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Harper's Assault on the Past

Issue: 83 Section: Canadian News Geography: Canada Canada

May 21, 2012

Harper's Assault on the Past

Cuts to Library and Archives Canada fighting words for archival community

by Sheldon Birnie

Burton Lysecki of Burton Lysecki Books sits with the first Harlequin novels ever produced, part of Canada's written heritage. Photo: Karen Sigurdson

WINNIPEG, MB—While federal departments across the board are reeling from cutbacks in the recent budget, a fiery call to arms is ringing from unlikely sources. Librarians, archivists, historians, and antiquarian booksellers across the country— not generally known for raising a ruckus— are sounding a battle cry against the Conservatives' “war on culture, history, and ultimately, Canada.”

“Our history is in danger, and our culture,” says John Lutz, historian at the University of Victoria and council member of the Canadian Historical Association.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is expected to cut approximately 10 per cent of its budget and almost 20 per cent of its staff. This alone is frustrating to the archival community. Already, services at LAC have suffered as belts have tightened. However, it is the elimination of the National Archives Development Program (NADP) that was the final straw for the generally reserved caretakers of Canada’s historical and cultural documents and artifacts.

“It all comes down to archives in Canada being able to help Canadians find their history,” says Lara Wilson, archivist at the University of Victoria and Chair of the Canadian Council of Archives (CCA). The CCA, who have administered the NADP for its duration, recently wrote an open letter to Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages James Moore protesting the cutbacks.

“By cutting these relatively small funds to local archives they are in danger of becoming no longer accessible,” Lutz believes. “Local archives have been using these funds to make their materials secure, to protect them from degradation, and making them available online.”

With a modest budget of $1.7 million, the National Archives Development Program has supported small, local archives across the country to preserve local history for 26 years. The program’s overall cost to taxpayers is a drop in the bucket compared to the $28 million budgeted for celebrating the War of 1812. This doesn't sit well with Lutz.

“A certain kind of history that is pompous [and] jingoistic is getting all these resources,” says Lutz.

While cultural institutions like the Canada Council and national museums and galleries were spared cutbacks in this year’s budget, these institutions will still be affected by the cutbacks at LAC.

“I think what Canadians might not appreciate is that other cultural institutions like galleries and museums use archives to create their exhibits, do their research and so forth,” explains Wilson. “A blow to archives is a blow to museums.”

Even before these cuts were announced, antiquarian booksellers across Canada—who often act as “on the ground” scouts in the acquisition of cultural and historical texts—were feeling the freeze.

“Archives budgets have been cut back so badly it’s hard for them to acquire new material,” says Lutz, “which is impacting the antiquarian book market.”

Burton Lysecki of Burton Lysecki Books in Winnipeg, which specializes in western Canadian and local Manitoban history, has seen these impacts first hand.“We are the fetchers in the process of providing the books that need to be preserved for our national heritage,” he explained to The Dominion. “We’ve been let down on that subject.”

However, “Library and Archives Canada has the money to fulfill its mandate,” a spokesperson for Minister Moore told The Dominion via email. According to Minister Moore’s office, “LAC continues to modernize its operations to digitize its content and make it available to more people.”

While antiquarian book dealing is only a part of Burton Lysecki Books’ business, it is a part of the business that Lysecki and part-owner Karen Sigurdson take very seriously.

“Customers come and go,” explains Sigurdson. “What’s bothersome about losing this customer is the kinds of things we were selling to them. Those are important things that belong in our country.”

If the historical texts are not purchased, there is a strong chance that they will be lost, sold at garage sales or thrown out.

“The point is it’s important that these things be captured and preserved in the national archives,” says Lysecki.

“Countries really only hold together if they have a national story that is available to all of us,” Lutz believes. When the infrastructure and funding to enhance, preserve, and display our national story is eroded, ignored or dismantled piecemeal, Lutz believes it bodes ill for future generations.

“This is, it seems to me, a part of a larger assault on the past,” argues Lutz. “It is part of a series of cutbacks that are going to affect historians and archivists adversely.”

Combined with deep cuts to the information economy and to cultural institutions such as Parks Canada, Lutz agrees that what we are seeing could very well be described an aggressive restructuring of culture, history, and Canada.

“History is under attack from many directions,” he says. Whether anyone will be able to read about this battle in the archives of the future, however, has yet to be determined.

Sheldon Birnie is a writer, editor and song & dance man living in Winnipeg.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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