The People’s Papers? A Comparison of the Treatment of Government Leaders’ Records in Canada and the U.S.

Katharine Dunn


U.S. presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have housed their papers in dedicated libraries, but it was not until Ronald Reagan left office that presidents were mandated by law to do so. The Presidential Records Act (PRA) was enacted in 1978 in response to former president Richard Nixon’s plan to destroy thousands of hours of taped conversations yet, starting with Reagan, presidents have repeatedly attacked the law. The latest and most egregious access restrictions were made by George W. Bush in 2001,but on President Barack Obama’s first full day in office in January 2009, he overturned Bush’s order and reversed the previously restrictive interpretation of Freedom of Information Act policies on the release of government documents.

The attacks on the PRA have occurred in part due to the historical trend of favouring donors. With respect to ownership and access to presidential papers, favour lies with former presidents and their families.

In Canada, the donors are still in control. There is no Canadian law stating that prime ministers’ papers belong to the public. On the contrary, the bulk of prime ministers’ papers are personal property. Though most former prime ministers have donated many of their records to Library and Archives Canada, they get a tax credit for doing so. There is no mandated timeline for releasing records to the public who pays to house them.

In what ways do the political differences between the United States and Canada affect how presidents and prime ministers keep and dispose of their records? The American system under the PRA is flawed, but it offers something the Canadian system does not: a legal promise of timely public access.

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