Historians, academics, and researchers are expressing shock and alarm at sweeping new changes to the British Columbia Archives. Those who regularly use and rely on the archives have characterized draconian new policies limiting access to the public records as "Orwellian" and "dangerous".
News of the information clamp-down by BC's NDP government was revealed in an August 14th article by Richard Carlson, "Closing the Door on BC's History" in the University of Victoria's student newspaper The Martlet. "It's kind of like 1984, when the government manages history," says John Lutz, UVic history professor and secretary of the BC Archives Action Group.
"The government [will now] not only decide which records are kept and which are destroyed, but even if they are kept, the ministry can control access to these documents," warned Lutz. Linda Vanden Berg of Vandenberg and Associates, a company that researches native land claims believes the new changes are "a direct hit against First Nations to protect the government. They have a vested interest in knowing what information we are ordering and controlling that information. It makes it so there is no contest, they have the access to information and we don't. Is this a Police state we are living in?"
According to the Martlet article, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Gillian Wallace instructed the BC Archives on June 12, 1997 to "close all government records in the Archives." The reason given was the supposed breach of solicitor-client confidentiality - the solicitor being the Attorney General and the client another government ministry, records previously open to the public. "While it may be appropriate to waive the government's privilege over some legal opinions that are of historical interest, the age of an opinion alone does not mean the privilege should be waived," wrote Wallace.
After a three day lock down of all government records, a new procedure was implemented compelling archivists to refer documents to the Attorney General's "Legal Services" branch for a decision on releasing them.
"This is a very, very serious matter. Never before in my memory have a majority of the government records been closed to the public," said Dr. Eric Sager, another UVic history professor. "When is public access to documents guaranteed, or can government stop access to public archives at the whim of bureaucrats for short term political expediency?"
The lock down and restrictions on access come at a time when many BC Indian Bands are attempting to assemble documentation for the BC Treaty Commission (BCTC) process, headed by Alec Robertson, former director of the logging giant Daishowa which is infamous for its attacks on the Lubicon Cree and their supporters. The BCTC is much criticized by traditionalists as a bogus and fraudulent "termination and extinguishment" device. Professional researchers like Vanden Berg say that even under the existing system,"the cost is getting prohibitive for land claims cases. First Nations don't receive any funding for court cases, so even the 50 cents per page copying cost is limiting, and a "Freedom of Information" request can now take up to five months, "even if she is permitted access to the documents requested", reports the Martlet.
"We depend on the Archives to settle land claims, or a few years ago to answer the demand for Japanese redress for internment, and now the Chinese communities are asking for redress for the head tax, and aboriginals with residential schools... In order to examine these issues we need the archives," said historian John Lutz. UVic doctoral student Susan Johnston, is examining provincial history to understand modern BC racism and prejudice. "My ideological motivation is to see what attitudes and prejudices people have had. To make changes in our own racism it is necessary to show that our knowledge of race is from the past... since the 1970s, one of the roles historians have taken on is to understand where we come from without the rah-rah British sort of thing," said Johnston.
"Yes we were racist, yes we were homophobic, yes we were not all that nice." But Johnston had difficulty in finding out how "not all that nice" we were as her research was stopped by the Attorney General's letter, wrote the Martlet's Carlson. "It is the value of history to rethink who we are - we are going to lose that," she concluded.