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BriefsReportTable of ContentReport IndexRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences

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THE Public Archives of Canada is primarily the expression of government policy, over the past seventy-five years, on the preservation and care of public records. The Archives, however, over the years has gathered to itself a number of functions and has undertaken valuable services performed by no other agency. In this institution, as in similar federal institutions, Canada is much indebted to the zeal and energy of civil servants whose interests were happily not limited by a narrow interpretation of their duties.

2. The history of Canada's public records goes back to 1872 when a petition "numerously signed by influential persons, setting forth the unsatisfactory state of the Archives of the Dominion" induced Parliament to vote $4,000 and the half-time services of a "senior second class clerk" for their collection and preservation.1 This activity was carried on in that traditionally hospitable department, the Department of Agriculture. The "second class clerk", Dr. Douglas Brymner, put his half-time to such good use that he was shortly appointed full time Archivist. In 1898 a Departmental Commission recommended that the Public Records be centralized under the care of a Dominion Archivist. After five years of deliberation the recommendation was embodied in an Order in Council; and only three years later in 1906, the original wing of the present building was completed and opened.

3. In 1912, under the second Dominion Archivist, Sir Arthur Doughty, a Public Archives Act defined the duties of the Dominion Archivist and required him to report to the President of the Privy Council. In this same year, a Royal Commission, composed of the Archivist and two others, was appointed "to inquire into the state of the records of the Public Departments of the Dominion".

4. At this time, as now, records were officially in the custody of the


various departments. Surrender to the Archivist or Keeper of the Records was voluntary. Destruction of dead files could apparently be carried out by the departments with the permission of the Governor in Council, but the view of the Commissioners was not that there was too much destruction, (the common complaint in relation to historical material), but that too much useless material was kept to the detriment and danger of what was of real value.

5. The Royal Commission of 1912 made sharp comments on storage conditions:

"In most of the departments, while the current correspondence is well kept, the older documents are commonly relegated to basements, attics, and dark rooms, apparently rather as lumber to be got rid of than as records to be preserved, and too frequently are not so arranged as to admit of ready reference, or, in not a few instances, even of convenient access. In some cases there is no semblance of method, the older papers being stored in inaccessible places, without pretence of classification, or any precise indications as to what the collection may contain. The exposure of the documents to dust, dampness, and other agencies, and in some cases their proximity to the heating apparatus of the building, contributeto the deterioration of the papers, while the inflammable nature of the shelving on which they are placed is a constant source of danger."2

6. Some of the records thus indiscriminately stored away even in stables and attics, were found to be valuable and many were of historical significance. Wheat and chaff alike, however, were forgotten and as good as lost. Their probable fate is described by the Commissioners in the grand manner:

"As a rule the departments suffer [the] accumulation of papers to continue unchecked, to their very great inconvenience as well as to the detriment of the more important and valuable documents, which, engulfed by rubbish, share the common neglect, and, if not speedily rescued bid fair to participate in the common ruin."3

7. This indictment, Victorian in stateliness, was followed by recommendations equally Victorian in vigour. Most departments, it was said, made little use of their files after five or ten years. They should be encouraged to turn them over promptly to an official Public Records Office in the Archives. Surrender ought to be made mandatory after twenty-five years. Proper arrangements should be made for destruction to be authorized by a duly constituted board after examination to make sure that everything of administrative or historical significance had been retained. In order that these duties might be properly performed, the Commissioners recommended for the Archives increased staff, greater space, and all suitable facilities.


8. We have thought it desirable to speak in some detail of the work of this Royal Commission of almost forty years ago since an examination of the present situation leads us to the melancholy conclusion that they laboured almost if not altogether in vain.

9. It is true that today there exists a Public Records Committee presided over by the Secretary of State, with the Dominion Archivist as Vice-Chairman. This Committee on public records was established by Privy Council Order in September of 1945 with the task of keeping under constant review "the state of the public records".4 The duty of the Committee is to consider documents recommended by departments for destruction and to advise the Treasury Board to authorize this destruction, if the Committee approves. The Committee may also authorize a department to transfer to the Archives such records as the department may wish to transfer rather than destroy, and in this part of its duties the Committee may act independently of Treasury Board. The Order in Council setting up the Committee places the primary responsibility for departmental records with each department. Destruction is authorized by the Treasury Board presumably only after receiving notice of approval from the Public Records Committee.

