I’ll be taking a break from column writing for the next few weeks. But follow me on Twitter, where I’ll continue bringing you the latest news and views about secrecy and openness in Canada.
Freedom of information should give the people the power to know what decisions their governments are making, as well as how and why those decisions are being made. But Canada’s records access laws often curtail the public’s right to those hows and whys – a restriction that has been broadened in British Columbia, thanks to the use and alleged abuse of the province’s document destruction legislation.
The absence of that access is often difficult to appreciate amidst the volume of information routinely released to the public. For example, so far this year, the federal government has published 4,447 news releases and at least 708 other records.
But that’s usually information the government has chosen to make public – stuff it wants us to know about.
By contrast, freedom of information laws should allow access to information government doesn’t want us to know about.
Yet those laws, as they’ve been written in this country, often keep government policy advice secret – with the same privilege being afforded to cabinet and caucus meeting records. It’s these records that could best help Canadians understand the decisions made by their elected representatives.
To make British Columbia’s records access law even more impotent, provincial employees also delete information they define as “transitory” but others might not.
Consider this: on Feb. 26, cabinet minister Andrew Wilkinson appeared on a radio show to respond to criticisms that government communications officers have been frustrating media access to public servants.
A day later, I filed a freedom of information request for:
Any and all records, emails and communications materials Q&As, briefing notes, etc. connected to Andrew Wilkinson’s February 26, 2015 appearance on CBC Kelowna and preparations for that appearance…
In response, I received just nine pages of information which included media clippings, a four-page issue note and an email requesting the preparation of that document.
The note also included a list of public servants from several ministries who had spoken to the reporters in the past. So right then and there, I knew Wilkinson’s staff would had to have been in communication with those ministries to assemble that list.
The issue note would also have gone through an often extensive approval process before it was finalized. Those approvals, along with the communications to other ministries, may have included information that wasn’t in the issue note, helping further explain the whys and hows of its making.
Rodney Porter, the communications director for Wilkinson’s ministry, assured me that’s not the case. But I can’t make that determination for myself because the approvals, as well as any communications with other ministries, were deleted.
“As you know yourself, there would have been back-and-forth like, ‘What are you looking for? Why are you looking for this?’ And then, at the end of the day, what we keep is the final. Everyone’s happy with it. Send it to the minister’s office and that’s what you got.”
Everything else was wiped because, according to Porter, there was “no need” for that back-and-forth to “be kept as permanent records.”
Indeed, under the Document Disposal Act, government employees are allowed to delete transitory records but the definition of what constitutes such a record can seem ambiguous.
On one hand, for example, employees are advised they can trash “drafts and revisions that are not needed to document decisions and associated approvals,” as well as “routine correspondence about drafts and decisions.”
On the other hand, they are advised they have to save “drafts or revisions with information about a decision or associated approvals that is unavailable elsewhere (e.g., directions to change a proposal and recommend a different course of action).”
They are also advised to save “useful information that helps explain the history of a relationship, decision or project” – as well as “any transitory records that are relevant to a FOIPPA request.”
However, the interpretation of that advice is left with the employees themselves, which is more than a little like letting a half-starved fox guard a henhouse of well-fed chickens – especially given last week’s passage of legislation that eliminates penalties for improperly destroying documents.
And, if Tim Duncan – a former executive assistant to the province’s transportation minister – is to be believed, the government’s political staff have been abusing that liberty.
Speaking with the Times Colonist last week, Duncan said the “big joke” around the legislature was, “Well, everything’s transitory for us. So, we keep nothing.”
Moreover, when Duncan expressed concern about such practices to a superior, he was allegedly told, “It’s like in the [TV show] West Wing. You do whatever it takes to win.”
But secrecy, as the late United States senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote, is actually for losers.
It means our governments believe their decision-making is so suspect that it can’t withstand opposition, press or public scrutiny.
That’s the way our freedom of information laws were written.
That’s the way they’ve been repeatedly abused.
And that’s why the public right’s to know continues to be more honoured in the breach than the observance.
• The Times Colonist’s Jack Knox asks, “How goofy has the control-freak chokehold on the flow of information become in Ottawa? So goofy that placing a simple meeting notice in a community newspaper became a months-long process requiring the stamp of approval of the prime minister’s office.”
• The Globe and Mail reports, “The Canadian government is refusing to make public the assessments it conducts to determine whether Ottawa’s $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia is compatible with foreign policy or poses a risk to the civilian population in a country notorious for human-rights abuses.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• Criticism of the government’s decision to retroactively deny access to long gun registry records continues, with the Law Times calling it an “outrage” and the Chronicle-Herald describing it as an “Orwellian attempt to change history.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• According to the Canadian Press, Treasury Board President Tony Clement has dismissed those criticisms saying, “You know, now we’re getting into angels dancing on the head of a pin, which lawyers are very good at and Ms. [Suzanne] Legault is a lawyer.” Legault is Canada’s information commissioner.
• “The federal government is using students and temp workers to bolster overwhelmed access to information offices,” according to the Toronto Star.
• CBC News’s Charles Rusnell tweets the University of Alberta’s upcoming access and privacy conference has “zip for FOIP/ATIP users.”
• OHS Canada quotes Rob Creasser, spokesperson for the Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada, as saying, “We have RCMP members that, literally, are too afraid to tell the Canadian public about their workplace.” Creasser told the magazine criticizing the RCMP is a “career-ending move.”
• Commenting on the muzzling of government scientists, the Chilliwack Progress’s Margaret Evans writes, “Without sound, peer-reviewed science, evidence-based policy decisions for the benefit of Canadians can’t be made. Canadians have a right to know what that science is.”
• Tim Duncan, a former executive assistant to British Columbia’s transportation minister Todd Stone, has alleged, “Abuse of the Freedom of Information process is widespread and most likely systemic within the [Christy Clark] government.” That allegation, which was included in a letter sent to the province’s information commissioner, has been covered by the Canadian Press, CKNW, the National Post, the Times Colonist and the Vancouver Sun, among other. It was also the subject of commentary by CBC News’s Jason Proctor, the Georgia Straight’s Charlie Smith, the Times Colonist’s Les Leyne and the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, as well as the North Shore News.
