Shutting down our libraries broke the law

In every one of my January town hall meetings, certain issues were always raised. Constituents of Saanich-Gulf Islands spoke out against the Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan projects for risky tankers and pipelines, were appalled by lifting the moratorium on toxic fish factories, expressed concern about contamination from Fukishima, Canada Post cut-backs, our dysfunctional voting system, and scandals in the PMO and Senate. As well, at every session, people expressed outrage about the destruction of our libraries.

As reported in the Globe and Mail, (Gloria Galloway, Purge of Canada’s fisheries libraries a ‘historic’ loss, scientists say, Jan 7, 2014) scientists working within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had known since last spring that the department was reducing its regional libraries from eleven to four. Still, it was a shock to see records taken to the dumpsters.

Speaking with online news source The Tyee, Dalhousie University marine biologist Jeffrey Hutchings, speculated the cuts were not based on the stated rationale—to save $430,000/year—but were part of Stephen Harper’s antiscience ideology. He said, ‘It is always unnerving from a research and scientist perspective to watch a government undermine basic research. There are many materials online but just as many books and materials that are not…. From a science and research perspective these closures will have no positive impact on the quality of research—but they will have a negative impact. Losing libraries is not a neutral act.’

In Winnipeg, the hugely important library of the Freshwater Institute was open for looting before being closed. Kelly Whelan-Enns, an old friend of mine from Manitoba Wildlands, was able to salvage important maps and wildlife data. He reported to The Tyee that, ‘I saw a private consultant firm working for Manitoba Hydro back up a truck and fill it with Manitoba data and materials that the public had paid for. I was profoundly saddened and appalled.’

Libraries that held the files and research from the Canadian Forest Service were shut down last year—including a library closed in Victoria. The libraries at the departments of Transport, Immigration and Public Works have also been eliminated since 2012. Twenty percent of the workforce at Libraries and Archives Canada were laid off in 2012. And on January 20, 2014 it was reported that the main library of Health Canada was being shut down. Information retrieval is being outsourced to a private sector company. That particular scheme will increase costs as researchers will have to pay $25 to borrow a book.

I wish I had thought about whether this was legal a bit sooner. Perhaps it was the shock of the Access to Information request from Postmedia that made it clear the collections were not being ‘digitized’ as claimed but, in fact, were being ‘culled’ that made me realize this had to be illegal.

The Act covering publications and records held by the Government of Canada is the Library and Archives of Canada Act. In reviewing it, it seems clear the act was not followed. The Library and Archives of Canada Act exists to protect and preserve our ‘documentary heritage’. The Act’spreamble makes it clear that Parliament recognizes the importance of protecting knowledge as a critical part of any democratic society.

The Act established a set of protections for all government records held by any and all departments. The mandate to protect and maintain the documentary heritage of Canada is held by the Librarian and Archivist for Canada. The current Librarian and Archist is Hervé Déry—appointed in May 2013 on an interim basis.

According to the Act,

12. (1) No government or ministerial record, whether or not it is surplus property of a government institution, shall be disposed of, including by being destroyed, without the written consent of the Librarian and Archivist …..

Under s. 16, all publications (even if surplus) must be moved to the care and control of the Librarian and Archivist.

I decided to phone the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, who has a very clear responsibility to protect the ‘documentary heritage’ of Canadians. It took over a week to get the current interim Librarian and Archivist on the phone. And when I did, it turned out two officials from Heritage Canada were in the room as ‘observers.’ Mr Déry confirmed that he has not provided any written authorizations for the destruction of documents. He claimed it is none of his business if records, books and research are destroyed as it is in the ‘discretion of the ministers.’

My first question in Question Period as House resumed on January 27 was to challenge the legality of these actions:

‘Mr Speaker, Canadians have been outraged by the dismantling of government libraries such as those dealing with fisheries, forests and health. Under the Library and Archives of Canada Act, these materials are protected as the ‘documentary heritage of Canadians. Surplus materials are to be placed in the care and control of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada and materials and records cannot be destroyed without written consent. I have spoken with the Librarian and Archivist of Canada and it appears to me that the Act was not followed.

‘Will the Prime Minister commit to immediately investigating whether these acts in closing libraries and casting the materials to the four winds, to dumpsters and to looters are legal, and restore and protect the documentary heritage of Canadians?’

The reply, from Minister of State Gary Goodyear, ignored the question of legality and said everything would be available online. ‘Welcome to this century,’ was his dismissive reply. I mentioned later to the media that the burning of books did not put people in mind of this century.

Clearly, the Prime Minister will regret not having repealed the Library and Archives of Canada Act in a previous omnibus bill. I will pursue his law-breaking contempt for the documentary heritage of the people of Canada.