10. The establishment of this Committee is an important advance in that it gives departments proper authority to deal with overcrowding while it does something to ensure that nothing will be destroyed of historical or administrative importance. Moreover, one of the duties of the Public Records Committee is to help departments to improve their filing and storage systems. In consequence, there now exist some well organized departmental records. On the other hand, thirty-six years after the blunt comments of the Royal Commission on the Public Records, fifty-two years after it was decided to maintain our public records in one central place under the custody of the Dominion Archivist, and seventy-eight years after Parliament first noted "the unsatisfactory state of the Archives", the truth about Canada's public records system must still be a cause of embarrassment to all Canadians. The historian of pre-Confederation days may find a gold mine at the Archives, but the historian of the Dominion will probably have to look for much of his material elsewhere. It is scattered all over Ottawa, in inactive department files, some of them admirably kept, some, it is to be feared, not much better than they were in 1912.

11. No one knows the condition or extent of these holdings, but it is certain that they greatly exceed the 1,629,014 cubic feet noted by the Royal Commissioners of 1912, and it is equally certain that our colleagues of thirty-six years ago would still see "important and valuable documents . . . engulfed by rubbish" and threatened with "the common ruin". We are informed that completely inactive and inaccessible public records, apart from those still under the care of departments, are now stored by the


Department of Public Works and at present occupy 350,000 square feet of floor space, a figure which we find astonishing when we recall that the Confederation Building in Ottawa, an extensive nine story structure, has a total effective working area of 190,000 square feet. About one-third of the space now occupied by inactive records is rented by the Government at an average cost of $1 a square foot per year. Assuming that this is a fair rental value for all the space so occupied, we observe that the country is spending $350,000 a year in storing files of which probably at least fifty per cent should be destroyed, according to an estimate which we are prepared to accept as reliable; this means that $175,000 a year is being spent to store records which can probably be classified as dead, in that they have no further administrative or historical usefulness. The total appropriation for the Public Archives in 1948-49, not for public records only but in all its branches, was $163,238, less than the amount which is now being spent for the storage of presumably worthless papers. And even if the "rubbish" referred to in the Report of the Royal Commission of 1912 could be readily eliminated and the rest promptly transferred, the Dominion Archivist could not receive it for want of space and for want of trained staff to arrange it and care for it properly.

12. This problem has been discussed with us not only by the Dominion Archivist but by other historians with experience in archival work. It is generally agreed that the establishment of the Public Records Committee is an admirable first step, but that the retention for an indefinite period of time of public records by the departments should be limited by requiring them to surrender files to the Archivist after a stated number of years, placing restrictions on their use, if necessary. Properly cared for in the Archives, these files would almost always be more accessible not only to the historian, but to the department concerned. Moreover, it would be easier to satisfy the very proper demands of provincial archives in a number of provinces, especially those which have been created from the old Northwest Territories, for transcripts of documents essential to their early history now in the custody of the Departments of Agriculture, Justice and others. It must, however, be added that any such measures taken for this purpose must remain inoperative until the Archives has adequate space and staff to receive and to care for the records. Moreover, any provision for additional space and staff should be accompanied by a survey of existing public records in order to determine what should be preserved and what should be destroyed. Such a survey, we were informed by the Dominion Archivist, must be a slow and expensive business.

13. We have dealt so far mainly with the loss to historians and others through the practice of retaining records in places unsafe and inaccessible. The additional danger of loss through destruction by inexperienced officials is not, we understand, entirely removed by existing regulations. Another


source of loss, not extensive but extremely important, must be noticed. According to custom, the private files of Ministers of the Crown are their personal property, and are retained by them on leaving office. Unfortunately however, custom, convenience, or mere accident may cause important documents essentially public in their nature to find their way into these files. It is clearly contrary to the public interest that public papers should pass into private hands; apart from the question of principle there is no assurance that these papers will be safely kept. Recently two important "private" collections almost certainly including public papers were destroyed by fire. It is true that the line between public and private ministerial papers is difficult to draw. This, however, is rather an argument for securing both for the ultimate use of historians than for surrendering both to the hazards of private ownership and careless custody.