• According to a poll conducted by Insights West Marketing Research Inc., just 15 percent of British Columbians think the province’s governing party has done a good job handling the issue of government accountability. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)
• The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons reports the Alberta body that reviews police-involved shootings has investigated nearly a dozen deaths in five months but won’t be releasing the names of any of the victims.
• Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has told reporters she is “concerned” about that policy, having “asked officials within the public service to put together a briefing for us on the issue and bring it back to us.”
• The Edmonton Journal reports Notely has also “asked for a full review of rules that dictate how high-ranking government officials document their work, and how the resulting records are stored and accessed by regular Albertans…She started the most recent review after Alberta access-to-information and public interest commissioners launched a joint investigation into allegations of illegal shredding in the dying days of the Tory dynasty.”
• Speaking of those allegations, the Canadian Press reports Notley believes that shredding may have been justified. The wire service quotes her as saying, “It’s important to understand that there are a lot of circumstances in which shredding is entirely appropriate and, in fact, failing to shred, in and of itself, can breach the legislation.”
• The Canadian Press reports, “The Manitoba government has spent public money conducting opinion polls and focus groups on its Steady Growth, Good Jobs advertising campaign, but the results are being kept secret under the province’s freedom of information law.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Winnipeg Free Press reports Manitoba Opposition Leader Brian Pallister has “accused Premier Greg Selinger of hiding behind the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act” in refusing to disclose severance payments made to former NDP staff members.
• CBC News reports, “The Manitoba government appears to have financial forecasts that outline when the province might return to a fully balanced budget as required by provincial law, but it is not making them public.”
• Ontario’s information commissioner is calling on the provincial government to “immediately” implement the recommendation of the Open Government Engagement Team’s Open By Default report.
• Freelancer Bob Mackin reports the media relations department for Vancouver’s regional transportation authority told him to file freedom of information requests to get a response to “easy-to-answer” questions about its “consultants and the values of their contracts.” Mackin also discloses records showing a communications consultant telling an authority staffer not to return his messages.
• The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy writes, “I attended last Thursday evening’s [Toronto Community Housing] building investment, finance and audit committee hoping to get a copy of TCHC’s 2014 audited financial statement.” But Levy’s hopes were dashed.
• The Winnipeg Free Press reports, “Winnipeg city hall is moving ahead with plans to establish a lobbyists registry. Council unanimously supported a plan to instruct the administration to prepare a report outlining the required legislative amendments that would need to be made to the City of Winnipeg Charter Act.”
• The Frontenac Gazette reports Frontenac County, Ont. councillors and staff seem to have a lot of questions about the province’s new public sector accountability and transparency legislation. The newspaper quotes chief administrative officer Kelly Pender as saying, “Records management is now mandatory. I’m not sure what that means but you’ll have to keep records of emails.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
Author’s note: Publication of this column was delayed due to illness. Its regular publication will resume next week.
Last week, much ink continued to be spilled about the Harper administration’s plan to retroactively deny access to long gun registry records and its muzzling of federal scientists. But those were just two of many freedom of information stories that made headlines and twitter posts in Canada.
• In response to federal government legislation that would retroactively deny access to long gun registry records, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has released a satirical Back to the Future movie poster criticizing Stephen Harper for creating the “greatest Parliamentary time machine ever built.” The RCMP had earlier deleted many of those records, despite a pending request for them. The government’s proposed law would make that deletion legal.
• The Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey takes a similar sarcastic approaching in commenting on the proposal.
• Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Free Press writes, “As usual, the Tories will be counting on their belief Canadians are more interested in pocket-book issues than matters of democracy and due process.”
• And, for its part, the Toronto Star states, “The Conservatives have just declared open season on rewriting history, by saying ‘Presto! Your right to lawful access never really existed!’ That can only embolden future governments to retroactively rewrite laws to erase their own wrongdoing. Playing by the new Tory rules the Liberals could have absolved themselves of wrongdoing in the sponsorship scandal. Or a government could absolve itself of electoral fraud.”
• However, according to the Canadian Press, legal and parliamentary experts say there’s “nothing to stop the Harper government” from doing such rewriting – even as Ontario Provincial Police investigate the RCMP’s deletion of long gun registry records. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)
• The Rebel’s Brian Lilley criticizes the media’s “selected outrage” over the government’s move to amend its records access law. Liley notes such outrage wasn’t present when the CBC was “flouting” that legislation nor when the Ontario government exempted information about abortion from being requested in that province.
• Recently retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist Steve Campana has told CBC News the “muzzling of federal government scientists is worse than anyone can imagine.” According to Campana, “We have very strict directives of what we can say and the approval steps we have to go through, and very often that approval seems to be withheld for totally arbitrary reasons.”
• Canada’s three largest unions organized demonstrations last week protesting the muzzling of government scientists. Evidence for Democracy has put together a roundup of the resulting coverage and commentary. The unions are also looking to add language their collective agreements that would allow those scientists to publicly discuss their findings.
• “Stephen Harper skipped out on answering opposition questions in the House of Commons more often in 2015 than in any other year he has been prime minister,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. “Harper has attended only 35 per cent of the daily question periods in 2015, his lowest rate for any year since 2006, a Citizen analysis found.”
• “Canada Post is refusing to disclose any information related to complaints about mail delivery last year or the end of door-to-door home delivery,” according to the Toronto Star.
• The Globe and Mail reports that, even though many diplomatic missions produce annual reports evaluating the state of human rights for most countries, no such records appear to exist for the Saudi Arabia. That omission is notable because Canada recently signed a $15-billion arms deal with the Middle Eastern country. (hat tip: Dean Beeby)
• “The federal Public Works department kept documents secret about an Ottawa building where concerns have been raised about employees being exposed to asbestos,” reports the Ottawa Citizen’s Jordan Press. Press later added on Twitter that the department “took issue” with that story.
