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B.C. documents hidden from the light

In April, the provincial government reached a funding agreement with the Royal British Columbia Museum to ensure that 33,000 boxes of documents will be properly archived. Not 33,000 documents. 33,000 boxes of documents.

In April, the provincial government reached a funding agreement with the Royal British Columbia Museum to ensure that 33,000 boxes of documents will be properly archived.

Not 33,000 documents. 33,000 boxes of documents.

In 2003, the overwhelmed museum resorted to charging the government $454 per box as an archive processing fee. As a non-response, the B.C. Liberal government began to squirrel away documents in four warehouses, where they have accumulated for over a decade.

The government will now provide up to $400,000 a year for the museum to archive newly transferred material and catch up with the backlog. The museum will “cover such costs for previously transferred archival records from its existing budget,” notes a Canadian Press report.

You may reasonably wonder how many civil servants it will take to burrow through these ziggurats of text, and if they will complete the job before the sun bloats into a red giant and boils off Earth’s oceans like beads of water on a hot skillet.

Undoubtedly these records were generated on computers rather than by Underwood typewriters. So digital became paper and, in theory, will become digital again after a decade in limbo. Your tax dollars at work.

At the moment, journalists, activists, and engaged citizens still have no way to investigate the documents, which include “court records, dissolved company files, improvement district case files, executive correspondence and records of commissions of inquiry,” according to the CBC. This has been more than a major case of Vaultzheimer’s — it’s been classification by default. In July, B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham expressed shock that that situation had gone on unaddressed for 10 years.

South of the border, paper is exploding in the darkened corridors of the post-911 world. “The classified universe as it is sometimes called is certainly not smaller, and very probably much larger than [the] unclassified one,” observed Harvard science history professor Peter Galison in 2004. The U.S. added a net 250 million classified pages in one year [in 2003]. In comparison the entire system of Harvard libraries, which number over a hundred, added about 60 million pages.

“Contemplate these numbers: about five times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet,” noted Galison.

In a 2010 Counterpunch essay, contributor Jimmy Johnson noted the phenomenon of “derivative classification,” which is the creation of documents that make use of a previously classified document. The original classified document is secret, and uses and references to it can be secret as well. Uses of and references to any documents generated this way can also be secret. And on it goes.

In 2008, the number of original classification actions was 203,541, says Johnson. The number of derivative classifications was over a hundred times higher, at 23,217,557. Secrecy feeds on itself, generating more layers of disguise.

In the words of geographer Trevor Paglen, the classified universe “tends to sculpt the world around it in its own image.”

An out-of-control crypotocracy requires swelling budgetary requirements. Keystroke by keystroke, the inky domains of the deep state begin to eclipse the sunlit forums of publicly accessible information. But here in Brutish Columbia, we’re positively neolithic when it comes to blocking access to documents. Our government routinely denies that records even exist, according to the NDP Opposition.

When the NDP presented the B.C. Liberal government with Freedom of Information requests, the government responded that they had no records for documents the Opposition had already sourced through other routes, says party leader John Horgan. In April, the NDP highlighted several examples of such denied documents, including records from meetings about the disappearance of women along the province’s infamous “Highway of Tears.”

There you have it: Victoria’s once-ballyhooed “open government” on display. Perhaps the missing records cited by the NDP are squirreled away in one of those four warehouses, but I wouldn’t expect the premier to know any more than a Happy Meal inaction figure.

Ah, to live in Norway, where by law all government documents, including email, are made publicly accessible as soon as they are produced, received or transmitted by a government agency.