January 6, 2022
OTTAWA — An Ottawa researcher is asking a judge to order Canada’s national archives to speed up work on his request for old RCMP records after he was told to wait at least 80 years for a response.
In a notice of application to the Federal Court, Michael Dagg says Library and Archives Canada “has failed to establish any valid basis for the extraordinary extension of time” to process his application under the Access to Information Act.
The case is just the latest example of the frustrations and lengthy delays many users of the access law experience, particularly when trying to obtain historical records.
In March 2018, Dagg filed an access request with Library and Archives for records on Project Anecdote, a fraud and corruption investigation by the RCMP in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The archives identified 780,000 pages of paper and microfilm records, including investigation reports, witness statements, briefing notes, exhibits, search warrants and communications with foreign governments.
Library and Archives said it would need an extension of 29,200 days to process the request, making the due date March 25, 2098.
Dagg, a longtime user of the access law, said in an interview he asked for the RCMP records out of curiosity about the police probe. He called the delay “outrageous,” saying the archives should have a more constructive plan.
Dagg’s lawyer, Paul Champ, said that asking for an extension “measured in decades is a bad joke on Canadians.”
“It is sad that government departments view access to information legislation as an inconvenience that they can ignore. Library and Archives Canada should facilitate access to Canadians, not help to bury government secrets.”
Dagg complained in May 2018 to the information commissioner, an ombudsman for users of the access law.
Commissioner Caroline Maynard learned that Library and Archives needed a year-and-a-half to digitize the documents and considerably more time to go through the records and excise material too sensitive to disclose.
Consultations with the RCMP and the Department of Justice were likely necessary, with a possibility of others, including foreign governments, the commissioner’s October 2021 report said.
In addition, the 80-year estimate did not even account for processing relevant information on an array of audio-visual and digital media.
Maynard concluded that while processing the large volume of records under the standard 30-day period set out in the access law would interfere with the archives’ operations, the 80-year extension was unreasonable.
She said the link between the justifications advanced by Library and Archives and the length of the extension was not adequately explained, nor had the archives demonstrated that the work required to provide access within “any materially lesser period of time” than 80 years would interfere with its operations.
In March 2021, Library and Archives gave a new time-frame of 65 years to process the request.
Even so, the commissioner’s report said the organization had not defined or procured the required resources to handle the request, nor worked towards completion in any meaningful way.
Maynard recommended a response to the request be provided “forthwith,” but Library and Archives refused to budge.
The chief librarian and archivist said prioritizing completion “is simply not possible without severely impacting LAC’s operations, and particularly its capacity to maintain equitable services in fulfilling the requests of other Canadians.”
Dagg wants the court to order Library and Archives to process the records promptly and issue quarterly, interim releases of responsive documents while the processing of other records continues.
The information commissioner’s findings were basically ignored in this case, demonstrating how broken the system is, Champ said.
“If the Federal Court cannot stop this wilful law-breaking by Archives Canada, it will highlight why reform is so badly needed.”