11/03/2014 12:24 EST | Updated 01/03/2015 05:59 EST

The Tories Should Not Hide History From Canadians

Andrew Burton via Getty Images
OTTAWA, ON - OCTOBER 23: A flag next to the Canadian Parliament Building is flown at half-staff one day after Cpl. Nathan Cirillo of the Canadian Army Reserves was killed while standing guard in front of the National War Memorial by a lone gunman, on October 23, 2014 in Ottawa, Canada. After killing Cirillo the gunman stormed the main parliament building, terrorizing the public and politicians, before he was shot dead. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

By Frédéric Bastien

Eighteen months after the original publication in French, The Battle of London has just been published in English, with new revelations of improprieties by the Supreme Court at the time of constitutional patriation. When it was first released last year in French, the book stirred up a great many questions and doubts about what happened at this crucial juncture in history. Yet, more than 30 years after the fact, our government has shown no willingness to disclose the numerous documents in its possession on the matter, despite repeated demands, including a unanimous motion voted by the Quebec National Assembly. Indeed, much of the story of patriation is only known to us thanks to British documents, without which my book would not have been possible.

The irony is that the Conservatives have recently conducted consultations on what they call "Canada's Action Plan on Open Government" -- part of "the federal government's efforts to foster greater openness and accountability." Unfortunately, it is difficult to reconcile this with their refusal to amend our antiquated Access to Information Act. This legislation (ironically enacted in 1982) needs to be modified if historians are to do their job properly.

Canadians could reasonably expect more from the Tories, who in recent years have made the championing of Canadian history a matter of national policy. This year alone, Ottawa has organized a flurry of commemorations to honour and celebrate our past, including those surrounding the birth of Sir George-Étienne Cartier and the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. In the coming years, Canadians can look forward to celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald and the 50th anniversary of the Canadian flag, as well as the 175th anniversary of the election of Baldwin and Lafontaine, the 150th anniversary of the Fenian raids, the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the 125th anniversary of the Stanley Cup and the centennial of the Battles of Vimy and Passchendaele.

Many Canadians -- the younger generations especially -- lack a basic historical knowledge, and in this regard the commemoration activities launched by the Conservatives are welcome. But if the Tories are truly in favour of upholding this country's history, the most fundamental thing they must do is make information accessible to historians.

Let's mention here that our country is one of the only Western democracies where there is no prescribed limit after which archives are automatically opened. Canada is also one of the worst countries in terms of access to information -- behind Angola, Niger, and Colombia -- according to Halifax's Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info, an organization based in Madrid. It remains perfectly permissible today for the federal government to withhold information ad vitam eternam.

Every country must face up its past at one point or another. In 2000, Bill Clinton, before leaving office, made the decision to declassify thousands of documents pertaining to the Coup d'État orchestrated by Augusto Pinochet that led to the demise of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. A brutal dictatorial regime replaced a democratic one. The newly accessible documents confirmed a massive CIA involvement in favor of Pinochet. This is what happened and Americans must know it.

The Battle of London triggered an unprecedented inquiry by the Supreme Court and generated a great deal of controversy. Some of my critics accused me of exaggeration; others claimed that the British documents I used prove nothing. If the federal government were to update our Access to Information law, the public might then gain a clearer understanding, not only of patriation, but of our history in general. Historians might confirm, bring nuances or deny the claims made in The Battle of London. If there is one thing we can agree on in Canada, it is certainly that our past must be accessible.