• Suspended Senator Mike Duffy’s defence lawyers, Donald Bayne and Peter Doody, “want a copy of an internal report from 2013 on the Senate’s rules for figuring out whether senators actually live in the provinces they represent. They also want minutes from a closed-door meeting discussing what it found,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. But the “Senate is refusing to honour a subpoena asking for all that stuff” because, according to a court filing, it would imperil the institutions’s “freedom of speech, exclusive cognizance and control over debates and proceedings, control by the Houses of Parliament over their internal affairs, and disciplinary authority over its members.”
• The Ryerson Journalism Research Centre recaps some of the discussions that took place at the recent Flying Blind conference in Toronto, which examined the increasing lack of transparency in Canada.
• CBC News asked the Yukon government for a “list of people, job titles and salaries, where salaries were more than $100,000″ – information that is routinely released in many other Canadian jurisdictions. But, according to the broadcaster, “the Public Service Commission would not release specific salaries, names or even titles with specific salaries.” The president of the union representing those employees says such as sunshine list would be a “complete invasion of privacy,” while the province’s acting deputy minister of finance says it could pose a “real security risk” to civil servants. (hat tip: John Thompson)
• The Times Colonist’s Les Leyne reports that, thanks to a six-month backlog of complaints waiting to be investigated, British Columbia’s information commissioner will be exercising her legal discretion to turn down cases. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)
• The Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia is expressing concern about recent amendments to Nova Scotia’s Fisheries and Coastal Resources Act. The amendments make “information on the health of farmed fish even less available by exempting veterinary records from the ambit of Nova Scotia’s access to information laws.”
• “Premier Kathleen Wynne insists she and her aides are not trying to suppress a controversial new behind-the-scenes documentary about her,” reports the Toronto Star. “As first disclosed by the Star, TVOntario has cancelled plans to broadcast Premier: The Unscripted Kathleen Wynne after the film’s director quit in protest.”
*• The Calgary Herald criticizes the Alberta government for taking almost three years (and counting) to release the expenses of Calgary Health Region chief executive Jack Davis.
• The Telegraph-Journal reports New Brunswick’s education and early childhood development departments “won’t disclose any details about a daycare that had a worker on staff last year who failed a criminal and social background check” for legal and privacy reasons.
• Commenting on the alleged improper shredding of documents by Alberta government ministries, the Mountaineer’s Bernadine Visotto writes that such actions reflect the outgoing Tory government’s “way of doing things.”
• Sudbury, Ont.’s Bob Daigle has “scored a major victory in a long-standing battle with city hall.” The Sudbury Star reports the province’s division court has ruled in favour of his five-year-old request for the “salaries, leaves of absence, severance, vacation, pension benefits and other benefits” of senior city employees.
• Brampton, Ont. councillors “voted unanimously on a motion Wednesday to have all closed municipal meetings electronically recorded and kept on file,” reports the Brampton Guardian.
• Grey County, Ont. is “joining many of its major municipal peers across the country by creating opportunities for anyone to dive into government-created data through an Open Data portal,” reports the Meaford Express.
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
SIGN, SIGN, EVERYWHERE A SIGN? There could be something happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear.
That’s what I’m thinking after the publication of yet another column excoriating the obstructionism of government communications officials.
Including my own open letter addressed to those officials, it’s the third such column written this year, winning plaudits from fellow reporters.
So to put all that activity in perspective, I’ve Storified those columns and some of the reaction to them – a collection that suggests Canadian spin doctors may be finally pushing their information control efforts too far.
You can check it out here.
ACCESS COMMITTEE PROCRASTINATES ON STUDYING REFORM The House of Commons committee responsible for Canada’s records access law won’t be studying recommendations to fix that legislation before the upcoming election.
Information commissioner Suzanne Legault made those recommendations in a report released at the end of March.
Earlier this month, NDP MP Charlie Angus, a committee member, proposed inviting Legault to “inform us on what she found in her report and her recommendations.”
Speaking in support of that proposal, fellow NDP MP Charmaine Borg stated, “I think it is important that we have the opportunity to ask questions about these recommendations to determine what we, as parliamentarians, can do. I think it would be good to leave a legacy for the next Parliament.”
But the committee – which has a Conservative majority – unsurprisingly voted down the motion, cutting off an opportunity to discuss how secretive the Canadian government has become.
NEWSPAPER DOESN’T FOLLOW PAPER TRAIL RECOMMENDATION Last month, the Globe and Mail joined with the Toronto Star in endorsing Legault’s report. But it’s worth remembering the newspaper’s editorial board also been somewhat equivocal in its support for one of the principle reforms in that report.
Legault has recommended new rules that would force federal officials to document their decision-making. After all, if that doesn’t happen, there will be no records for the public to request under the Access to Information Act.
Yet, when a similar recommendation was made by information commissioners in British Columbia and Ontario, the Globe and Mail wrote, “While officials should certainly create written records of actual decisions, cabinet ministers and their closest advisers should be free to talk about the reasons for a decision without making a paper or electronic memorandum. Their motives and purposes are best scrutinized in parliamentary debate, question periods and legislative committees.”
In other words, the paper seems to believe the public doesn’t need to know exactly how and why government decisions are made, so long as they can ask questions about that process – which, by the way, the government routinely refuses to answer. And whatever could be wrong with that?
ALLIED FORCES? Of course, the Globe and Mail isn’t alone in its equivocal support for freedom of information. As I’ve written before, the Canadian news media have sometimes appeared to be inconstant allies of this cause.
Indeed, in the 1979 book Administrative Secrecy in Developed Countries, Carleton University political science professor Donald C. Rowat offered this explanation as to why that might be:
To reporters and the news media, the lack of a general right of access to administrative documents is not directly apparent as a serious problem because their concern is with immediate news of a policy nature, and because of the huge flow of publications and information released by the federal and provincial government…
Moreover, ministers issue many news releases and may hold press conferences. They or senior officials are often willing to grant interviews in which they give background information and views which are not for quotation or attribution. All this creates the impression that there is a free flow of administrative information. Reporters tend to forget that they do not have access to the original information and documents, and that the Government releases to them only what it chooses to release.
