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The situation has descended into farce: Library and Archives Canada (LAC), entrusted with preserving historic papers, books, photographs, paintings, film and artifacts, was so eroded by cuts that, a few years ago, author Jane Urquhart was unable to access her own papers, donated to LAC in the 1990s.The result is a crisis in what Canadians know—and are allowed to know—about themselves.The 2013 report “Information management in the Canadian federal government” is a title not likely to attract the non-librarian reader.
Related reading from Jonathon Gatehouse: When science goes silent Disappearing data is only one part of a larger narrative of a degradation of knowledge—one that extends from federal scientists being prevented from talking about their research on topics as mundane as snow to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being forced to take the federal government to court to obtain documents that should have been available under Access to Information.Isla Jordan and Ulla de Stricker describe a country “without access to large parts of its institutional memory, and leaders without access to the information needed for strategic decision-making.” Toni Samek, a professor at the school of library and information studies at the University of Alberta, puts it more succinctly. President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget calls for an emphasis on making data “legally and practically” more accessible. Last year, Tony Clement, Conservative MP and Treasury Board president, announced the Action Plan on Open Government 2014-16 to “foster greater openness and accountability . “Health Canada has improved its transparency in a few small areas, but overall, does an abysmal job,” says Joel Lexchin, a drug-industry watchdog and professor in the school of health policy and management at Toronto’s York University. S., says biologist Jeremy Kerr, a professor at the University of Ottawa.Canada is facing a “national amnesia,” she says, a condition that will block its ability to keep government accountable, remember its past and plan its future. Federal Reserve posted full and revealing transcripts of meetings held by then chairman Ben Bernanke in the weeks and months leading to the 2008 recession—there for anyone with an Internet connection to read. “[It] doesn’t even make public a list of drugs withdrawn for safety reasons,” he says. Kerr works in climate change, ecology and conservation—“data-hungry fields,” he says.The edict to eliminate information deemed “redundant, outdated and trivial” (known as “ROT”) gives federal managers licence to decide what data should be cut and what kept, says Li, the U of T librarian. LAC is updating its “technical infrastructure,” a spokesperson told , LAC head Guy Berthiaume spoke of making LAC a “client-driven organization,” developing a three-year plan and digitizing a quarter of its archives.“There is no transparency, oversight, or published criteria for the decision-making process,” she says. But the organization has suffered a 50 per cent cut in its digital staff, and received no additional funding in the 2015 budget.