Thursday, July 26, 2012

I Interrupt This Family History for a Comment on Cuts to Library and Archives Canada

Warning: This post contains personal opinion.

There has been a lot of effort by Canadian librarian associations and genealogical societies protesting the budget cuts at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Understandably these organizations have a vested interest in the debate. Librarians and archivists, represented by their associations, will fight to save their jobs. Genealogical societies will fight to maintain current service levels and urge expansion and ease of accessibility to record collections.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, they are missing the some of the important elements of a solid argument against the way in which the budget cuts are implemented. While I agree with these various groups that the cuts don't make much sense, the rhetoric being used doesn't make much sense. The Canadian Association of University Teachers website states that the cuts will be "devastating for preservation of Canada's history" while the Ontario Genealogical Society has urged clear change in legislation pertaining the LAC's mandate, the restoration of services, and exploration of funding models to support LAC.

I want to be clear that I do not support the manner in which the budget cuts at LAC are being implemented. Government budget cuts in this era of austerity have become the norm. I am not an economist so I won't offer any Keynesian-like opinion on the benefits on austerity measures in recessionary times but as a career public servant (now retired), I can see through some of the 'bafflegab' language that the government and LAC have been using.

First, archives are not held in high place in most government circles. No one seems to know where they fit. Are the archives a cultural entity or are they simply an administrative body, tasked with preserving government documents. This 'debate' is central in my view to the Canadian federal government relationship with LAC and plays out in a similar manner in Canadian provinces. Would I like to see LAC expand it's collection of the documented memory of Canada? Absolutely. Is it likely to ever happen? No, it's just not really feasible due to both cost and space limitations. The exploration of alternate funding models has been occurring for years at LAC and at other government agencies and departments who find themselves in a catch-22 when faced with ongoing budget pressures. New revenue sources can be found but the funds necessary for the infrastructure to establish those revenues is never available.

My concern for LAC is the manner in which the budget cuts are being implemented. Plain and simple, they don't make much sense to me. For example, Daniel Caron, the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, essentially the head of LAC, has been quoted as noting that LAC is moving forward with a greater digital presence, pointing to LAC's new Facebook and Twitter presence. Mr. Caron however likely cannot explain how 899 Twitter followers and an meager 283 Facebook followers gives LAC real bragging rights. This all falls under the bureaucratic umbrella of something called 'modernization.'

LAC has noted that in-person visits have been declining while website visits have been escalating. It would seem obvious then that the future lies in greater accessibility to the records of LAC through it's website. I can fully support such a direction. Not everyone can travel to Ottawa, Ontario to make an in-person visit. Online records access makes sense and many private companies (such as Ancestry) are showing that it can be profitable. Mr. Caron and LAC have not explained to me how cutting 50% of the digitization staff is going to achieve this end result. The LAC website states that LAC provides "Democratic access to your nation’s records – at the speed of light. Any time of day or night" following an explanation that LAC holds 20 million books, periodicals, microfilms in addition to 3 million maps, 24 million photographs and 350,000 hours of film, portraits and musical items.

I don't have access to all of that material "any time of day or night" but I would love to enjoy it. The cuts this year to the LAC budget are likely not the end of budget cuts but nor are they likely the first budget cuts that LAC has experienced. With each passing year, the LAC collection deteriorates and the "democratic access" to my nation's records goes unfilled. The secret to a successful business for LAC lies in that reality.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Gertrude Ellen (Foley) O'Neill

Exactly 50 years ago today, on Friday, July 13, 1962, Gertrude Ellen O'Neill (nee Foley), my grandmother, passed away in Toronto, Ontario.

'Gertie', as her husband J. Graham O'Neill always called her, was born in 1898. The exact date of her birth is somewhat of a mystery. The baptismal register for St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Toronto, signed by a Father McEntee, does not list a date of birth but rather lists her date of baptism as March 16th. The civil registration (available through, signed by her father John Foley , lists the date of birth as April 16th but the genealogical extract, prepared by the Office of the Registrar-General in Ontario for me in 1985, again lists March 16th. Her marriage registration, death registration, obituary and gravestone do not list a date of birth at all. John Foley was reputed to be illiterate, but had been taught to sign his name for business purposes, and may not have fully recognized the error in the information he was attesting.

Gertrude's mother, Mary Jane (nee Fitzgerald) Foley, died a few days after Gertrude, or "Nana" as I knew her, turned one year of age. Four years later, John Foley re-married, this time to Annie McElroy. It appears that life was good for Gertrude and her brothers Gerald and Clarence as their father's contracting business flourished. They lived in the largest house on their street and when Gertrude married my grandfather in 1926, the wedding gift from her father was a house that she actually turned down, convincing her father to provide the house instead to her new in-laws, William and Margaret O'Neill. Later, after the deaths of both William and Margaret, the house came back to Gertrude and her husband Graham. It then became my parent's home and thus the house in which I was raised.

Gertrude had numerous medical problems including diabetes, a heart condition, and near the end, likely cancer. Conveniently, my mother was a registered nurse and we lived two doors away, which in Toronto's east end meant our front door was about forty feet away from Gertrude and Graham's front door so my mother made at least daily visits to administer her mother's insulin injections. It was very convenient as well for me as Gertrude's first and eldest grandchild and therefore the 'one who could do no wrong.'

On Friday, July 13, 1962, I was in the kitchen of my best friend Bob Dobson's house, directly across the street from my house, when my mother returned from the hospital. My friend Bob heard the news first. He stopped, looked at me and asked if I had heard. I hadn't heard anything but then immediately heard my mother calling across the street, explaining to Bob's parents, Eunice and Jack Dobson who sat on their front porch, that 'Nana' had died.

Some family memories are indelible.

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Happy Canada Day!

Canada, my home and native land, celebrates it's 145th 'birthday', today!

Both my maternal and paternal ancestors left their native homelands of Ireland and Scotland, respectively. They may not have known it, but their sacrifices and hardships set the groundwork for my success. I had the opportunity to be the first in the family to graduate from university and enjoy a lifestyle that my ancestors could not have imagined.

Today, also marks the first official day of my retirement, following more than three decades of government work. I have teased that the government is setting off fireworks across the country today to celebrate my retirement. I'm just not certain that it is to celebrate my achievement or because they are happy to see me finally leave!

Whatever your reason, from one proud Canadian to all others, enjoy this special day.