Feds to release more secret files on Tommy Douglas
Published Sunday, December 19, 2010 8:51PM EST
OTTAWA - The federal government has relented on its adamant refusal to release decades-old intelligence on socialist icon Tommy Douglas.
It's now promising to review the file and release additional material.
The promise follows a closed-door hearing during which a Federal Court judge expressed concern about the continued secrecy surrounding the file compiled by the RCMP on a figure of such historic significance.
The late T.C. Douglas was premier of Saskatchewan and then the federal NDP's first leader, a man widely revered as the father of medicare.
"(The government) will undertake to review all documents in good faith with a view to releasing additional information stemming from the discussions held during the in-camera hearing," federal lawyer Gregory Tzemenakis says in correspondence filed with the court.
"(The government) believes that this review will result in additional disclosure of information."
Tzemenakis promised to produce the new information by March 31.
That amounts to a major climb down by the government, which has steadfastly maintained the release of the Douglas documents -- some dating back more than 70 years -- would impair the present-day work of Canada's spy service, including endangering the lives of confidential informants.
"In my view, they're essentially conceding our point that they didn't do it properly the first time around," said Paul Champ, the lawyer for The Canadian Press reporter who challenged the government's refusal to disclose the documents.
The battle over the file began in November 2005 when reporter Jim Bronskill made a request, under the Access to Information Act, for the RCMP dossier on Douglas.
Library and Archives Canada, which is currently in possession of the file, eventually released 456 heavily censored pages from the 1,142-page dossier.
The released material revealed that RCMP security officers had shadowed Douglas for more than three decades, attending his speeches, analyzing his writings and eavesdropping on private conversations. His links to the peace movement and Communist party members were of particular interest.
The government's refusal to release further information, citing national security concerns, was upheld by the information commissioner. Bronskill took the minister of Canadian Heritage, who oversees the archives, to court in a bid to force full disclosure.
Documents filed with the court suggest that Justice Simon Noel didn't buy the government's rationale for withholding the documents when he met behind closed-doors with federal counsel on Nov. 30.
During that meeting, Noel presented the government with "a number of documents that were of concern." His concern revolved around "the extent to which the mandate of Library and Archives Canada was considered" when it decided which documents should be released or withheld.
During a subsequent conference call with both sides, Champ said Noel elaborated on his view that "it appeared that the role of Library and Archives Canada as the memory of Canadians had not been taken into account," and pointed to "at least 20 documents" that were of particular concern.
Indeed, Champ said Noel indicated he was prepared to immediately issue an interim ruling on the matter but the government objected.
Champ said he suspects the government may be hoping to avoid any ruling on the case -- which could set precedents on the handling of historically significant material in future -- by voluntarily releasing more of the Douglas dossier.
But Champ said Noel seemed to agree with him that it's important to have court guidance on the broader issues at stake in the case.
"This case is about more than the significant historical information concerning Tommy Douglas. It's also more broadly about the concerns of journalists and historians across Canada about the barriers that they often face when trying to seek archival information," Champ said.
The Canadian Historical Association has filed an affidavit in support of Bronskill's challenge, complaining that history professors have been encountering problems accessing information from Library and Archives Canada for 25 years.
"This is a regular problem that they have and it interferes with research," said Champ.