14. We have mentioned that the Public Archives has not confined itself to collecting and caring for public records, but has developed a number of other more or less closely related activities. Thanks to the energy and interest of the Dominion Archivists and their associates the Archives has accumulated a large and valuable collection of historical manuscripts and maps, and a newspaper collection--all mainly concerned with Canadian history. There is also a collection of prints and pictures, and, as we have mentioned, a museum of uniforms, weapons, and other interesting and valuable objects, including the famous Jacques Duberger model of the city of Quebec. Sir Arthur Doughty, we are informed, wished to gather under one roof all the material necessary for writing the history of Canada.

15. This generous ambition is obviously impossible to fulfil, and it is now questionable whether a multiplicity of activities may not interfere with the essential work of the Archives. We have referred to the proposal that the museum collections of the Archives should be joined with other important collections to found a Canadian Historical Museum. The disadvantage of such a transfer is obvious; the present institution is an historical centre offering a wide variety of appeal to the historically minded. On the other hand, valuable space taken up by ancillary collections could house many of the records which the Archives was originally intended to preserve.

16. Whatever may be thought of the desirability of maintaining in the Archives building an historical library, a museum and a collection of pictures, there is general agreement that the document collections should not be divided. The reasons for this are evident to the archivist and to the historian but may not be clear to others. It is not always easy to distinguish between a private and a public document. This is particularly true in Canada, and it was this difficulty which led the first Dominion Archivist to add other historical documents to the public records. Dr. Brymner, considering the papers remaining in Canada from the French-


British colonial regimes, decided that these must be completed by adding to them copies of the other public records which had been sent back to France and to England. Where the originals were unattainable, he arranged for the making of transcripts and opened offices for this purpose in Paris and London. The policy of securing public records of colonial days was extended to include many other kinds of historical papers from abroad. Many have been secured as originals, others in the form of transcripts. Although in both Great Britain and the United States the great national collections of private papers are maintained separately from the national archives or public records in the British Museum or in the Library of Congress, it seems to be generally agreed that the present useful arrangement in our Public Archives should not be altered.

17. There have, indeed, been urgent suggestions that some federal agency should find and if possible acquire in the public interest the wealth of documents relating to Canadian history now in private hands; these are inaccessible to the public, and constantly liable to damage, loss or ignorant destruction. We shall speak of this problem in our examination of provincial and local archives. It has also been presented to us as a direct concern of the federal archives.

18. There are many examples of valuable papers which by some accident have found their way into unexpected places. The curator of the Archives of the Quebec Seminary mentioned the papers of the Northwest Company as a pleasant but surprising discovery among his treasures. These papers are, of course, given every care, and are fully accessible to those scholars who know where they are to be found. We were also told of other important papers found in a famous Canadian library. The librarian not understanding their nature or importance offered to lend them to an historian who seemed interested, an offer generous but perturbing to an archivist. It is thus possible that papers entrusted to a reputable, but in this instance, inappropriate institution may be insecure even when they are accessible.

19. The risks are multiplied when the papers are in private hands. We have had important representations on this subject, particularly from the Canadian Historical Association to which we are indebted for most of these details. As mentioned, valuable collections have recently been lost by fire. There are private collections whose existence is known to historians, but it is safe to assume that there are others, unknown to anyone, in the hands of those unaware of their importance.5 The preservation of these papers may depend purely on chance. Valuable sources of historical information are to be found in the records of well-known Canadian commercial houses now no longer active. Few of these records are available to the scholar. Some are known to have been destroyed; others may be lying somewhere waiting to be discovered.6


20. Those concerned with losses of manuscripts urge therefore not only that the Archives maintain and extend its acquisition policy, but that something be done to discover the extent and importance of manuscript collections relating to Canadian history, whether in private hands or in institutions, public and private. For this task the Canadian Historical Association recommends an Historical Manuscripts Commission, similar to the one which investigated and reported on the immense wealth of historical material in private houses in Great Britain. This Association suggests that the Archives should not be burdened with such a long and costly task, although close co-operation would, of course, be necessary. The object would be to determine what manuscript material exists and what are the provisions for its accessibility and safekeeping, and to prepare a report on the subject. Any action taken on such a report would presumably be the responsibility of the Public Archives.

