Eichler aptly describes our current situation as “flying blind.” She notes that the response rate for the mandatory census had been 93.5 per cent, but for the voluntary one it was only 68.6. 1,813 subdivisions were dropped because the response rate was too low – “hundreds of small towns…turned into statistical dead zones and ghost towns” in Lawrence Martin’s graphic words.[19] Some Aboriginal communities are entirely missing. And 21 per cent of millionaires didn’t participate. As Eichler points out, the very rich, the poor, and the marginalized including Aboriginals, people with disabilities, recent immigrants and people with low levels of education or of ability to express themselves in either of our two official languages, are the ones who tend not to participate in voluntary surveys. Whole towns and aboriginal settlements disappeared from statistics. Conveniently there’s less evidence of a poverty problem. Information in key areas is missing in the data gleaned: immigrant integration into the labour market, income inequality trends, housing needs, adequacy of services for low income Canadians. Sociologists, municipal planners, businesses, all have been hobbled by the lack of pertinent needed data. So poor were the results that for comprehensive and reliable statistics one must go back to the 2006 long-form census.[20] So there will be more than a decade’s gap in the store of knowledge enabling future historians to map out our times and society. In a society demonstrably becoming increasingly shaped by technology and manifestly experiencing rising wealth inequality, for whom is it convenient to lack the missing information? No data, no poverty: presto! The reasons for the lack and the predictable consequences will affect all of us. What is happening to Canada? And what do we think underlies this situation?

Martin thinks “In Harper circles, empirical data aren’t wanted because they can readily contradict ideology,” and he cites the example of studies of crime, which show dropping levels that negate the Conservative choice of higher levels of incarceration. “The remedy,” he observes, “is to stop that kind of expertise from getting out, to stop the population from becoming more enlightened.” This, in his view helps explain why the giant bureaucracy in Ottawa has all but been silenced.

Worryingly, in the world of digital information, government can easily reconstruct realities, and thereby reinvent the historical record. Integrity of access to the information system is of increasing value to citizens. Yet access to information is dwindling here. The long gun registry for which Canadian taxpayers spent the money was destroyed, even though police chiefs across the land – among others, vouched for its utility. And the process has Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault worried about where we are headed. When she was investigating the RCMP’s stonewalling of a request for data from the registry in March 2012, the Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews assured her the Mounties wouldn’t destroy it while she was investigating. But they did just that the following October. When she recommended charges be laid against the Mounties, the Harper government buried an amendment in a budget bill backdating authorization to destroy the records, retroactively legalizing the Mounties’ destruction of the records before the legislation to destroy it was in effect.[21] Legault’s fear? “We could do the same thing after investigating potential fraud. We could erase these things retroactively.”[22] That should give us all pause, remembering what happened in the last federal election, with robocalls verified and punished in court.
The situation reminds one of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland: rewriting history, so the reality that was disappears.

Martin says experts assert our system of access to information is becoming more and more ineffective. “In a globalized knowledge economy,” he urges, “the bunker mentality needs to be avoided. But phrases such as ‘the closing of the Canadian mind’ are gaining currency.” The cumulative effect of ten years of a government catering to a right-wing base is a narrowing of the Canadian mind. “If you say too much you are dangerous. If you know too much you are a threat.”[23] This shift has brought us to a fork in the road of our history. What do we ourselves want to have erased in our history – and to erase?


[1] Karen Murray, “Reclaiming the people’s memory,” Canada Watch (York University), Fall 2015, 15-17 at accessed 27 Sept. 2015

[2] “Library and archives Canada: what happened,” at , accessed 23 Sept. 2015

[3] op.cit in footnote 1

[4] ibid

[5] Margaret Munro, “Federal librarians fear being ‘muzzled’ under new code of conduct the stresses ‘duty of loyalty’ to the government,” National Post, 15 March 2013, at accessed 27 Sept. 2015

[6] Myron Groover, “Contempt for values: the controversy over Library and Archives Canada’s code of conduct,” Academic Matters (OCUFA’s Journal of Higher Education), May 2013 at accessed 27 Sept. 2013

[7] “Librarians and archives: Latest news: New code of conduct,” CAUT Bulletin 62(7) September 2015 at

accessed 27 Sept. 2015

[8] “The sad state of Canada’s federal libraries.” Canada’s Past Matters, at accessed 27 Sept. 2015

[9] Mary Agnes Welch, “Scientists go fishing for old documents,” Winnipeg Free Press, 23 Dec. 2015, at accessed 20 Sept. 2015

[10] Andrew Nikiforuk, “What’s driving chaotic dismantling of Canada’s science libraries?” The Tyee, 23 Dec. 2013 at accessed 20 Sept. 2012

[11] Andrew Nikiforuk, “Dismantling of fisheries library ‘like a book burning’ say scientists,” The Tyee, 9 Dec. 2013, at accessed 20 Sept. 2015

[12] Jody Berland, “Editorial: the Politics of Evidence,” Canada Watch, Fall 2015, p.4

[13] Details can be found on the website of Our Right to Know – – under Timeline, Domestic

[14] op. cit. In footnote 6

[15] Peter Ross, “Silent summer,”, accessed 24 Sept. 2015

[16] note 7

[17] Cited in ibid

[18] ibid

[19] Lawrence Martin, “The toll we pay for a bunker mentality,” Globe and Mail, 22 Sept. 2015, p.A13

[20] Margrit Eichler, “Flying Blind,” Canada Watch (York University),Fall 2015 , p.6, at accessed 24 Sept. 2015

[21] “information Czar warns rewriting law sets ‘perilous precedent,” accessed 25 Sept. 2015.

[22] Bruce Cheadle, “Suzanne Legault, information watchdog, wants Mounties charged,” Huffington Post, 14 May 2015 at

Accessed 27 Sept. 2015

[23] note 15