TORIES FIGHT TO KEEP GOVERNMENT CURTAINS CLOSED

Tories want to keep the curtain drawn on government, giving a thumbs down to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's Transparency Act (Graphic by Liberal Party of Canada)

Conservative critics give a thumbs down to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s Transparency Act. (Graphic by Liberal Party of Canada)

TORIES TRAMPLE TRANSPARENCY BILL The Conservative government has claimed it only charges “minor additional fees” to access its records and that the country’s information commissioner doesn’t need additional powers  — despite evidence suggesting otherwise.

Tory MP Dan Albas made those comments on behalf of the government in response to a Liberal bill that would partially fix Canada’s broken freedom of information system.

The bill, entitled the Transparency Act, would eliminate all access to information fees, except the $5 charge for filing a request.

Freedom of information advocates have criticized some of the government’s fee estimates, which can total hundreds, thousands or even over a million dollars.

The bill would also give the information commissioner the power to order the release of records the government has withheld.

The current commissioner, Suzanne Legault, has repeatedly asked for that power, which some provincial access watchdogs already possess, along with a mandate to educate the public about freedom of information issues.

But Albas quoted former commissioner John Reid as saying, “There is no evidence that order powers would strengthen the right of access, speed up the process, or reduce the amount of secrecy.”

The parliamentary secretary also said eliminating access to information fees would “not show respect for the tax dollars of Canadians,” adding that 99.5 percent of requests are “fulfilled at no direct cost” beyond the initial $5 application charge.

Nor, according to Albas, were the Conservatives supportive of the Liberal bill’s proposal that the government provide a “detailed explanation” when it refuses to release a record.

The reason: such a requirement “would add an unnecessary burden on the entire access to information program across the government.”

SUNNY WAYS? In an online advertisement released this week, the Liberals claimed their Transparency Act “will raise the bar on openness in government” — even though that legislation would preserve most of the hiding spaces used to keep information from the public. But I also wonder whether party leader Justin Trudeau will be able to hit that low bar if he becomes prime minister.

The reason: in his editorial this week, CTV’s Don Martin said a “freakish tilt toward ruthless control is developing” behind Trudeau’s “sunshine disposition.”

Among the examples Martin cited was “the fixing of Liberal nomination battles to protect Trudeau’s star recruits” — despite an earlier commitment to have open nominations.

The Grit leader has also said MPs “should be community leaders, free to express their constituents’ views and free to work with members of other parties to develop solutions to Canada’s challenges.”

But, according to Trudeau, non-incumbent Liberal candidates who become MPs will be “expected to vote pro-choice on any bills.”

Moreover, those candidates are being screened for their opinions on social issues to ensure they are “consistent with the Liberal Party as it is now, as it stands under my leadership and under the feedback we’re getting rom Canadians across the country.”

While neither of these inconsistencies has to do with open government, in my experience politicians who want this kind of control are also strangers rather than friends to freedom of information.

Which means Trudeau’s promises to bring more sunshine into government may be as fleeting as those made by Conservative leader Stephen Harper before he became prime minister.

CANADIANS COMMENT ON ACCESS ISSUES The Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University has released the country’s “first ever” poll on political leadership ethics. But the poll also has a lot to say about Canadians think about government openness and accountability. According to the study:

• 48 percent think politicians frequently misuse government powers to silence critics;

• 47 percent think politicians frequently lie to Parliament, the media or the public;

• 45 percent think politicians frequently limit the media’s access to elected officials;

• 81 percent support laws to increase transparency in government as a way of reducing ethics breaches in Canadian politics;

• 68 percent supporter better protection for whistleblowers as a way of reducing ethics breaches in Canadian politics; and

• 33 percent trust journalists, with public servants, police officers, judges and doctors being considered more trustworthy.

• respondents think whistleblowers, the police, voters, party leaders, ethics commissioners and auditors general all have more responsibility for policing political ethics than the media.

The study was conducted online by the Gandalf Group using a nationally representative sample of 1,039 Canadians. The margin of error is 3.1 percent.

TRACK AND MAP RIGHT TO KNOW THREATS A coalition of civil liberty groups have built what could be a powerful weapon in the fight for more freedom of information in Canada.

Last week, those groups launched an online tool that allows Canadians to file reports of censorship across Canada, including “limits on the right to information.”

