Much of what went on behind the walls of institutions was hidden from public view. To understand institutional practices and the day-to-day life of the people confined inside, historians and other researchers need access to the institutional records, and if possible, the ability to interview willing institutional survivors. As institutions in Canada first began opening in the late nineteenth century, oral history is not always a practical option and so historical records are the primary means to see into the more distant past.
All institutions keep records of their activities, their staff, and their residents. These records include registers of admissions and discharges, medical files for each resident, account books and invoices, annual reports, payroll and employee records, correspondence and photographs. Provincially-run large institutions in Canada store their records as private archives within the institution itself, or file their records with a provincial archives. Often a combination of both storage locations are used; current records being stored on site and older records stored in the archives. While some of these records, such as published annual reports, are publicly available, many of the institutional records contain personal information and so are shielded by legislation.
Each province in Canada has their own freedom of information (FOI) legislation as well as regulations regarding the protection of individual health information. Researchers who want to access institutional records—whether the records are case files from the 19th century, descriptions of surgical operations from the 1960s, or demographic information regarding admissions to the institution—must follow the legislation. Guidelines for the viewing of records that contain personal information are outlined in detail by the federal Tri-Council Policy Statement, by university Research Ethics Boards, and by provincial privacy commissioners or bodies.
Although there has been a “culture shift toward transparency” (Munn Gafuik, 2010) of government records with freedom of information legislation, this shift does not extend toward all records. Some researchers studying the history of eugenics argue that the legislation is also being used to protect governments and institutions from scrutiny. The negotiation of access to the archived records of institutions, including administrative as well as historical clinical files, is discouraging at best for researchers, or even impossible at worst. As Paul Lombardo, a United States lawyer and historian, said in regard to North Carolina sterilization records “(officials) make it as difficult as possible for people to find this stuff” (Begos, 2002).
Sidney Shapiro and Rena Steinzor, American lawyers, scholars and political activists, maintain that freedom of information legislation concerns “the democratic principle that people have a right to know about business transacted in their name” (Hameed and Monaghan, 2012). However, Canadian public policy expert Alasdair Roberts notes that while “citizens support FOI laws because they help keep governments honest ... governments aren’t always as enthusiastic” (Roberts, 1999). Governments who wish to resist access to information can do so by delaying responses to requests and charging significant fees for applying for access and/or fulfilling access requests. Journalist Ann Rees has described practices in which public requests for potentially sensitive documents are sidetracked by government officials into a “contentious issues track” (MacLeod, 2005). While most straightforward access to information requests are legislated to be replied to within a month, replies for requests for sensitive material can take many months or more. And even then, the information may be severely redacted or withheld entirely.
Historian Susan Burch and independent scholar Hannah Joyner note that “institutions have little motivation to release these artifacts to historians, especially if they shine light on policies or practices now considered shameful” (Burch and Joyner, 2007). Indeed the few people who have accessed institutional records have found much that is shameful. In British Columbia, former Ombudsman Dulcy McCallum was assigned by the province to investigate claims of abuse suffered by former residents of Woodlands School. Although she found little evidence in the archived clinical files of the residents, she found within employee records evidence of endemic abuse at the institution. Claudia Malacrida, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, similarly found evidence of abuse of residents in the section of files from the Michener Centre she was able to access.
In the face of government resistance to access to records, human rights lawyer Yavar Hameed and PhD student and activist Jeffrey Monaghan emphasize that researchers must be willing and able to show “discipline, innovation, and persistence.” Too often, they say, researchers instead “follow the path of least resistance, often acquiescing to the suppressive power of government information sources” (Hameed and Monaghan, 2012). Saskatchewan’s former Information and Privacy Commissioner Gary Dickson says while various interest groups that include university researchers and academics, librarians and archivists sometimes “challenge the secrecy practices of public bodies,” these groups rarely unite together as a force. Dickson advises that “without sustained public pressure the goal of achieving greater transparency and accountability may be exceedingly difficult to achieve” (Dickson, 2012).
The recent class action suit against the Ontario government by survivors of the Huronia institution was settled out of court for a much smaller amount of money than was expected but financial compensation was not the only goal. Survivors also requested and received commemorative initiatives such as a plaque at the former Huronia grounds, the proper maintenance of the former institution’s cemetery, and the archiving of the records of the legal case so that these records may be accessible for scholarly research. As shown by the Huronia settlement agreement, scholars, activists, and institutional survivors need to work together to ensure that institutional history is brought to light.
Burch, S., & Joyner, H. (2007). Unspeakable: The story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Dickson, Gary. “Access Regimes: Provincial Freedom of Information Laws across Canada.” Brokering Access: Power, Politics and Freedom of Information Process in Canada. Vancouver: UBC, 2012. Print.
Hameed, Yavar, and Jeffrey Monaghan. “Accessing Dirty Data: Methodological Strategies for Social Problems Research.” Brokering Access: Power, Politics and Freedom of Information Process in Canada. Vancouver: UBC, 2012. Print.
MacLeod, I. (2005, May 28). Experts say political interference makes task a farce. Telegraph-Journal.
Malacrida, C. (2015). A special hell: Institutional life in Alberta's eugenic years. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
McCallum, D. (2001). The need to know administrative review of Woodlands School. Victoria, Government of British Columbia, Ministry of Children and Family Development.
Munn Gafuik, Jo-Ann. “Access-to-Information Legislation: A Critical Analysis.” Better Off Forgetting? Essays on Archives, Public Policy, and Collective Memory. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2010. Print.
Roberts, A. (1999, March 1). Closing the Window: How Public Sector Restructuring Limits Access to Government Information. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from http://library2.usask.ca/gic/17/roberts.html.
Summary of Key Settlement Terms [Huronia class action]. Retrieved May 18, 2015 from http://www.kmlaw.ca/site_documents/080659_SUMMARYOFKEYSETTLEMENTTERMS_17sep13.pdf.
TCPS 2. The Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE). (2014, January 1). Retrieved April 15, 2015, from http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/eng/policy-politique/initiatives/tcps2-eptc2/Default/.