21. The appropriation of the Archives for purchases has fluctuated from $8,500 in 1924-25 to $54,000 in 1934-35, and has depended in part on the archival material which from time to time becomes available for purchase. The amount in 1948-49 was only $2,500, but in the coming year a considerable sum is to be spent on the acquisition of important archival papers which have recently come upon the market. It has been suggested that there should be at least a contingent fund for special purchases. A systematic survey, as suggested above, would probably bring to light enough important and purchasable manuscript material to warrant a regular and substantial statutory grant.

22. In the acquisition of private papers, however, it is not enough to know where they are, and to have the money to pay for them. We have already mentioned the private papers of Ministers of the Crown. More than one person has insisted that every means should be taken to convince Ministers that, in addition to surrendering all public papers, they should place their private papers in the Archives. These papers obviously are important as a supplement to public records. Many Ministers retain their important collections, and refuse to make them accessible to scholars. We understand the reluctance of public men to risk misrepresentation, whether from political or personal motives. Such misrepresentation is easy to effect and may be very difficult to expose, as any historical scholar knows.

23. For this problem there is an answer. It is possible for an archivist to accept material in trust under such restrictions as the owner chooses to place upon it; for example, it may be made inaccessible to anyone over an agreed period of years. It is common, we are told, for an archivist himself to place restrictions on the use of material if he feels that indiscriminate use could be a source of embarrassment to people still living. There is however one difficulty: the Dominion Archivist is a civil servant who works under the direction of the Secretary of State; in theory, any


undertaking on his part could be overruled by his Minister. It has therefore been pointed out to us that there is need for legislation (similar to the legislation in Great Britain assuring a fifty year period of protection) to give security to public spirited citizens who would be prepared to confide their papers to the Archives but who through concern for their own reputations or for the feelings of their friends are unwilling to expose themselves to the danger of careless or malicious misrepresentation.

24. It has been suggested that the acquisition of private papers by the Archives might be facilitated by the appointment of a Board of Trustees similar to the Board of the National Gallery. The existence of such a Board would, we are told, make it possible to give greater legal authority to restrictions placed on the use of papers. The Board of Trustees would also stimulate public interest in the private collections of the Archives and might be of great assistance in finding and securing valuable material. The Board could not, of course, assume any responsibility for public records, but would confine its activities to private collections. The proposed Board might also be of assistance in suggesting or advising on services to voluntary societies and to the public, and in promoting co-operation with provincial archives.

25. There are various ways, we have been told, whereby the Public Archives could extend its services to the nation as a whole. The establishment of a microfilm service for the benefit of other archival institutions and of scholars has long been overdue and, we understand, is now in its initial stages. It is sadly needed. It could perhaps be warranted solely as a precaution against war-time destruction, but there are many other reasons in favour of its introduction. Hitherto, the many students engaged in historical research, unlike scientists, have been compelled to undertake long journeys and to spend considerable periods away from home in order to have access to their materials. Copying by microfilm in many archival centres has greatly lightened this burden. Hitherto, the Archives has offered only limited photostatic services which are more expensive and less convenient. A microfilm service could encourage and stimulate scholarship especially in the more remote parts of the country. It could also serve to fill gaps in the records of the provinces, especially those created from the Northwest Territories, whose special interest in federal records we have mentioned earlier. A microfilm service might meet the wishes of some societies which suggested that the Dominion Archives should not collect papers which are primarily provincial in their interest, and should even surrender some which it now holds. Archivists agree that good sense and good manners dictate that, when archival material is offered them, it should be channelled to the place where it will be most used. It is, however, impossible to draw any clear line between "provincial" and "national" documents; and it is doubtful that any institution could or should sur-


render what it legally holds in trust. The answer to the problem may lie in the close and friendly co-operation which might be fostered by a Board of Trustees; and also in an extended microfilm service, carried on with a proper regard for the interests of historical scholarship.