Once approved, those reports then appear on Censorship Tracker’s map, showing how censorship “plays out across all provinces and territories, and how it changes over time.”

But the success of that project, which is being led by PEN Canada, will partially hinge on whether Canadians actually participate in it — as I did last week when I submitted a report on a now overturned decision to bar journalist Linden MacIntyre from appearing on the CBC News Network.

However, Censorship Tracker partners, which include the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, will also be updating the site.

SQUIBS

• Former senior oil executive Alan Detheridge hopes Canadian lawmakers will resist “pressure from the oil industry” to weaken a proposed new law that require “oil, gas, and mining companies in Canada to disclose their payments to governments around the world.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• The Canadian Press reports NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus has sent a letter to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, accusing the government of “starving the Access to Information system of cash, hiding documents for political reasons, and backpedalling on promises to reform the 32-year-old access law.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Suzanne Legault, Canada’s information commissioner, has released a report showing Transport Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development had the lowest completion rates for access to information requests in fiscal 2012/13. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)

• iPolitics columnist Devon Black thinks there should be a cap on access to information fees, penalties for “unreasonable delays” in releasing government records and adequate funding for the country’s right to know watchdog. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• “Some provinces are taking steps to let the public know when agencies have failed to act on recommendations stemming from coroner’s inquests and fatality inquiries,” according to Postmedia News.

• Global News online politics reporter Laura Stone writes that justice department records released via an access to information request blacked out the name of the executive director of a victims services’ organization — even though that name can easily be found on the Internet.

• According to the Toronto Star, “It’s nothing short of outrageous” that Toronto’s Pan Am Games is demanding more than $4,000 for “internal communications and emails concerning the status of 10 new sports facilities under construction, and on any delays, over an 18-month period.”

• Alberta’s Wildrose Party is promising to “provide easier and more affordable access to Freedom of Information requests” and “dramatically improve whistleblower legislation” as part of a policy packaged focused on “strengthening democracy and ending entitlement.”

• The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s prairie director Colin Craig reports the Saskatchewan government responded with 72 pages of information, 66 of which had been blacked, when it was asked for information about the financial impact Canada’s aging population would have on the healthcare system.

• The Vancouver Sun’s Chad Skelton lists 53 provincial government bodies that were “transparent and quick” in response to his request for public sector salary records.

• Even though Mayor Gregor Robertson and his secretive administration was re-elected, journalist Stanley Tromp argues Vancouver voters have “spoken out for open government.”

SMALLER MEDIA TREATED LIKE SECOND-CLASS REPORTERS?

The department of citizenship and immigration's draft guide for its spokespeople is interesting reading for frustrated journalists.

The department of citizenship and immigration’s draft guide for its spokespeople is interesting reading for frustrated journalists.

“All media requests are not equal.”

Journalists from small, alternative and independent media outlets have long believed that’s why they get no response or a delayed response when they contact the government for information. That can make it more difficult for them to break stories, frustrating the public’s right to know.

But it’s also an adage you’d never, ever expect to see the government write down – until spin doctors at Citizenship and Immigration Canada did exactly that in a document I obtained via a recent access to information request.

Was it a pique of honesty that led them to put those words in black and white, an error or just plain indiscretion?

Well, according to a department representative, the document – a 16-page draft guide prepared for citizenship and immigration’s spokespeople – was never approved and doesn’t reflect how media requests are actually handled.

But, even with that caveat in mind, the guide may give us a glimpse inside the mind of a government spin doctor.

It states, “Inquiries received from major media outlets must receive greater attention and effort…than calls received from minor media sources or student journalists.”

Similarly, “calls from major international media outlets (i.e. Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times) as well as calls on sensitive issues,” demand even more attention.

In other words, according to the guide, the department should give more help to foreign reporters – and their audiences – than some Canadian reporters.

But, in an email, citizenship and immigration media relations advisor Nancy Caron used capital letters to stress the “DRAFT” nature of that document.

The first page of the document stresses the same thing, adding “procedures are constantly evolving to meet changing circumstance.”

It then goes on to state that the guide is simply meant to provide “a snapshot of where we are today. It reflects how the DG of communications, the Director of Ministerial Events and Media Relations and the Minister’s Office wish us to process media calls.”

Nevertheless, according to Caron, the document was “never presented to, nor approved by CIC’s management.”

