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On My Career At Environment Canada

by Chris Sorrenti

Most of my time in the Canadian federal civil service (1978 – 2013) was spent working in a Records office at Environment Canada. Records was the kind of work that you either loved or hated. If you hated it, as it involved a lot of tedious duties, you didn’t stay in the business for very long. If you loved it, as I did, you could make a career out of it. I’m an organized person by nature, almost OCD about having to know where everything is, both at home and at the office, so it was right up my alley. The job basically entailed organizing information according to a classification system of primary, secondary and tertiary subjects and file numbers, so that it could be retrieved as quickly as possible at a later date. As a Records Classifier (my position title), that’s what I did, and when I got experienced enough, I would also replace my supervisor when he was away for any length of time, managing the whole office and employees.

Most of us (including myself) were high school graduates, but for one reason or another, didn’t go on to or complete college or university. We were a service office, and you had to be a people person, and boy! I met all kinds. Most of them were nice, down to Earth, like myself, struggling to make ends meet, put food on the table, raise children. Others however would look down their noses at us ‘Records people.’ And though other organizations sometimes passed over the riff raff that weren’t working out for them to fill vacant positions in our office (always an insult to us), we lifers took great pride in our work. Part of our job, proverbially speaking, was to find needles in haystacks...and we found them. If we couldn’t find them (records that is), then it meant we had never received them in the first place (a common malaise in all government departments), or the records were so old, they had already been destroyed or archived, according to their legally allotted retention schedules.

Truth is, it was mandatory that we all take training in the various policies, procedures, and latest technologies applying to our field. And so over the course of years, each of us accumulated enough knowledge that would easily be the equivalent of a college degree. Much of it was provided as a service by another government department, Library and Archives Canada, as part of its mandate, but by the year 2000, most of the training was being contracted out to private industry, and not that long after, some universities began to offer courses and diplomas for Records Management, and its umbrella field, Information Management (IM). Library Management, also a branch of IM, had always demanded some post secondary education in that particular field.

During my 35 year career at Environment Canada (EC), I went through and survived three downsizing exercises. These exercises were essentially fiscal belt tightening, and even though Records people were among the lowest paid on the totem pole, especially compared to the administrators, economists and scientists we served, it seemed we were among the hardest hit each time. Although I loved the work, the lack or resources and staff in the latter years took its toll on both me and my coworkers.

Towards the end, I welcomed any opportunity offered to me to get out of Records. In 1998, I took an assignment as a Telecom Officer, to replace the regular person in her absence, managing phone equipment and lines, installations, moves etc. A job I would have liked to have kept, and then a year later, I was transferred to the Y2K office/project, helping to ensure EC’s equipment and computer systems were Year 2000 compliant. At the end of the project, as I had Records Management experience, my final job was to organize and classify all the various correspondence, reports and documents, paper and electronic, for history and posterity. Another tedious task that inspired the poem, Tedium Cubed, in my Venus, Mars And Everything In-between collection.

After that, it was back to the Records office, where I languished for another four years. Tough…lean years, where the three of us who remained (down from a staff of seven in 1994), survived one day at a time on a shoe string budget, while the client base we severed grew ever larger. Finally, in February 2004, I jumped at the opportunity to move up the ladder, by replacing a fellow on the management side, who decided to retire. My two remaining Records coworkers, who were older than me, also retired not long after that. Now in the Information Management office, I would still be doing Records Management, but instead of grunt work, I managed the Records classification system that I knew so well, doling out file numbers and series of numbers at the request of Records offices and clientele across the country, as well as training them on how to classify their own records, while at the same time, managing the automated system used to house the file subjects/numbers, called The Departmental File Plan. This in addition to offering advice to departmental employees on how to manage and eventually dispose of their records. And that’s where I happily remained until my own retirement in 2013.

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Revised © 2017

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Author's Note: As occasionally in the past when I’ve been going through a dry spell, thought I’d write an essay/blog piece for autobiographical/historical purposes, and to help keep the cobwebs clear...neurons firing, until my muse reappears.

Posted on 08/19/2014
Copyright © 2024 Chris Sorrenti

Member Comments on this Poem
Posted by Glenn Currier on 08/19/14 at 03:58 PM

Chris, thanks so much for this piece. As I read it, I came to appreciate you at different levels. The love of the work, the patience with the bureaucracy and the politics of downsizing, the empathy for your fellows. You humanized for me what I often miss when dealing with bureaucracy - the fact that there are real human persons who make things happen - persons with families, feelings, and struggles. I remember reading at least one other piece you have done reflecting on your place in the organization and your service to society. Finally, I am in awe of your intellect, your analytic and evaluative skills, skills that I see in the librarians I know - skills perhaps uniquely under-appreciated by most, including higher-ups. Thanks so much for sharing this, my friend. I hope you are enjoying retirement as much as I am.

Posted by Philip F De Pinto on 08/19/14 at 04:33 PM

I relate so well to your tale, Chris. I worked in the Post Office for thirty years, which was not your usual Post Office, but it was a Bulk Mail Center, sans windows, sans air, sans anything resembling a human environment. And I toiled for management who didn't understand the meaning of toil, but they got their cushiony jobs via Machiavellian methods. It was difficult to take orders from people who you felt contempt for, given they did not merit their positions. Anyway, I am glad you persisted, Chris. and glad you shared this.

Posted by Ken Harnisch on 08/25/14 at 07:49 PM

wow...who knew an essay about a bureacracy could be so entertaining? And chillingly, it mirrors my own corporate existence more than I can say. I was a Documents mananger who was allowed finally to turn his talents to writing the documents he managed and I guess you can say that's where the poetry began. Absolutely beguiling essay Chris!

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