26. The Public Archives has long served students of Canadian history through the publication of important documentary material. There have been many requests that this service be resumed and extended. The last major publication was the valuable series of the Elgin Papers in 1936-37. The great need, it is agreed, is for documentary material on the period since 1867, a need directly related to the present unsatisfactory state of our public records. We understand that Archives officials have a number of projects under consideration including an index to the Confederation Debates of 1865, a volume of Montcalm letters and a new catalogue of maps. This is another matter in which it is felt that a Board of Trustees could be of assistance. Another educational service already begun, and strongly recommended in the brief from the Public Archives, is the production of film strips for use in schools and elsewhere, with the co-operation of the National Film Board. These strips, which make use of prints, maps and personal letters, could be used to develop that historical sympathy and imagination without which any real understanding of history is difficult to achieve.

27. One problem faced by the Public Archives and shared by the various provincial archives is to secure staff members educated in history, familiar with the Canadian field, and trained in archival practice. We learn that the Public Archives has recently adopted the policy of sending its staff away for professional training as rapidly as funds and other circumstances permit. One provincial archivist felt that with a larger staff and better facilities, the Public Archives could itself do something for the training of archivists from smaller institutions. The advantage of some such plan was suggested to us and was supported by requests in New Brunswick for a scheme of archival instruction and for guidance in archival matters which might be given by the Public Archives at Ottawa.


28. As we have been frequently reminded, it is impossible to separate national from local and provincial history. The local archival collection, whether provincial, municipal or private, is an essential factor in the effectiveness of the national institution: first, because of the source of materials which it contains; second, because through its functions it serves as an agent in gathering and preserving, no matter where, materials that might otherwise be destroyed; and third, because its existence and its services


encourage scholarly historical investigations which are one of the principal interests of the national institution.7

29. In Canada, locally as nationally, there is, in general, no adequate provision for the collection and preservation of public records or of other archival documents. There are signs of improvement, but these are still too few and too faint. We noted with much interest during our travels, however, a growing concern on the part of voluntary organizations over the fate of archival materials, public and private. Some fifty groups made representations on the Public Archives, and many of these presented information on the archival problems of their own areas. We were also privileged to hear directly and indirectly from several provincial archivists.

30. In considering the state of public records in the provinces of Canada, two questions must be asked. The first concerns provincial public records. Is there, by law and practice, any protection against the indiscriminate destruction of dead files by officials unaware of the possible historical significance of these records, and harassed by lack of space and filing facilities? The answers we have received suggest that an unsatisfactory situation is now showing some signs of improvement. In three provinces (Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan) the archivist must by law be consulted, and must give his consent, before public records are destroyed; but in one of these provinces the law has not been proclaimed and technically is not in force. In three others, although the archivist has no official authority, the historical significance of records is recognized, and provision is made against indiscriminate destruction. In four others, records have no legal protection. It should be added that the law, although valuable as an indication of public concern, does not necessarily tell the whole story. Legislation may, of course, be made ineffective by officials who for one reason or another may wish to destroy material; on the other hand, government officials may co-operate cordially with an archivist even if not required to do so by law. In three provinces where they do not enjoy complete legal protection, provincial records are, we understand, well kept and preserved through the voluntary co-operation of government officials and the archivist.

31. The second question which must be asked relates to the physical conditions for the safekeeping and accessibility of the records. These vary as much as does the legislation. Thanks to private generosity, the very historically-minded Province of Nova Scotia has a modern and adequate building. The archives of Quebec, organized nearly thirty years ago, occupies a floor of the Provincial Museum with a reasonably adequate staff and budget, although we heard it said that there was overcrowding as well as insufficient accommodation for students. Ontario has just completed a large modern building on the grounds of the University of To-


ronto. The valuable archives of British Columbia are adequately housed and cared for in the same building as the legislative library. The three Prairie Provinces are less fortunate; Manitoba and Saskatchewan make some use of the legislative library; Saskatchewan also deposits important collections in premises provided by the provincial university. Alberta so far, we hear, has no systematic arrangement, nor have the Atlantic Provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, although private and public authorities have expressed concern over the problem. Certain of the provincial archives issue important publications from time to time.