Indeed, she stated her department “provides all media outlets with the same service level and attention. Media requests are triaged and addressed based on deadlines for publication…In fact, in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, 90.7% of journalists’ deadlines were met, regardless of their outlet.”

But journalists I spoke with say the “all media requests are not equal” approach matches their own dealings with the federal government.

Jeremy Nuttall, national reporter for the online magazine The Tyee, has said that, “Forget about the back burner, it feels like you’re not even on the stove.”

An example: back in 2012, when Nuttall was freelancing for The Tyee and covering the government’s controversial decision to approve the use of temporary foreign workers by HD Mining International Ltd. in British Columbia.

He said the citizenship and immigration “answered at first…then darkness” when the story “heated up.”

“I’ve worked for larger places and there is more of an effort [by government] to get your replies,” said Nuttall, who has also reported for the Canadian Press, CBC News and the Globe and Mail.

Parliament Hill freelancer Justin Ling said he’s had similar experiences. “I’ve been doing a lot of stories for Vice News recently and I can tell you the departments don’t care about Vice News,” he said. “It’s not their demographic, they just don’t give a shit.”

“The departments definitely have targeted approaches based on who you are calling from and who you are,” continued Ling, who has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post and Maclean’s.

“The consequence is that it reinforces the consortium of news outlets that people go to for news. It’s unfortunate.”

It is – especially at a time when those outlets are on the decline, with journalists outside the “consortium” trying to investigate stories the mainstream no longer can.

By treating those journalists as second-class reporters – either in policy or in practice – the government is once again frustrating the public’s right to know.

Because if members of the fourth estate can’t get the information they need from the government, neither can Canadians – keeping voters in the dark and their elected officials unaccountable.

 

SECRECY SCORES ELECTION WIN

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wants you to ask him anything. But getting answers has proved difficult. (Photograph by Gregor Robertson)

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wants you to ask him anything. But getting answers from his government has proven difficult. (Photograph by Gregor Robertson)

CLOSED DOORS DON’T RUIN RE-ELECTION CHANCES The result of Vancouver’s recent civic election may comfort federal Conservatives worried about their government’s reputation for secrecy.

Like the Tories, Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party came to power after running on a platform that promised a more “open and accountable municipal government.”

Robertson also repeated that promise during his 2008 swearing-in speech, saying, “I will not let you down on making city hall more open and accountable.”

But, like the Tories, Robertson has let voters down.

For example, in its most recent freedom of information audit, Newspapers Canada gave Vancouver a “C for the extent of information it disclosed and an F for speed of responses.”

Journalists have also repeatedly and publicly complained about the city’s increasingly restrictive media relations policy.

Yet, even though Robertson’s competitors promised more transparency, voters returned the mayor and his party to power on Saturday — a feat the Tories may well repeat in 2015.

IS SECRECY REALLY A SURPRISE? Last week, in an editorial criticizing the Harper administration’s continued lack of transparency, the Globe and Mail told readers it’s surprising when a party “goes from promising more access to actively reducing it” once they form government.

But there are numerous examples suggesting the real surprise would be if that didn’t happen, with Robertson’s record as Vancouver’s mayor being just one of them.

Another: in 1993, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien’s platform promised that “open government will be the watchword of the Liberal program.” Yet, when he came to power, the Liberals, like the Conservatives, did nothing to cure the country’s then ailing access to information system.

Instead, a 1999 report by right to know scholar Alasdair Roberts, found “it takes longer to process an FOI request today that at any point since adoption of the law in 1982.”

A year later, in his annual report to Parliament, information commissioner John Reid also accused the Chretien administration of having launched a “full counter-attack” against his legal and investigative resources.

Indeed, at the time, freedom of information researcher Ken Rubin wrote, “Chrétien wants no one…telling him to expose records the Prime Minister considers to be cabinet confidences, including his own daily movements” — a reference to  schedules his office was refusing to release.

I could go on, of course. But, instead, I’ll give this advice: rather than pillorying a single governing party or politicians for being excessively secretive, perhaps journalists, activists and Canadians should be more concerned about the political systems that allows for that secrecy in the first place.

SQUIBS

• The Canadian Press reports the “federal information watchdog is almost broke, weathering a cash crunch Suzanne Legault says threatens her ability to protect the rights of Canadians.” (hat tip: Mike De Souza)

• The Toronto Star skewers the federal government’s “Orwellian” open government action plan for being “so totally disconnected from reality that the initial reaction in the nation’s capital was incredulity.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Globe and Mail reports that environment lawyers say “the B.C. government appears to have systemically breached its freedom-of-information law by withholding information related to the collapse of the tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine.”

