An employee of Library and Archives Canada has told the Nation that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is being strangled by a lack of funding. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the LAC worker said the work of the commission is unlikely to be completed by deadline.
“It’s unlikely we will ever have enough resources – in terms of space or staff – to do the work in the timeframe [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission] wants,” said the source.
This, says the LAC employee, is at the heart of the conflict between the TRC and the federal government over access to the 3.5 million documents related to Indian Residential Schools in the government’s archives. In January, an Ontario Superior Court judge ordered the government to “provide all relevant documents to the TRC unlimited by where the documents are located within the government of Canada.”
Rejecting government arguments that TRC investigators should find the documents themselves, the judge also ruled that the process of finding and organizing documents within Library and Archives Canada should not be imposed on the TRC given the limits of its budget and the time it has been allotted.
But it might be too little too late. In August, the TRC was able to access the archives for the first time, less than one year before the scheduled end of its mandate. Library and Archives Canada has previously stated that the cost to assemble all the documents related to Indian Residential Schools required for the TRC could be $40-million or more, and would require about a decade of archival work. The residential schools records are enormous and unsorted. Meanwhile, adds the LAC employee, the organization is underfunded and still reeling from its time under a director who resigned in disgrace last May.
“I adore the TRC and want them to do wonderful things,” said the LAC employee. But the TRC is demanding a job within a deadline that is impossible for the LAC to meet. The commission is asking for “tens of thousands” of containers, each containing hundreds of documents. And much of that material must still be cleared by the slow and bureaucratic Access to Information Program (ATIP) before it can be released.
“All government records that are textual come in here automatically closed,” the employee noted. “So if you want them open, you have to ATIP them. It’s not usually a huge issue, unless for example a particular group like the TRC wants access to thousands and thousands of containers that are all still closed.”
Library and Archives Canada has for several years been shaken by controversy. Between 2009 and this past May, LAC was directed by former Librarian and Archivist of Canada Daniel J. Caron, who was frequently accused of mismanagement. Caron resigned after it was revealed he had billed over $4,000 for personal Spanish lessons.
During Caron’s tenure, in 2012, the federal government cut LAC’s operating budget by $9.6 million, which led the LAC to lay off 430 employees –20% of its workforce. Another 200 people were to be let go over the next two years. A series of organizations, led by the Canadian Library Association and the Association of Canadian Archivists, protested the savage cuts to Canada’s ability to preserve its history.
Shortly before his resignation this spring, Caron issued employees a new Code of Conduct. The controversial document imposed on employees a “duty of loyalty to their employer, the Government of Canada […] to help the duly elected government, under law, to serve the public interest and implement government policies and ministerial decisions.”
The code also cautioned LAC employees to refrain from any criticism of LAC in any forum, public or semi-private under threat of disciplinary action. It also described as “high risk to LAC” activities by highly educated LAC employees that included teaching, speaking or attending conferences on their own time.
The code led to charges that the Harper government was muzzling researchers and archivists. Some journalists denounced the pressure on employees to protect LAC bureaucracy and public image at the expense of the purpose LAC was created to serve – like the TRC. Under this code of conduct, the anonymous LAC employee could face disciplinary action simply for describing the state of the organization to the Nation.
“There are all kinds of issues that have been problems in the ways we’ve always worked here,” said the LAC employee. “These aren’t just new problems that have come up since the cuts, and the reorganizations that have taken place since the cuts – though they certainly didn’t help.”
The employee says that since Caron’s resignation, there have been noticeable improvements within the organization, but “there’s so much work to be done. Not just on the TRC – everywhere.”
Though the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement was signed in 2006, it took four years for the federal government to task Aboriginal and Northern Development department with handling the TRC’s demand for “all relevant” documents promised by the agreement. Since then, the department and the TRC have constantly argued about what constitutes “relevant” documents, who was responsible for finding them, and how they should be delivered.
This is what January’s court decision was supposed to clear up. As the clock ticks down on the TRC’s mandate, however, the funding required to fulfill it has been painstakingly slow to appear.
“They promised us a certain amount of money to help us with the TRC – to support work and research – then, of course, we didn’t get it for a long time,” the LAC employee said. “We had to start because there was pressure from TRC, and because we wanted to get started. We knew what we had to do, so we basically started without funding. We knew there was an insane amount of work and that there was no way that we’d be able to meet the deadlines that they had set in place initially, or even the revised ones.”
The TRC’s goals are very difficult to meet, says the LAC source, implying that TRC organizers had little idea of the LAC’s capacity to deliver the information they’ve requested in the timeframe allowed. LAC, says the source, is underfunded, disorganized and simply incapable of doing what the TRC wants it to.
“We tried to get started doing what we could, just with the people that are here, and that’s pretty much how we’re still operating,” the source said, noting that LAC recently put out a call to hire a archivists to handle TRC materials. “Bear in mind that the TRC started in 2011, and the funding was finally approved last year. It’s been over a year, and we just put the call out now.”
The picture the LAC employee paints is sombre. More difficult still, the employee said, is LAC staff understand the importance of the TRC and want to deliver the material the commission needs in order to help survivors access all possible information.
“I so want people to understand what’s going on inside LAC,” said the source, “because we’re getting slammed – it’s a lack of time, lack of resources, lack of space, staff, everything. It goes beyond just the standard government stuff because of the layoffs and [organizational changes instituted by Caron]. We are trying to meet the needs of the TRC. I wish people understood that we are trying.”