But I wonder whether increased obfuscation by the government public relations professionals who prepare those releases are now reminding reporters about that lack of access?
• Information commissioner Suzanne Legault said last week the government is setting a “perilous precedent” by retroactively changing the law to deny access to long gun registry records. On Apr. 5, 2012, government legislation ordering the destruction of those records came into force. But, before that happened, someone filed an access request for them. That meant those records couldn’t legally be destroyed until after the request was completed – something Legault reminded the government of. But the RCMP went ahead and deleted much of the electronic information it had, subsequently providing the requester with partial access to that data. A complaint was filed and the commissioner advised government charges could be laid against the RCMP under the Access to Information Act – something the government’s legal change would rule out.
• If you need a primer on that controversial change, the Canadian Press’s Bruce Cheadle has assembled a timeline of all the key dates leading up to it. Cheadle also had the story about the reason for that change before anyone else did.
• The National Post, the Montreal Gazette and the Telegram have all written editorials condemning the government’s plan to retroactively deny access to long gun registry records. And the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has penned a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper conveying the same message.
• The Toronto Star reports that, since the Conservatives took office, eight government watchdogs and three senior bureaucrats have been “stifled or impugned” as a result of being forthright. The most recent addition to that list is outspoken correctional investigator of Canada Howard Sapers. (hat tip: Murray Langdon)
• The National Post paraphrases former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh as saying there is still time to “reinstate the long form census for 2016 – but that decision must be made by June, ahead of the federal election in the fall. Otherwise we lose two censuses in a row, with consequently greater harm to Canada’s statistical foundations.”
• Commenting on the government’s apparent lack of interest in evidence-based decision-making, Scientists for the Right to Know president Margrit Eichler writes, “It seems that our government likes to fly blind. The problem is, we are all sitting in the same plane. Once instruments have been as thoroughly destroyed as they have been by this government, it is not a simple matter to re-install them. And the crash will affect us all.”
• The Toronto Star’s public editor Kathy English praises the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s sixth annual report, writing that it is “packed full of such eloquent, thoughtful articles and essays that speak loudly and clearly to the many threats to freedom of expression and the right to information — and why we should care.”
• The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has posted the top takeaways and talking points from its full-day conference on the problems plaguing our access to information system.
• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association had its annual general meeting last week. The meeting featured a talk by civil libertarian Carmen Cheung on the federal government’s anti-terrorism legislation.
• Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark thinks the province’s freedom of information law is in need of reform. He tells the Calgary Herald, “Provisions intended to provide a shield to protect people’s privacy, are being used as a sword by governments and powerful individuals to prevent the release of information to which Albertans are entitled.” Clark was reacting to news that “the expenses of a former chief executive of the Calgary Health Region remain shrouded in secrecy nearly three years after media outlets and opposition parties requested their release.”
• CBC News reports Alberta’s information commissioner and public interest commissioner have announced a joint investigation into the allegedly improper destruction of documents by the province’s outgoing Progressive Conservative government. Following that announcement, at the request of premier-designate Rachel Notley, the deputy minister of executive council ordered Alberta’s ministries to stop any shredding. (hat tip: Keith Stewart)
• The Calgary Herald writes that Alberta’s new government should act on provincial information commissioner Jill Clayton’s recommendation to put in place a law that “compels public bodies to ‘document their decisions, actions, advice, recommendations and deliberations’ and ‘ensure that all records are covered in records retention and disposition schedules.’ If her advice is heeded, it will be much less likely that public records are imperilled as politicians change seats and the reins of power are handed over to a new crew.”
• The Vancouver Courier’s Geoff Olson writes that “journalists, activists and engaged citizens” still have no way to access the 33,000 boxes of British Columbia historic government documents that, until recently, were simply being stored in four warehouses. “This has been more than a major case of Vaulzheimer’s,” states Olson. “It’s been classification by default. In July, B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham expressed shock that the situation had gone on unaddressed for 10 years.”
• The Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer reports that BC NDP MLA Adrian Dix questioned why government lawyers said last year that records related to controversial firings at the province’s health ministry couldn’t be released because the matter was under police investigation. The reason: in early 2015, the government advised the wrongly-dismissed employees that the ministry wasn’t seeking such an investigation and “leaving the impression that the matter had been dropped some time earlier.” (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)
• The Toronto Star reports that Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services spent three years fighting the release of information about when DNA was collected and tested in connection with the sexual assaults and killings committed by air force colonel Russell Williams. Those dates raise questions about whether faster testing could have saved the life of one of Williams’s victims.
• A CBC-Michener-Deacon investigation has revealed De Beers Canada paid just $226 in royalties on diamonds mined from the province’s only diamond mine. But that royalty information has previously been a “closely guarded secret” – something that has “baffled many experts consulted by the CBC, including accountants, and auditors.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Winnipeg Free Press reports that when it asked for details of a new five-year contract between Manitoba’s chiropractors and the provincial Health Department, “a cabinet spokeswoman advised a reporter to file a freedom-of-information request. When the newspaper did, Manitoba Health refused to release any details of the contract. The Free Press then filed a complaint with the provincial ombudsman. A few days ago, with the ombudsman’s help, the government released many of the contract details. Missing, however, was any financial information, including the government’s per-visit contribution this year and in subsequent years.”
• The New Brunswick government will “soon post nursing home and special care home inspections online” after a “lengthy push by the Telegraph-Journal to see the documents.”
• “One of the secret documents related to Markham’s failed NHL arena project has been made public,” reports the Toronto Star. “But it doesn’t show much, and a dozen other documents still remain secret.”
• The Penticton Herald reports Competition Bureau officials have denied the paper’s access to information request “seeking copies of complaints and reports from investigations into alleged [gas] price-fixing in the region over the past four years. What came back was a document that appears to show the existence of 75 pages, each of which was withheld under the Competition Act.”
• The Toronto Star reports the video footage captured by Toronto Police Service body cameras “will be subject to Freedom of Information legislation, meaning citizens can make a request to access a copy.” (hat tip: Allan Pollock)
• Vaughan, Ont. Mayor Maurizo Bevilacqua is “pushing ahead with his pledge to regulate lobbyists at city hall,” according to the city’s local newspaper. “But it appears he might face opposition from some of his council colleagues.”