• According to the Vancouver Sun, British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner “has agreed to investigate a second complaint that the B.C. government is illegally holding back documents related to the Mount Polley mine tailings dam collapse.” (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The Ryerson Review of Journalism reports on how government secrecy is thwarting journalists investigating that collapse.

• The Georgia Straight reports it took nine months to obtain government records about the death of Mexican immigrant Lucia Vega Jiménez, who committed suicide while in the Canadian Border Services Agency’s custody.

• The Vancouver Sun reports those records show the agency decided “it would not tell the public of the incident…responding only if journalists asked questions.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Globe and Mail’s Andrea Woo highlights an email from the package in which the agency’s communications department “ponders how to answer questions about not answering questions” about its operations.

• The organizing committee for the 2015 Pan Am Games “wants more than $4,000 for access to information on the construction progress and delays on new, tax-funded sports facilities,” according to the Toronto Star. (hat tip: Kat Eschner)

• Bighorn Municipal District councillor Paul Ryan says it’s “very disturbing” that he can’t access government reports on the impact of industrial operations in his community. The Rocky Mountain Outlook quotes his as saying, “We can’t get anything back from the province, yet we have people in Hazmat suits running around” Exhshaw, a hamlet that’s part of the district.

• In a letter to the editor published in the Sherbrooke Record, Waterville, Que. resident Debra Martin writes that, in order to view a bylaw in her town, “one must make a written request in compliance with the access to information act, wait for a reply and then go to Town Hall from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the week — except for Wednesday mornings or Friday afternoons and the noon hour when they are closed.”

• Renu Mandhane, the director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, writes that “search fees in the thousands of dollars puts access to information outside the grasp of ordinary Canadians.” (hat tip: Laura Tribe)

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby writes that Canada’s Privy Council Office isn’t releasing a note to Prime Minister Stephen Harper about the travel costs for veterans attending the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The government earlier announced it would pay up to $2,000 to help those veterans attending the ceremony in France — an amount that was later criticized.

• New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant doesn’t know why the Lobbyist Registration Act his government passed six months ago hasn’t been enacted, according to the Telegraph-Journal. But he’s told reporters, “I have asked the executive council office to give me an update on exactly where it is and where it has been stalled.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

SECRETS REMAIN UNDER “OPEN GOVERNMENT” PLAN

An example of a typical government filing cabinet under the Tory's second open government plan. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

An example of a typical government filing cabinet under the Tories’ second open government action plan. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

A LITTLE REFORM DOESN’T GO A LONG WAY The Harper administration’s second open government action plan was rightly pilloried last week for not including any plans to fix the country’s long broken Access to Information Act. But it’s important to remember that, even though the Liberals and the NDP both introduced private members bills to amend that act, the Grit’s proposal has significant limitations.

For example, that proposal states “exceptions to the right of access should be rare.” But it does very little to change the exemptions and exclusions in the Act that let government frustrate access requests and keep their most sensitive records out of the public eye.

On that score, the NDP’s bill, which was defeated on second reading, was considerably more reformist. It would have allowed for greater access to records about advice and recommendations developed by or for the government, as well as its positions and plans. Accounts of consultations and deliberations involving the government would have also become more accessible and so would some cabinet records.

So while the Conservatives deserve a drubbing for continuing to run a backroom state, the Liberals don’t look like they would throw open the curtains of government if they won power.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE SOME NUMBERS COULD MAKE Thanks to party discipline, caucus secrecy and cabinet confidentiality, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between our legislators — and hold them to account. After all, those representatives are usually only allowed to speak out on behalf of their constituents and their own conscience during closed door meetings. Outside those meetings, they’re expected to toe the party line.

But what would happen if our legislators were required to publish an annual report that included statistics measuring their performance on everything from their voting behaviour to how much government money they were bringing into their constituency?

The United Kingdom’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority suggested something similar last year. And now British Conservative MP Jesse Norman has given his constituents an example of what such a report might look like, showing everything from how many public constituency events he’s attended to how many questions he’s asked in the House of Commons.

