This letter circulated on the ARCAN-L listserv on the weekend. ARCAN-L is Canada’s national archival community discussion board.
6 September 2012
Dear Prime Minister:
I write as a proud Canadian, a proud Albertan, and a sometime supporter of your government, but a distressed one. I write also as a scholar who has spent years researching and publishing about pre-twentieth-century British expeditions of exploration for a northwest passage. Canadians know this to be a public and private interest of yours and your government’s.
My distress issues out of your government’s gradual, imperilling withdrawal of funding needed for the efficient operation of Library and Archives Canada. The resultant restructuring has been so drastic as to render this flagship institution of Canadian culture almost unrecognizable.
Staff have been cut. Service hours have been reduced. The purchase of materials has been brutally curtailed. Loan policies have been cancelled outright. Scholars from other countries coming to Ottawa to conduct research have had their inquiries go unanswered and their trips to Ottawa end in complete failure to access any records because of the dearth of staff available either to reply to correspondence or to fill standard requests to see records. The organization is in utter disarray. The dismal consensus is that, in a space of a half-dozen years, the library has so deteriorated as to be failing to fulfill its legislated mandate.
As you and/or your office staff doubtless know, the national library was founded in 1953, and its most recent charter, the Library and Archives Canada Act (2004), states that one of its chief purposes is to acquire and preserve “the documentary heritage” of Canada. Books and unpublished manuscripts like letters and other documents are the materials through which we discover who we are. They are the eyes through which we see what our country is. Contrary to popular belief, they do not collect and organize themselves. The cuts to LAC’s budget have been so deep and capricious as to suggest that those doing the cutting have no understanding of what the library and archives should be, and the result will be the devastation of what Canada is, not only as a concept and an idea but also as the very real place in which we are leading our lives and raising our families. To dismantle a nation’s library and archives is to shoot a bullet through its temple.
Permit me to provide you with a personal example of the value of LAC to those Canadians who, like you, take an interest in this month’s search for the Erebus and Terror off King William Island. Earlier in my career, I was involved in locating two books of watercolour sketches made by George Back, then a midshipman serving under John Franklin during the first of his overland expeditions to the Arctic. These sketchbooks, which I found in a house in Gloucestershire, England, contain the first known pictures of any part of Alberta (the lower Athabasca River and Fort Chipewyan. In case of your interest, I’ll note that some of these were published in a book entitled Arctic Artist ). Although private collectors wished to obtain them, I discussed with their owners the possibility of opening negotiations with Library and Archives Canada so that it could bid to obtain both sketchbooks in advance of a public auction and probable disappearance into a private collection. The diligent staff at LAC succeeded in effecting the purchase. Thank goodness. These priceless documents and works of art now reside in Ottawa, where they belong. Because of permanent ill health, caused by his four expeditions in the Canadian Arctic (one of which subsequently caused the Great Fish River to be renamed Back River, one of the premier waterways of the mainland Barrens of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut), Back was not considered for appointment when Franklin was selected to command the ill-fated expedition of 1845. Subsequently, he was a paramount advisor to the Admiralty during the search operations of the the 1850s, and he numbered among the members of the council that the Admiralty convened to direct the search. With William Edward Parry, he remains a towering figure of nineteenth-century explorations of what now forms the Canadian Arctic.
Intentionally or unintentionally, sir, during your tenure as prime minister, the Government of Canada is conducting what amounts to a search and destroy campaign against LAC and thus against the cultural memory of Canadian people, memory that includes such gems as these sketchbooks. Think of the government’s action personally as brain surgery performed on you, sir, to deprive you of your memory. That would amount to a shocking withdrawal of your ability to function.
If not in the shortest of short terms, this is an issue of deep importance to all Canadians. I urge you to read the letter that the Bibliographical Society of Canada sent to all members of Parliament (if your copy has gone astray, please find it at http://www.bsc-sbc.ca/ and click on either “President’s Letter about Library and Archives Canada” or “Lettre du Présidente au sujet de Bibliothèque et Archives Canada”) and take measures to reverse the murderous withdrawal of the levels of funding needed to keep the LAC from becoming a disgrace in the eyes of Canadians and in the eyes of foreigners wishing to research Canadian subjects. Surely, you are too proud a Canadian to let this happen; surely, you will not want Canadian History to remember you for perpetrating this atrocity.
Professor of History and Classics
University of Alberta