• The Chronicle-Guide reports, “Documents related to the Town of Arnprior’s computer system may not have to be released to a private citizen after all. An Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of Ontario adjudicator has accepted a town request to reconsider the order.” Earlier, the newspaper reported the Ontario town has been withholding those documents for about 10 years.
• The News reports Maple Ridge, B.C.’s citizen’s representative committee is holding two public input nights where participants will be asked two questions: 1) Is the information that is currently available easy to find and easy to understand? In other words, is it useful? 2) Is there any information that is currently not available that should be?
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
What started out as a British Columbia government attempt to defend the job its communication staff do has, ironically, ended up demonstrating the weakness of the province’s freedom of information law, as well as how those officials can work against the public’s right to know.
Earlier this year, I wrote an open letter about how such staffers often don’t respond or give non-responses to the questions reporters ask. They also advise elected officials to do the same thing, as well as restrict access to bureaucrats who actually have answers.
That cross-Canada issue was then covered by three radio shows, including Daybreak South. The Kelowna, B.C.-based CBC program succeeded in getting Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for British Columbia’s spin doctors, to agree to an interview.
Following that interview, on Feb. 27, I filed a freedom of information request for all of the communications materials prepared for that appearance.
The government responded 49 business days later.
That’s 19 days longer than the legal time limit, even though there were only nine pages to release.
Of those pages, four were simply a copy of my open letter and a transcript of an earlier interview I had done with Daybreak South.
The remainder featured communication advice for Wilkinson, including a recommendation that he should “point to [his] own recent examples of media availability, comments and interviews” during his appearance on the program.
In fact, that’s exactly what the minister did when host Chris Walker told him “every single reporter” he’d spoken with over the past week had had difficulty getting answers from the government.
“Having spoken with probably 25 reporters so far this week, I find it a little confusing when they say they don’t have access to us. You know, I talk to them on a daily basis,” said Wilkinson.
“And, as I say, I’ve got a list here in front of me of encounters with Daybreak South in the last few months on a whole range of issues that were dealing directly with ministry staff people.”
That list, which was part of the advice provided to the minister, also named provincial bureaucrats who had done interviews with other news outlets.
But most of those interviews were about politically uncontroversial subjects. And, as Walker pointed out, “What you don’t have is all the times we’ve been rejected for interviews.”
Instead, what Wilkinson did have was government communications-approved responses that anticipated many of Walker’s other questions. I say responses, because that doesn’t mean they were spin-less answers.
Indeed, at one point during their conversation, Walker said, “Doesn’t this interview sort of illustrate our point: that when we try to ask questions we get instead a series of talking points and examples that suite your argument. This kind of illustrates the problem we have, don’t you think?”
Appropriately, Wilkinson responded, “No, I think it kind of points out you’re, perhaps, misperceiving this issue” before returning to his talking points – which, equally appropriately, were sent to me two months after the interview, at a time when most of the audience will have already forgotten about it.
The following is a complete copy of those records.
• It was a big week for the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. The association released its sixth annual review of freedom of expression in Canada, which included a look at our country’s “crippled” access to information system. The report gave that system a failing grade and published the results of a poll showing 79 percent of those surveyed think improving government openness and access to information is personally important to them.
• The association also hosted Flying Blind, a conference at Ryerson University in Toronto looking at the “current challenges to creating, accessing, and sharing information in Canada, and work to create a path forward.” J-Source live blogged the first and third panels of that conference.
• Embassy’s Carl Meyer tweets that the federal Conservative’s omnibus budget bill will retroactively revoke Canadians’ ability to file an access request for long gun registry data. In a subsequent article, iPolitics quotes access lawyer Michel Drapeau as saying, “We shouldn’t go out and purge records because we changed our mind or we don’t believe in what it is. I find that wrong and I find it is like robbing part of our collective and national memory and to what purpose.”
• The Canadian Press reports NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus filed an order paper question asking about the process the government followed to ensure an individual meets the constitutional residency requirements for appointment to the Senate. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra refused, stating, “The government does not comment on matters before the courts.” That’s a reference to “fraud, bribery and breach of trust trial of Mike Duffy, where the suspended senator’s qualifications to represent Prince Edward Island when he lived primarily in Ottawa is a pivotal issue.”
• The Globe and Mail reports that, due to lousy data, researchers had difficulty creating a Canadian version of a New York Times report showing “where Americans are healthy and wealthy, or struggling.” (hat tip: Laura Tribe)
• The Tyee reports, “Canadians will have to wait until the end of June or longer to find out the full effects of the Tories’ changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, despite the government’s promise to release information about it every three months.”
• Citing an article from the Canadian Press, the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugilese writes, “The Defence Department is refusing to release the text of a ministerial directive that sets out how the Canadian Forces can seek and share information from foreign partners even when it may put someone at risk of torture.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Winnipeg Free Press criticizes Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “blatantly” undermining “the Office of the Correctional Investigator or other watchdogs, whose roles are fundamental to good and open government.”
• Just in case you missed the news last week, PEN Canada has relaunched its Censorship Tracker. The tracker allows for the mapping of free expression violations across the country.
• The Times Colonist reports the British Columbia Court of Appeals has “reversed an earlier ruling about the publication of cabinet documents.” That ruling had given the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation permission to publicly use those documents, which “reflected the provincial cabinet’s thinking” during tense contract negotiations a few years ago. Those negotiations eventually resulted in court action that alleged the government negotiated in bad faith, something the Court of Appeals has also sided against.
• CBC News reports, “Documents are being shredded at the Alberta Legislature as one political party prepares to hand the reins of power to another.”
• In response, the province’s information commissioner Jill Clayton issued a news release stating, “There are rules for government ministries and their employees relating to the retention, destruction and preservation of records, and these rules apply and must be followed during the government’s transition period. If there is evidence that the rules are not being followed, a complaint can be submitted to my office.”