Just think how much more helpful that information would be if it was independently audited and British voters were able to compare his statistics to those of other MPs. Moreover, there’s nothing that would stop Canadian legislators from doing the same thing — except a desire to maintain the anonymity that both protects and disempowers them.

PUBLIC SERVANTS OR PARTY EMPLOYEES? Former government scientist Michael Rennie has admirably spoken out against the policies that prevent his ex-colleagues from talking about their research. But, in doing so, he appeared to speak in favour of a common assumption that I believe may have contributed to the creation of those policies.

In an op-ed published in the Ottawa Citizen, Rennie wrote that when he was working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, he would refer media requests for comment to the department’s communications officers. But “these requests were typically met with silence.”

That’s one of the reasons why he wants to see changes to the “current communications policies and practices are doing little to facilitate open scientific dialogue in the federal public service.”

Nevertheless, Rennie stated, “It’s reasonable to expect that a public servant would not be publicly critical of their employer, or the policies they represent.”

Yet what happens when a government scientist’s research implicitly criticizes their employer or such policies? Should lips be sealed about that work or should it be shared?

And why do some Canadians seem to assume those public servants are working for whatever party is in power rather than the people?

After all, if we took the later perspective, then there arguably wouldn’t be anything wrong with them being critical of public policies that weren’t in the public interest.

In fact, it would be irresponsible of them not to.

STAR PUMPS COMMISSIONER’S PRIVACY ROLE Earlier, I reported on how journalists routinely describe Canada’s information and privacy commissioners as “privacy watchdogs” or “privacy commissioners” even when those officials are dealing with right to know issues.

The latest example comes to us from the Toronto Star, which reported last week that “Investigators from the provincial privacy commissioner’s office have interviewed staff at the Toronto school board after allegations surfaced that trustees interfered and tampered with a document requested by the Star under the freedom of information act.”

Yet that investigation has nothing to do with commissioner’s privacy protection role and everything to do with his responsibility to uphold the public’s information access rights.

SQUIBS

• In a column for the Huffington Post, Dawson College history professor Frederic Bastien contrasts the federal Conservative’s championing of Canada’s past with their refusal to make archival information available to historians. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Vancouver Sun files freedom of information requests with 21 local municipalities and finds a “lack of transparency at city halls in the region.” (hat tip: Mike Hager)

• The Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick uses his own dealings with the Canadian Border Services Agency as an example of how federal agencies “routinely hide information from the public.”

• The Tyee is ignoring a government demand to stop publishing “personal information” contained in internal health ministry emails that were leaked to the online magazine. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

GOVERNMENT WATCHES THE WATCHMEN

The federal government wants to know who wants its records. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The federal government wants to know who wants its records. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

FOIS WITHOUT A FACE Should the federal government know if a freedom of information request has been filed by a journalist or someone else? Some political reporters say no out of concern the government will delay or otherwise frustrate their requests. But I wonder if anonymity actually prevents such interference.

I got to thinking about that question after Global News online politics reporter Laura Stone noticed the government’s new access to information request form asks whether the filer is “best described” as “media,” “academia,” “business,” “organization,” “member of the public” or “decline to identify.”

In response, CBC News reporter Dean Beeby tweeted, “Best practice: always choose decline-to-ID, & never volunteer info to gov’t if not required by law.”

That’s a reasonable recommendation. But I’ve always assumed the government would be able to figure out my access requests were from the media, even if I didn’t disclose that I’m part of the fourth estate.

After all, journalists are among the few Canadians willing to spend the time and money needed to obtain records about, for example, the cost of renovating a government building or the reasons why a department was being reorganized.

Moreover, the government would likely red-flag such requests even if they didn’t know they were from the media, giving them special attention because the results could be politically embarrassing.

As such, I think reporters should identify themselves when filing access to information requests. But, having provided that information, we should demand the government routinely release statistics on the comparative timeliness, costliness and completeness of its response to those requests. And we should further demand those statistics be included in the annual reporting bulletin on the administration of the Access to Information Act.

That way, Canadians will know if the government is treating the media’s requests differently than everyone else’s — compromising the public’s right to know in the process.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? A New Brunswick district education council has provided yet another example of Canada’s secretive political culture, having refused to release information about the naming of two new grade schools in the Woodstock area.

The Bugle-Observer reports one of its freelance writers ask for the list of the names that had been considered for those schools.

