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'Purged': Public documents on Harper's India trip have vanished

By Tom Spears

Documents about the expenses for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2012 trip to India, approved for public release this year by the RCMP, have disappeared, and the Mounties believe they have "purged" the papers. The 219 pages dealt with the cost of flying Harper's armoured limousines (above) to India, and were approved for release under an access-to-information request earlier this year. SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Documents about the expenses for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2012 trip to India, approved for public release this year by the RCMP, have disappeared, and the Mounties believe they have "purged" the papers. The 219 pages dealt with the cost of flying Harper's armoured limousines (above) to India, and were approved for release under an access-to-information request earlier this year. SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Documents about the expenses for former prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2012 trip to India, approved for public release this year by the RCMP, have disappeared, and the Mounties believe they have “purged” the papers.

The Mounties claim they were following policy from Library and Archives Canada for disposing records.

However, when asked for comment, the RCMP wouldn’t explain why the records were “purged.”

The 219 pages dealt with the cost of flying Harper’s armoured limousines to India, and were approved for release under an access-to-information request earlier this year. The name of whoever made that request is confidential under federal law.

Under access laws, once a document is released to the first person who requests it, it becomes freely available to everyone.

Postmedia asked for a copy. Some information is already public — it cost $1.2 million to fly the limos — but we were hoping that the 219 pages might have more detail.

But a month-and-a-half later, the RCMP sent the following email: “Based on the information provided, a search for records was conducted in Ottawa, Ontario.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to locate records which respond to your request. Please be advised that it is our responsibility to abide by governmental policies, including the disposition schedules established by Library and Archives Canada. It is likely that any RCMP record that may have existed has been purged.”

The RCMP directed any further questions to their own access office, which hasn’t yet responded.

This doesn’t mean that all RCMP documents on the topic are gone, but the ones approved for public release are no longer available.

There’s more. All access documents released this year by the RCMP have disappeared from the government’s Open Government website, which lists completed access-to-information requests so that the public can find them.

The RCMP released more than 300 sets of access documents in 2014, and more than 800 in 2015, but all the 2016 documents are gone. When the website was checked as recently as late May, a long list of RCMP documents existed on the site.

Dozens of other federal departments and agencies remain on the list. (There’s also a listing for the RCMP External Review Committee, but this is different from the RCMP.)

However, Library and Archives says it does not tell the RCMP or anyone else to destroy any documents, and has no policy on destroying them. The department gives authorization to destroy documents once they “no longer have operational utility,” it said in an email, but this “does not constitute a requirement to destroy, nor does it provide direction regarding the timing of records destruction.” It said the timing of records disposal is left up to individual departments.

An official at Treasury Board, which oversees the Open Government site, referred questions about why the documents were purged to the RCMP.

“It does matter,” said Bill Waiser, a veteran University of Saskatchewan historian who has used access to information to get research material.

“If you are going to have an accountable government, then transparency is part of that. So why are these records being deleted from the website?

“It’s very curious, especially when this government promised a more open and more transparent government as part of their election promise.

“You never know today what is going to be historically important tomorrow. If you look at Indian residential school students or Japanese evacuees (during the Second World War), if you decided decades ago that those records were not important and were destroyed, where would be today?” he said.

Even though the original documents may still be stored somewhere, he said destroying the package available for public release is important.

“How can you have government accountability without access?” he said.

“That is very concerning.”

Internal documents “tell the true history of the dynamics of the government of Canada, not the official version they would like us to have,” said Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin. He has done many thousands of access requests over several decades and said he has never heard of records being purged.

The request about Harper’s limousines “may not have historic value but it has value. It’s not some trivial kind of fact,” and could be useful “the next time somebody wants to ship some special stuff for the PM.”

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says purging public documents deprives the public of information on government.

“These (the purged papers) are documents that had already previously been released?”

“There is something wrong here,” said federal director Aaron Wudrick. “There is no point in having a document publicly released and then there being some sort of expiry date on that,” he said. “If it is in the public sphere, it should be there permanently.

“If under the access-to-information laws it is deemed to be appropriate to release to the public, it doesn’t make sense to say you can only access this if you look at it in the next six months, or otherwise we are going to destroy it.”

Purging the papers creates inequality, he said. “The people who received it at the original time, who are in possession of it, now have a privileged position because they now have a record that you cannot get, and this doesn’t make any sense.”

Wudrick said public access to information “is extremely important. We are a group that believes that the default position should be freedom of information,” unless there’s an obvious need for secrecy, such as national security.

“The public is the boss, the public pays the bills. They have a right to know what is going on inside their government and how decisions are being made inside government.”

An official in the office of Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault wouldn’t comment in case the office is asked to investigate later.