• Meanwhile, according to the Calgary Sun, Alberta Party leader Greg Clark has submitted a “number of Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP) requests to halt what he thinks could be improper shredding or digital deletion of files and to gain access to documents that have been destroyed.”
• The Tyee’s Andrew Nikiforuk is calling on Alberta’s incoming New Democrat government to restore transparency in the province by changing its freedom of information law.
• “The LCBO provides huge discounts on alcohol for foreign diplomats, but who buys what is being kept secret,” according to the Hamilton Spectator.
• BC NDP MLA Doug Routley asked Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk whether he encourages “senior public officials to avoid creating records of important government decisions.” But, rather than answer that question, Virk simply offered to provide Routley with a copy of the province’s freedom of information law. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)
• The Ontario government is asking the public to provide feedback on its draft open data directive. According to a news release, the directive “aims to make data that the government collects and generates on topics, like school enrollment and traffic volume on provincial highways, open to the public.” (hat tip: Herb Lainchbury)
• Ontario’s information commissioner has ordered the Town of Arnprior to release records about the town’s computer system. Those records have been withheld from a private citizen who requested them for about 10 years. According to the Chronicle-Guide, the citizen had asked for a report prepared by chief administrative officer Michael Wildman, which detailed the need to replace that system.
• On twitter, Springtide Collective founder Mark Coffin quotes Mahone Bay, N.S. councillor Lynn Hennigar as saying, “The only difference between us and the people we represent is access to information.”
• The Winnipeg Free Press reports, “Attempts to create a lobbyist registry at city hall hit a hurdle Thursday.” Acting city auditor Brian Mansky has told councillors the City of Winnipeg Charter does not have provisions to create such a registry. That means provincial “amendments would be necessary to give the registrar authority to enforce the registry and also to investigate activities.”
• Edmonton Coun. Andrew Knack has told CBC News the city should update its freedom of information policies to make it easier for people to access electronic data. According to the broadcaster, “The issue was raised when local cycling advocated encountered what he called an ‘obstructionist’ policy” after requesting a spreadsheet of locations where pedestrians and cyclists have been injured or killed.
• I’ll be speaking about access to information as part of a Monday evening panel on press freedom at the United Nations Association in Canada Calgary Branch’s annual general meeting.
Alberta’s freedom of information law is weak and underused. Yet, in an election where one of the most important issues is government accountability, there has been surprisingly little discussion about reforming that law – despite a proposed policy change that could further threaten the public’s right to know.
Alberta has historically been a stranger to freedom of information legislation, which allows access to internal government documents. That access is important because the public can then find out things the officials they elect and the institutions they pay for don’t want them to find out.
But, according to the Globe and Mail, Peter Lougheed – Alberta’s premier between 1971 and 1985 – claimed such legislation was unnecessary because his was one of North America’s most open administrations. His successor Don Getty also rejected and later delayed introducing an access law, stating government information was already “made available by the wheelbarrow loads” in the legislature.
“We mail it to people. It’s provided on a day-to-day basis,” he added.
But there were many outside government who disputed such claims. For example, in 1992, the Calgary Herald reported the Association of Alberta Taxpayers delivered 20,000 coupons to Getty’s office “from individual citizens demanding an information law.”
At the time, association spokesperson Kevin Avram was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “The most difficult government to get information from is right here in Edmonton.”
Getting that information became easier when Ralph Klein’s government finally introduced a freedom of information law in April 1994, making the province the second to last jurisdiction in North America to do so.
But it remains an access laggard.
According to a 2012 report from the Centre for Law and Democracy, Alberta tied with New Brunswick and the federal government for having the worst freedom of information law in the country. In that report, the centre stated the loopholes in Alberta’s legislation create “enormous amount of wiggle room for recalcitrant public officials who would seek to avoid disclosure of embarrassing information.”
In addition, it costs $25 just to file a freedom of information request in Wildrose Country. In Canada, the two territories are the only other jurisdictions with that high of an application fee. And that price tag doesn’t include the additional costs often associated with actually obtaining those records.
I can’t help but think that Alberta’s application fee is one reason why the province’s access law is so underused.
According to the most recent statistics available, in fiscal 2012/13 Alberta government ministries received 60 general freedom of information requests per 100,000 people in the province. By comparison, in Ontario, where the application fee for those requests is $5, that number was 87 in 2012. And, in British Columbia, where there is no charge, that number was 106 in 2012/13.
But, troublingly, Premier Jim Prentice has a plan that could further suppress such access requests in Alberta even further.
Right now, an individual who files a freedom of information request is the only one who receives the records responsive to it. That means reporters and others can get scoops from making those requests – a reward for the considerable time, effort and sometimes money spent on them.
But, in February, CBC News revealed the premier moved to take those scoops away by “personally” ordering government to post responses online for everyone to see, including competing reporters. And if you don’t think that’s a disincentive, just think how you would feel if someone else could constantly claim credit for work you were responsible for.
Prentice’s order has yet to be carried out.
Nevertheless, it’s another reason why opposition parties should be promising to reform the province’s freedom of information legislation, a law that’s benefitted them during the election campaign.
For example, thanks to that law, Wildrose found out the government had spent more than $950 million on sole-source contracts in fiscal 2013/14. Similarly, the Alberta NDP learned of “skyrocketing” ambulance service delays in Calgary and Edmonton.
Both revelations were used to attack the Tories on the campaign trail, where – according to a telephone survey of 758 Albertans conducted for CBC News by the polling firm Return On Insight – accountability is the second most important issue for voters.
Yet the platforms for the Alberta Party, the NDP and the Alberta Liberals don’t include a word about strengthening the province’s freedom of information law. Only Wildrose’s platform promises such a change, while the Greens have a plank that commits them to a “radical overhaul of rules around transparency and accountability.”
Nor have journalists talked much about the need for reform either, perhaps because they believe too many believe Canadians don’t care about that issue – a self-defeating notion, even if it may sometimes be a truthful one.
But what all this amounts to is, at the very least, a missed opportunity to change that indifference, raising awareness among Albertans about why their information rights are important and how those rights can prevent another 44 years of unaccountable governments in this province.