But council denied that request because the province’s right to know legislation allows it to withhold information that “could reasonably be expected to reveal advice, opinions, proposals or recommendations developed by or for a public body or a minister of the Crown.”

BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER Brampton will soon become the fourth Canadian city to create a lobbyist registry if its new mayor gets her way, becoming more transparent than many of the country’s major metropolises.

Former Ontario cabinet minister Linda Jeffrey won that office last week on a platform that included a package of “integrity, openness and transparency” reforms. Among those reforms was a promise to “establish a lobbyist registry…that is updated on a regular basis and available to the public online. All lobbying activities with elected officials would be registered.”

Toronto and Ottawa already have similar registries. Surrey also requires lobbyists to register, but only if they “intend to advocate on behalf of applicants for a rezoning, development permit, or an official community plan amendment.”

A TALE OF TWO STATEMENTS Canada’s information and privacy commissioners grabbed the media’s attention this week when they issued a joint statement warning against the introduction of new draconian powers for intelligence and law enforcement agencies. But when those commissioners issued a similar statement last year about the country’s outdated freedom of information and privacy laws, the media wasn’t nearly as attentive.

According to the Canadian Newsstand database, the more recent joint statement has been reported at least 11 times — with the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and the Canadian Press all publishing articles about the announcement. By comparison, none of the news outlets included in that database printed coverage of the commissioners’ earlier demand to modernize the laws that protect our information and privacy rights in the days following that declaration.

In fairness, their more recent statement has a better news hook. The debate over new powers for intelligence and law enforcement agencies is taking place against two terror attacks. But this comparison brings into relief how difficult it can be to create a national conversation in the media about ongoing structural problems rather than the story of the day.

SQUIBS

• Prince Edward Island is “the only province that doesn’t include post-secondary institutions in its access to information law” — something the Prince Edward Island University Student Union wants to change, according to the Guardian. (hat tip: Janice Paskey)

• The Province reveals the results of a questionnaire about openness and accountability that it sent to Vancouver’s four civic parties.

• The Waterloo Chronicle reports its local government is trying to drum up interest in converting one of the city’s historic buildings into an open data centre called The Data Mine.

• Officials still won’t talk to the Ottawa Citizen about mould and asbestos problems at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

• Some hospitals are using Ontario’s Quality of Care Information Protection Act to hide information about potential medical mistakes, reports the Toronto Star.

• Edmonton is refusing to release the “nitty, gritty details of how the city wants the new Valley LRT line to be designed, built and operated,” according to the Edmonton Journal.

• The Toronto Star reports a previously leaked legislative committee report on Ontario’s “scandal-plagued” air ambulance service has finally been officially released. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

EXTRA! EXTRA! FOI WATCHDOGS DON’T MAKE HEADLINES!

The title information commissioner doesn't make many headlines. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The title information commissioner doesn’t make many headlines. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

PRIVACY GETS BIGGER BILLING THAN FOI In Canada’s provinces and territories, a single official is responsible for protecting the public’s information rights, as well as their privacy rights. But even when those officials are talking about information rights, some headline writers only refer to them as “privacy commissioners” or “privacy watchdogs.”

According to my count, there have been at least 84 such headlines published between 2003 and the present. For example, on August 15, the Globe and Mail reported British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner would be looking into whether the provincial government should have told the public about the state of the Mount Polley Mine prior to the collapse of its tailings pond. But even though that story has little to do with privacy rights, it appeared in print under the headline “Privacy watchdog launches mine probe.”

By comparison, I only found 40 headlines between 2003 and the present that referred to those watchdogs using a title that was about their information rights protecting responsibilities. And that makes me wonder what impact this difference is having on how the public views privacy versus access issues.*

LEGAL BILLS ABOVE FOI LAW? British Columbia’s justice minister doesn’t think the public should have a right to know what lawyers working for the government are making. During an interview on the public affairs show Voice of BC, the minister, Suzanne Anton, was asked by BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek if her administration would stop blocking the release of that kind of information. Her response: “When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.” The following is a complete transcript of that segment, which include show host Vaughn Palmer.

Gogolek: Minister, we’ve been hearing a rising number of complaints from FOI requesters who are trying to get information on how much lawyers or law firms are charging the government and the usual excuse is that somehow either handing over invoices or sometimes even just the total amount billed would violate solicitor-client privilege. Will you commit your government to stop blocking the release of this kind of information?

