In Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, author Mark Bourrie argues that Prime Minister Harper “has tried to muzzle and delegitimize criticism” (p. 21) by aggressively controlling its messaging and “defanging” (p. 18) watchdogs such as the media and scientists on the federal payroll. Mr. Bourrie further contends that this behaviour undermines the public’s right to know and has allowed an anti-intellectual government to do business largely in secret.
I found the sections of the book that discuss recent cutbacks at federal department libraries (and specifically Health Canada) plus cutbacks and other changes at Library and Archives Canada of particular interest. All of these changes have significantly affected the ability of federal government employees and the public to access information.
Chapter 7 (with the fitting title of “The War on Brains”) describes the effects of significant changes to library services at Health Canada:
- The complement of 40 science librarians was reduced to 6, thus significantly reducing the availability of trained professionals to conduct literature searches and help scientists track down publications.
- The head office library was closed and its collection was moved to the National Science Library on the Ottawa campus of the National Research Council, thus preventing research scientists from being able to quickly access the information.
- Since the interlibrary loan program was outsourced, a scientist’s department is now charged for every borrowed item. This change has reportedly prompted some scientists to devise clever methods of accessing materials for free (e.g. borrowing a university library card from a co-op student).
- One scientist reportedly started a library in his basement, amassing 250’ of books and journals and bringing requested items to his colleagues at work.
That chapter also discusses cutbacks and significant changes at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). For example:
- More than 200 employees were fired in May 2012 resulting in the loss of many experienced experts with unique skills.
- Daniel Caron, former head of Library and Archives Canada, banned librarians and archivists from making presentations in classrooms, attending conferences, or speaking at public meetings to audiences such as genealogists on the basis that such activities could result in conflicts of interest or ‘other risks’ to LAC.
- The elimination of the interlibrary loan system prevents people across the country from borrowing books from the archives.
- Library and Archives Canada spent nothing on historic documents in 2011-2012 (down from $385,461 in 2008-2009) while the US Library of Congress’ annual acquisitions budget ranged from $18 to $19 million from 2009-2012.
One anecdote of particular interest to the records and information management (RIM) community illustrates how the Harper government’s tight messaging control even prevented government experts from briefing the media on the requirements for managing government records.
Mr. Bourrie reports that a December 2013 request by The Canadian Press for “a background briefing with an official from Library and Archives Canada to learn about the laws and regulations concerning the saving and deleting of government emails” (p. 266) wasn’t granted. Although LAC identified an employee to provide the briefing, consultations involving 32 bureaucrats, the Privy Council Office, and the Department of Canadian Heritage reportedly resulted in the decision to not allow the expert to share his knowledge. Further, Mr. Bourrie contents that “Library and Archives Canada was leaned on to tell The Canadian Press that the expert was out of town”. (p. 267)