Federal librarians and archivists who set foot in classrooms, attend conferences or speak up at public meetings on their own time are engaging in “high risk” activities, according to the new code of conduct at Library and Archives Canada (LAC).
Given the dangers, the code says the department’s staff must clear such “personal” activities with their managers in advance to ensure there are no conflicts or “other risks to LAC.”
The code, which stresses federal employees’ “duty of loyalty” to the “duly elected government,” also spells out how offenders can be reported.
“It includes both a muzzle and a snitch line,” says James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents more than 68,000 teachers, librarians, researchers and academics across the country.
He and others say the code is evidence the Harper government is silencing and undermining its professional staff.
“Once you start picking on librarians and archivists, it’s pretty sad,” says Toni Samek, a professor of library and information studies at the University of Alberta. She specializes in intellectual freedom and describes several clauses in the code as “severe” and “outrageous.”
The code is already having a “chilling” effect on federal archivists and librarians, who used to be encouraged to actively engage and interact with groups interested in everything from genealogy to preserving historical documents, says archivist Loryl MacDonald at the University of Toronto.
“It is very disturbing and disconcerting to have included speaking at conferences and teaching as so-called ‘high risk’ activities,” says MacDonald, who is president of the Association of Canadian Archivists, a non-profit group representing some 600 archivists across the country.
She says the association’s board will ask Daniel Caron, deputy head of Library and Archives Canada, for clarification about the code and its “harsh” wording.
MacDonald says federal archivists are leaders in the field both nationally and internationally and have traditionally spent a lot of personal time on professional activities.
They have served as editors for publications such as Archivaria, a widely cited journal, written about developments and issues in the archival world and led workshops for historical and genealogy groups.
“Could someone from the LAC be on the editorial board of a journal that contains an article critical of LAC?” MacDonald asks. “The code appears to now rule out such activities, unless they are sanctioned by managers at the LAC.”
Given the wording of the code, she says it appears the government no longer trusts its professional staff. “It’s really tragic,” she says.
The code — “Library and Archives Canada’s Code of Conduct: Values and Ethics” — came into effect in January, says Richard Provencher, LAC’s senior communications adviser.
He says the code was written by LAC in response to the April 2012 Values and Ethics Code for the public sector, which called for federal departments to establish their own codes of conduct.
Provencher said by email that information sessions for employees are being held to ensure the new code “is known and understood by all.”
“LAC has invited all of its employees to provide feedback and suggestions during the ongoing information sessions,” Provencher said. The feedback will “ inform any future iterations of our code,” he said.
The 23-page document is to be followed by everyone at LAC from full-time staff to students, volunteers and contractors. It spells out values, potential conflicts of interest and expected behaviours, both on the job and off.
“As public servants, our duty of loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials extends beyond our workplace to our personal activities,” the code says, adding that public servants “must maintain awareness of their surroundings, their audience and how their words or actions could be interpreted (or misinterpreted).”
It points to the dangers of social media. ”For example, in a blog with access limited to certain friends, personal opinions about a new departmental or Government of Canada program intended to be expressed to a limited audience can, through no fault of the public servant, become public and the author identified.”
“The public servant could be subject to disciplinary measures, as the simple act of limiting access to the blog does not negate a public servant’s duty of loyalty to the elected government,” says the code. “Only authorized spokespersons can issue statements or make comments about LAC’s position on a given subject.”
One of the most contentious sections of the code deals with “teaching, speaking at conferences, and other personal engagements.”
“On occasion, LAC employees may be asked by third parties to teach or to speak at or be a guest at conferences as a personal activity or part-time employment,” it says. “Such activities have been identified as high risk to LAC and to the employee with regard to conflict of interest, conflict of duties and duty of loyalty.”
The code says employees may accept such invitations “as personal activities” if six conditions are met: The subject of the activity is not related to the LAC’s mandate or activities; the employee is not presented as speaking for or being an expert of LAC or the Government of Canada; the third party that made the invitation is not a potential or current supplier or collaborator with LAC; the third party does not lobby or advocate with LAC and does not receive grants, funding or payments from LAC; and the employee has discussed the invitation with his or her manager “who has documented confirmation that the activity does not conflict with the employee’s duties at LAC or present other risks to LAC.”
MacDonald, Turk and Samek say the six conditions appear to rule out federal librarians or archivists interacting on their own time with academics or heritage or genealogy groups and associations, as they may lobby, collaborate and receive funding from the LAC.
“If I worked there and my kid’s school invited me to talk about my work as an archivist in Canada, I’m not sure I’d even feel comfortable doing that,” says Samek.
She says it is ironic, and disturbing, that the code is being applied at an institution meant to be dedicated to the preservation and sharing of information.
“This is a cultural icon we are talking about,” says Samek, who expects the code to have a “demoralizing, self-censuring” effect on the LAC staff.
Provencher had no comment when asked to explain why teaching and attending conferences are identified as “high risk” or why interacting with individuals or groups that interact with the LAC has been ruled out.
John Smart, who recently retired from archival teaching at Algonquin College and worked for almost 20 years at LAC, says it used to be considered an “honour” for LAC staff to be invited to talk at conferences. “It wasn’t seen as high risk but as high benefit,” says Smart.
Like MacDonald, he notes that staff from the LAC have worked on their own time over the years to help foster Canada’s national and provincial archivist associations and groups.
Smart suspects the new code reflects a “generalized suspicion of public servants” by the Harper government. And he says LAC managers are likely not keen to have staff fielding questions about funding cuts and changes at LAC, which are eliminating several specialist archive positions; moving to digitalize materials; and reducing public access to archival collections.
“My perception of Library and Archives Canada is that it’s an institution in great trouble generally,” says Smart. “It is making decisions and changing policies that are making both its employees and its clientele upset.”
This article was originally published by Postmedia News.