• Writing in the Hill Times, lawyer Michael Drapeau questions what role information commissioner Suzanne Legault has played in the “diminishing importance” of Canada’s records access system. Drapeau critique’s Legault’s appointment of a new “commissioner-in-residence” at a time when she’s complaining about budget cuts. Those cuts also have him questioning why Legault decided to initiative a “wall-to-wall review” of the Access to Information Act, an “ambitious undertaking” that likely diverted “significant resources and management attention” away from overseeing the functioning of that legislation.
• Fort William First Nation governance coordinator Damien Lee is looking to access the 250 research studies written for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was established in 1991. Those studies were previously made available on a CD-ROM that provided a “database program that allowed one to search for and through the research studies.” But, according to Lee, these days “accessing the CD-ROM is nearly impossible on the average person’s computer.” So he’s filed a request for that information to be provided in a PDF format. (hat tip: Alexiss Rusnak)
• Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia vice-president Aubrie McGibbon compares the differences between freedom of information and open data advocates, writing, “Where FOI is often characterized as individual requests for information, open data is characterized as a digital platform where a catalogue of data can be accessed. A second difference is one of culture – FOI advocacy is often characterized as being driven by lawyers and journalists, but open data is been driven by the technology sector.” (hat tip: Scientists for the Right to Know)
• The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Aaron Wudrick endorses Legault’s recommended reforms to the Access to Information Act, although he writes that not every one of them is a “slam-dunk.” Wudrick states “opening the system up to people outside of Canada, for example, seems unnecessary.”
In an email, he explained, “Our basic starting point is that since Canadians fund government, they therefore should be the ones prioritized when it comes to queries. Foreign entities or persons can already file ATI queries using an agent; propsed changes would just let them do so directly. Our general concern is that this would encourage even more requests into an already strained system, and we think Canadians should have priority when it comes to having their queries answered.”
• The Globe and Mail’s Andrea Woo tweets that when she filed a freedom of information request with the United States’s National Archives, she got a response in “two(!) days.”
• Wilfred Laurier University political science professor Christopher Alcantara writes, “When it comes to demands for greater detail about the salaries and expenditures of politicians and public servants, the amount of time and effort involved would be best spent elsewhere, given the limited benefits that would accrue from such policies.”
• PEN Canada has relaunched its Censorship Tracker to coincide with World Press Freedom Day. The tracker allows for the mapping of free expression violations across the country.
• The Times Colonist reports Saanich, B.C. police are “refusing to confirm who is responsible for a murder-suicide in a Cordova Bay house last week.” According to a police spokesperson, that’s because no criminal charges have been laid so both individuals have privacy rights – a position that has been criticized by the newspaper, as well as the province’s children and youth representative.
• The Times Colonist reports, “Despite employee complaints of bullying, mismanagement, low morale and high turnover in the province’s civilian police watchdog, the B.C. government’s human resources branch will not release results of its investigation into the Independent Investigations Office.”
• The Times Colonist reports, “For the second straight week, the (BC NDP) Opposition produced documents that show one senior [government] official denying the existence of records only to have another person release them.”
• Nova News Now reports the Nova Scotia government is promising to give the public more information about aquaculture. But Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Keith Colwell has also “admitted veterinary records will be exempt under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.” That’s controversial because it means information on fish diseases that is publicly available in New Brunswick will be secret in Nova Scotia.
• The Coast reports the Nova Scotia government is late in filing its annual statistical report on freedom of information requests filed in that province. That report was last published in 2012. But, according to the newspaper, “the province says it identified ‘greater difficulties and discrepancies’ while reviewing 2013’s numbers.”
• “The Saskatchewan Party government has refused to turn over nearly two dozen records applied for under access-to-information laws, according to the Opposition NDP,” according to Global News.
• “Along with the job of holding the B.C. Liberals to account, the New Democrats used the spring session of the legislature to lay out a dozen reforms to be implemented if the party forms government after the next election,” writes the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer
• British Columbia’s Civil Forfeiture Office has been forced to disclose the names of its employees, the Globe and Mail reports. Law student Jeremy Maddock had filed a freedom of information request for those names, information the office claimed would put its employees at risk. But the province’s information commissioner decided against that claim. And now a judge has dismissed a justice ministry attempt to appeal that decision.
• “A staff member of the Centre for Law and Democracy is praising recommended changes to Newfoundland and Labrador’s access to information legislation,” reports CBC News. “Michael Karanicolas, legal officer with the centre, said the changes will make the province a world leader when it comes to access to information.”
• The Leader-Post reports Saskatchewan’s privacy commissioner is “investigating the premier’s office over the release of a Saskatoon care home aide’s personnel information.” According to the newspaper, “On April 20, Kathy Young, chief of operations and communications for the executive council, sent an email to reporters saying Peter Bowden, a care aide at Oliver Lodge in Saskatoon, had been suspended with pay. Bowden had appeared at the legislative building in March to raise concerns about his workplace, after which Premier Brad Wall guaranteed he would not be disciplined for speaking out.”
• The StarPhoenix writes that the government’s actions toward Bowden “highlights a problem that afflicts politicians who are in office for a long time.” According to the newspaper, Premier Brad Wall “like many others before him, has begun to equate what’s in the best interest of his political party and what’s in the public interest, and has taken moral umbrage at anyone who dares to question his actions.”
• CBC News’s Charles Rusnell tweets he’s receiving letters every day about extensions the Alberta government is taking on providing responses to his freedom of information requests. “Embarrassing to govt.,” he writes, adding, “It’s an election tradition in Alberta.”
• In response to calls by the NDP to create a lobbyist registry, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski was quoted by CBC News as saying, “This government is not going to make it harder for people to talk to the government.”
• Privacy and Access Council of Canada president Sharon Polsky is running as the Wildrose’s election candidate in Calgary-Varsity. In the Calgary Herald, she has been quoted as saying she’s running because “through my career I have worked to protect Canadians’ democratic rights and freedoms, so accountability and transparency are very important to me. I know that under the PC government ‘accountability’ has become a meaningless buzzword and freedom of information isn’t free.”