32. The public records of Provincial Governments, while completely their own, are also a part of the records of the nation. Moreover, the provincial archives, although maintained by the government to safeguard public records, will receive or in some way find shelter for any material of historical importance rather than permit its destruction. Like the well-known philanthropic institution, they can boast that no deserving case is ever turned away. This is of immense importance, for example, where shortage of space compels local governments periodically to empty their cupboards and cases of old files in order to make room for new. Where there is an active archivist, they will always be encouraged to see him first. Private individuals or groups with papers to dispose of will do the same thing. The valuable work of more than one provincial archivist in the field of historical research and of historical popularization is well-known. Their awareness of the records problem and their concern for it is well expressed by one of their number as follows:

"The historian of today, and his allies in the fields of political science, sociology, economics and anthropology, are interested in the activities of all people, and not merely those of their political and military leaders. In a democratic society this interest can be expected to increase. The sources for all these social studies are the documents produced by the day by day activity of individuals, organizations, businesses and government, and the initial responsibility for their preservation will always rest on the people who produce them, or their heirs and successors. Too often this responsibility has been neglected, and the record of our past experience in the community, province and nation has suffered thereby. This condition will only be corrected by a greater awareness of the fact that if history is to be a record of the activities of all of the people, then all must share in making that record as complete and accurate as possible."8

33. As this statement shows, the provincial archivist has a concern for records beyond that which he must feel for the purposes of his own collection. He can give valuable advice to historical and other societies which collect private papers. We have learned of private collections made by historical societies in several provinces of Canada. These vary greatly,


in value and interest. Some are model collections, and, as with the New Brunswick Museum, illustrate private enterprise operating most valuably in an important field where government action is not taken. However, there are certain disadvantages which have been mentioned to us. We have heard of two private societies, more or less generously supported from public funds, which built up quite large collections. Unhappily, both societies, through lack of expert knowledge and of critical capacity, wasted money on trivialities and on material easily duplicated elsewhere. Again, there is a danger that the private society may be unable to provide proper care for materials or to make them constantly and easily accessible to students. It has been suggested that usually, although not always, the historical society can serve the cause of history best by acting as the agent and auxiliary of a regularly constituted archival institution. An interesting and mutually helpful co-operation exists in Manitoba where the venerable Historical and Scientific Society, only eight years younger than the province itself, has lodged its collections in the Provincial Library under the care of the Librarian and Archivist. Proper care and accessibility are secured for these records which are arranged and catalogued together with the provincial archives. It has been found best, however, that the historical society retain legal custody since thus it can continue its practice of collecting private papers through its individual members. Many people, it has been found, will turn over their papers to a private society, although they may not be prepared to give them to a public institution. From one province we learned of old and important papers, including some public records, which had been turned in to members of the local historical society apparently because of personal acquaintance or friendship. Those in whose custody they were found had no idea of their value. The happy partnership in Manitoba between the historical society and the provincial archives is typical of only one of many possible methods of co-operation between private collecting groups which possess local information and influence, and the archival institution with its expert knowledge and permanent staff and premises.9

34. The great importance to the nation of the proper preservation of all significant written records is perhaps not fully appreciated. Yet many people lament the comparative lack of scholarly readable books about our country, its history and its traditions. It has been suggested that Canadian historians, in spite of some recent and welcome publications, have not yet bridged the gap between the area of scholarly research and the ground on which they can meet the common reader. Historians, in return, have shown how gravely they are handicapped by the constant destruction, disappearance or inaccessability [sic] of the materials of their work. One remedy, as we have heard from archivists, historians and students of history lies in proper public understanding and support of archival institutions, national and provincial, and in their mutual co-operation.

* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.

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