Anton: When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.

Palmer: What about total billings by a law firm for a prominent case like the BCTF case? Is the public entitled to know what the government has spent fighting the teachers’ union in court all these years?

Anton: I think it’s a complicated question because there’s government lawyers – it’s mainly government lawyers on that case. As a matter of fact, there’s one outside counsel right now. These are not things that are generally released.

Palmer: Well, I think the public’s entitled to know something like that don’t you?

Anton: I think it’s a very interesting case and we will see where it gets to. But in terms of the bills we have policy in legal services that we follow.

THE CLOSED DOOR CLUB Why do so many Canadian politicians appear to feel so comfortable making decisions out of the public eye?

In a letter published in the North Shore News earlier this month, retiring North Vancouver district councillor Alan Nixon suggested this rationale: “I, along with many others, believe effective and efficient administration and stewardship of the taxpayers’ best interest is more important than whether the meeting gets held in-camera or in the council chamber.”

Nixon was responding to an earlier column by former councillor Trevor Carolan, who criticized how much of the district’s public business has been happening in private.

According to Carolan, in 2013, “a total of 22 regular council meetings equalled 49 hours of open business; 47 closed meetings resulted in 81 hours of closed door sessions.

But Nixon has wrote, “The meetings that have been ‘secret’ or ‘in-camera’ have been fully justified under the rules which we operate, namely the Local Government Act and the Community Charter.”

THE POWER OF THE PSA The Inter American Press Association has passed a resolution calling on governments in the Americans to tell citizens about their information rights — something our own federal access watchdog can’t do. As I earlier reported, Canada’s first information commissioner wrote about the need to raise public awareness about those rights back in 1984. But, 30 years later, the current commissioner Suzanne Legault still doesn’t have that authority.

THE TRUTH AS A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE If religion is the opiate of the masses, is freedom of information their stimulant? That’s what Josh Gordon, state political editor for the Australian newspaper The Age, has suggested in his latest column. Writing about an attempt to withhold records about ambulance response time for people having heart attacks, Gordon states that information in the State of Victoria ‘is all too often treated as a dangerous drug, to be carefully meted out in controlled doses. Get the dose wrong and it might provoke an outbreak of ‘unnecessary debate.’ God forbid.”

SQUIBS

• American authorities told American journalists the name of Parliament Hill shooter Michael Joseph Zehaf-Bibeau long before Canadian authorities released the same information. According to Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell, that may be an example of the “difference in fundamental philosophies about democracy” between the two countries. (hat tip: David Mayhood)

• A request by Prince Edward Island’s information commissioner for more government money prompts Holland College journalism instructor Rick MacLean to write, “There are many ways to hide things. Underfunding those who hold you to account is one.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Calgary Herald reports a care home provider is trying to block the release of records that would tell the public how much money it makes from its contract with the Alberta government. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Embassy’s Carl Meyer covers his frustrating experience filing access requests for information about Canada’s relationship with Vietnam.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

* = I searched the Canadian Newsstand database for headlines that included the words “privacy commissioner,” “privacy watchdog,” “privacy ombudsman,” “privacy ombudsperson,” “privacy officer” and “privacy review officer” above stories that included the words “freedom of information” or FOI. I also searched the same database for headlines that included the words “information commissioner,” “info commissioner,” “information watchdog,” “info watchdog,” “FOI commissioner,” “FOI watchdog,” “information ombudsman,” “info ombudsman,” “info formation ombudsperson,” “information ombudsperson,” “information review officer,” “info review officer,” “information officer” and “info officer.” But I excluded from that later search stories that included the names of federal access commissioners Suzanne Legault, John Reid or Robert Marleau.

DEBATING CANADA’S DO NOT DISTURB SIGN

Should our right to be unknown trump our right to know? (Graphic by Privacy and Access Council of Canada)

Should our right to be unknown trump our right to know? (Graphic by Privacy and Access Council of Canada)

Does our narcissistic obsession with privacy compromise our information freedoms? That’s one of the questions I’ll be addressing Friday morning at the National Privacy and Data Governance Congress in Calgary. I’ll be sharing the stage with former Canwest News Service national columnist Catherine Ford and social media influencer Lori Ruff during a panel discussion entitled “Exposing Secrets: Privacy Ethics and the Media.”