• Metro reports, “Calgary spent more than $320,000 handling 197 freedom-of-information requests in the last six months of 2014, according to a new city report, prompting one councillor to renew his call to raise the fees of such requests.” That $25 fee is currently among the most expensive in the country.
• Calgary Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart has suggested the city could cut those costs by making the result of all freedom of information requests immediately public. According to Metro, the following exchange took place between her and Mayor Naheed Nenshi:
“I raise this because … a lot of the inquiries are generated by the media,” Colley-Urquhart said. “And they want an exclusive on the story but the minute that it’s going to be simultaneously released and become public information…”
“…They lose their scoop,” Nenshi said, finishing her sentence.
“Yeah,” Colley-Urquhart continued. “And there’s a decrease in the number of these things. So I just want to know if this is possible and what the merits of this would be.”
• “The head of Ontario’s school bus association says his Toronto members should disclose their collision records,” according to the Toronto Star. The statement comes a day after the newspaper published a story showing those numbers were being kept secret. The Toronto Star has also published an editorial calling for such a disclosure.
• London, Ont.’s new integrity commissioner “will be directed to examine whether the city needs a lobbyist registry,” according to Metroland News.
• Commenting on a proposal to create a lobbyist registry in Collingwood, Ont., town clerk Sara Amas stated it could impact how member of council interact with residents. The Collingwood Connection has quoted her as saying, “Not only does it capture developers and contractors, it could include ratepayers and how they interact with council and it could get quite complicated.”
• The Hamilton Spectator reports two rookie Hamilton, Ont. politicians have won their colleague’s approval to study the rejected idea of recording the city council’s closed-door meetings.
• Brampton, Ont. “wants residents to weigh in on proposed lobbyist and gift registries,” according to the Brampton Guardian.
• “The University of Guelph’s senior administration and its board of governors should be ashamed of how they resolved to carry out one of the most important meetings at the institution this year,” according to the Guelph Mercury. “After a student protest spurred a shut down of an April 16 meeting to settle the university’s next operating budget, these parties arranged a closed session last Sunday to conclude the process.”
• In response, the university’s association vice-president of student affairs Brenda Whiteside writes that “the board had no option but to hold this meeting in closed session” because protesting students “made it clear that they had no intention of engaging in a dialogue; rather, their intent was to shut down the board.”
What does the latest polling tell us about the importance of transparency issues in Canada?
Why did the British Columbia government claim it didn’t have records that actually exist?
And should the public have a right to know the circumstances behind the firing of senior public officials?
Those are just some of the questions raised by stories about freedom of information that made headlines and twitter posts in Canada last week.
• Forum Research Inc. reports, “When presented with five major issues facing the Canadian government now, two thirds of voters say ethics and transparency in government has ‘a great deal of influence’ on their vote.” (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)
• The Canadian Food Inspection Agency attempted to charge La Presse $104,050 for statistics on how often the organization has verified the nutrition facts on food labels over the past four years. (hat tip: Leslie Young)
• In response to CBC News’s request for records about food labelling. Health Canada provided a package of 400 documents. But one of those documents, an issue summary, had a “curious” redaction: “Review of serving size (deleted word) guidelines.” According to reporter Kelly Crowe, that word was deleted because it’s a cabinet secret.
• The Haisla Nation had to wait “nearly four years” for Environment Canada to respond to a request for records related to proposed consultation process for the Northern Gateway Pipeline.
• CBC News reports Ontario Superior Court Justice Herman Wilton-Siegel will decide this week whether a “secret settlement made between the Canadian government and U.S. Steel will be unsealed…While lawyers for U.S. Steel argue the deal is privileged and protected information, lawyers for the steelworkers union and City of Hamilton say it would be ‘fairness 101′ to disclose the deal during bankruptcy protection and amidst the potential sale of the Hamilton steel plant.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• “The federal government has decided to stop publishing contact information for all of its departments and agencies in the blue pages section of telephone directories,” reports the Canadian Press. “A spokesman for Shared Services Canada says the department has yet to receive any complaints about the dropped blue pages listings.”
• The University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension is hosting the 2015 Access and Privacy Conference on June 11.
• The Tyee reports that, last week, the BC NDP raised three examples of documents the provincial government claimed did not exist after the party filed freedom of information requests for them. But it turns out those documents actually did exist, with the BC NDP having obtained them through other means.
• The Times Colonist’s Les Leyne’s writes that those revaluations are “not exactly news. A national survey a year ago turned up a similar conclusion. And FOI law is a background issue that doesn’t really move too many people.”
• Reader Merv Adley counters Leyne’s claim, writing, “The Freedom of Information and [Protection of] Privacy Act protects our democratic institutions by forcing governments to inform us of what they are up to. It’s a damn shame Leyne doesn’t find a government routinely evading the act more appalling.” Adley’s letter was published, in part, by the Vancouver Courier.
• Freelancer Bob Mackin has been successful in his four-year quest to obtain the BC Lions’ rent contract with the BC Pavilion Corp.
• CBC News reports, “Sherry Jeffers and Charlene Pitre are suing the [New Brunswick] government for allegedly breaching their confidentiality as informants to a Department of Social Development investigation into the Saint John special care home where they once worked.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Newfoundland and Labrador government has introduced a new bill implementing the recommendations of an independent committee that reviewed the province’s access to information legislation. According to CBC News, “The new law remains on track to come into effect June 1.”
• Ontario’s new information and privacy commissioner will be coming to Brock University on May 6 to “meet with regional stakeholders and talk about the trends and future direction of access to information and protection of privacy.”
• Kevin Kaardal, the superintendent for Burnaby, B.C.’s school district, was given a golden handshake worth close to $430,000. But the district isn’t saying why Kaardal left by “mutual agreement,” prompting Burnaby Now to ask, “What do taxpayers have the right to know, or need to know, when top brass in city positions are shown the door?”
• “A year after it was asked to disclose detailed ridership studies for the Union-Pearson Express, Metrolinx has released some of the reports,” according to the Toronto Sun. “But key financial information is blacked out from the documents.”