Much has been made of the Federal government’s extraordinary efforts to suppress and silence the voices of Canada’s scientists, statisticians, and others who collect and analyse information about who we are, the world we live in, and where we are going as a society. Less has been said about the efforts - no less assiduous in many ways - to silence those whose vocations centre around preserving that information, sharing it with the people of Canada, and promoting the traditions of free inquiry and vigourous civic discourse that define us as a democratic polity.
Yet these information workers - librarians and archivists - have found themselves the target of concerted repression in several realms of federal policy; funds slashed, voices silenced, dedicated civil servants intimidated into submission. Nowhere have these efforts been in greater evidence that at Library and Archives Canada, the beleaguered federal institution tasked with maintaining several key mechanisms of Canadian democracy - including preserving the records of our government for future generations, ensuring the survival of the documentary heritage which tells our story as a people, and promoting - in the words of its own enabling legislation - “the cultural, social and economic advancement of Canada as a free and democratic society”
These foundational principles are pretty difficult to argue with, but they have been hugely impeded by decisions taken over the last several years. Alarm bells sounded when, in 2009, an individual with no qualifications and what proved to be no knowledge of libraries and archives was appointed to head LAC. Concerns intensified as LAC endured savage budget cuts and massive attrition, losing over a fifth of its workforce last year alone. Reference services and research support were reduced to what can only be described as vestigial levels; efforts to serve remote communities were scaled back or cancelled outright, and promises to increase efforts at digitising LAC holdings and sharing them online have in most cases failed to materialise - what digitisation work is being done has largely been subcontracted out to private-sector information sharing schemes of questionable legality.
I could speak at length about how these devastating changes have played out, but I would like to focus in particular on a document which emerged earlier this year - apparently in response to heightened efforts by myself and other individuals to raise awareness about the situation at LAC, which necessarily involved a degree of cooperation from within the institution. The document I’m referring to is the Library and Archives Canada Code of Conduct, which is held to govern the comportment of all employees both inside and outside the walls of the institution.
Let me start by saying that if I was an employee of LAC I would not be here speaking to you today, because some of the strongest provisions of the Code center around teaching, information sharing, and professional engagement. Employees were advised that they must seek permission to participate in any teaching, speaking, or other unspecified “personal engagements” - presumably including publishing in scholarly journals. They were further advised that they could only seek that permission if ALL the following conditions applied to the activity:
• The subject matter of the activity is not related to the mandate or activities of LAC;
• The employee is not presented as speaking for or being an expert of LAC;
• The third party is not a potential or current supplier to/collaborator with LAC;
• The third party does not lobby or advocate with LAC;
• The third party does not receive grants, contributions or other types of funding or payments from LAC;
• The employee has discussed it with his or her manager, who has documented confirmation that the activity
does not conflict with the employee’s duties at LAC or present other risks to LAC.
I must stress how broadly this could be interpreted - it effectively rules out communicating with unions, professional associations, universities, publishers, authors, civil society groups, politicians, and organisations which work to maintain international standards supporting library work. Indeed it basically prohibits employees from speaking about libraries, archives, or information technology at all. This isolates staff, stymies their careers, and shuts LAC out of information sharing which could inform and improve its work. And let’s think in terms of soft power, too - are these the actions of an institution that’s proud of its work or really feels it’s serving Canadians well?
The implications of the Code extend far beyond employees’ professional lives, however—they constitute an affront to these individuals’ freedom of thought and expression, even at home. An illiberal interpretation of these provisions could be used to intimidate employees and discourage them from holding office—or even voting—in unions or professional organizations. Another section of the Code specifically advises that “LAC employees who are considering involvement in political activity should seek the advice of the LAC Delegated Political Activities Representative before taking any action;” It goes on to state, and this is a direct quote:
"As public servants, our duty of loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials extends beyond our workplace to our personal activities. Public servants must therefore use caution when making public comments, expressing personal opinions or taking actions that could potentially damage LAC’s reputation…they must maintain awareness of their surroundings, their audience and how their words or actions could be interpreted (or misinterpreted)." The emphasis here on extension of this "Duty of Loyalty" to non-elected officials (such as LAC’s managers, including its government-appointed head) and to employees’ private lives—and private thoughts—is deeply troubling.
While considering these provisions - at best disturbing, at worst sinister - I would also ask you to bear in mind that protecting intellectual freedom is a foundational principle of all librarians’ professional ethics. It’s articulated here in Canada thusly, by our own Canadian Library Association:
"This right to intellectual freedom is essential to the health and development of Canadian society. Libraries have a basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom. Libraries should resist all efforts to limit the exercise of this responsibilities while recognizing the right of criticism by individuals and groups. Both employees and employers in libraries have a duty, in addition to their institutional responsibilities, to uphold these principles."
For an institution so obsessed by loyalty and conflicts of interest, LAC certainly seems comfortable with forcing its staff to compromise the basic principles and values which give shape to their professional identity. It’s a compromise that has left staff feeling isolated, betrayed, afraid for the future - and effectively unable to uphold LAC’s own enabling legislation.
If I may, I would like to close by reading from an essay I wrote on the Code of Conduct earlier this year:
The true danger of the Code lies not in any individual clause but rather in its purpose and articulation as a whole. The language of this Code could be taken to imply that the most basic liberties—participating in politics, joining professional organizations, or even discussing one’s work with family at home—are subject to the scrutiny and approval of managers. It even implies, as we have seen, that the “duty of loyalty” protecting elected officials from public criticism by civil servants extends to LAC’s non-elected management - including its Government-appointed head!
Sections pertaining to “personal activities,” in particular, display a disregard bordering on contempt for employees’ civil liberties. In one passage employees are warned that their private lives and conversations “could become a work-related matter” if they criticize the organization or its management in any fashion. A passage on “wrongdoing” even goes so far as to encourage employees who suspect colleagues of breaching the Code to report on their activities, quote: “in a confidential manner and without fear of reprisal” to an individual called the “Senior Officer for Internal Disclosure.” Elsewhere, a definition of “conflict of interest” says that “perceived” wrongdoing is every bit as severe and punishable as actual, demonstrable misbehaviour— and the resolution of all such conflicts is apparently invested in a so-called “COI Administrator.” What does this all amount to?
Ultimately, it means that should you find yourself accused or even suspected of contravening any provision of the Code, you may be subject to real disciplinary action including termination. This could be motivated by something as simple as a personality conflict with a fellow employee—or a manager feeling that your choice of friends outside of work somehow casts aspersions on the Conservative Party of Canada.
We can all recognise the need for public bodies to balance their duties and functions as government representatives with their employees’ right to freedom of expression, but in this case the balance is drastically skewed—taken as a whole, the document represents a stark warning to employees: “Watch out. Critical thinking is not welcome here. Leave your values at the door—anything you say, do, or think might just come back to haunt you.”
I would ask you - is this what democracy looks like?