ARE THE LIBERALS FOOLING EVERYONE AGAIN?

The Liberals are promising more freedom of information but is it just another political card trick? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The Liberals are promising more freedom of information but is it just another political card trick? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has claimed his proposed Transparency Act will “raise the bar on openness and transparency for all Canadians,” helping fix the country’s long-broken freedom of information law.

But recent testimony by the country’s information commissioner and an interview with Scott Simms, the party’s open government critic, suggest one of the bill’s biggest promises may, at best, be a rhetorical flourish and, at worst, squander a chance to expand our limited information rights.

Trudeau introduced the Transparency Act last June, saying it would offer “tangible ideas to improve openness not only in Parliament, but in our government.”

Some of those laudable ideas include:

• eliminating the fees government can change when responding to an access to information request;

• forcing government to provide a detailed (rather than brief) explanation if it denies an access to information request; and

• giving the commissioner the power to order the government to release information it has improperly denied access to.

But Trudeau has also said his bill will make government information “open by default.”

That turn of phrase conjures up visions of millions of records flying off of government shelves and out of government computers for everyone to see. Indeed, National Newswatch columnist Don Lenihan told readers earlier this month that the Transparency Act would push the “doors to transparency and accountability wide open,” making public a “huge amount of information” that is now hidden.

So, depending on your political persuasion or naiveté, it may or may not surprise you to know the bill won’t do anything like that.

In an interview, Simms confirmed that, under the Liberals’ “open by default” principle, Canadians would still have to file access requests to obtain government records.

“It’s not like we’re going to create a whole new system from scratch. What we want to do is take the system we have right now and update it to the 21st century,” he said.

Part of that update proposes rewriting the federal access law so information would have to be “openly” available to the public in a “machine readable format” rather than just “available to the public.” The update would also change the law to state that exceptions to Canadians’ access rights should also be “rare” as opposed to simply being “limited and specific.”

But, when Liberal MP Ted Hsu asked information commissioner Suzanne Legault if she agreed with making those changes, this is what she said:

In my opinion, that’s the way the act is constructed as it is. I see what you’re saying in terms of amending the purpose clause. Most people who want to amend the act want to amend the purpose clause. Personally, I’m a lawyer. The purpose clause has been interpreted quite well by the courts in the last 30 years. I am somewhat leery of amending a purpose clause for that Act.

Indeed, if Trudeau really wanted to make information “open by default,” the Transparency Act would do something about the 75 different kinds of information government can or must keep hidden from the public.

These expansive exceptions to the “open by default” rule include everything from policy advice to internal audits. In other words, the Access to Information Act currently precludes public access to a many things the public actually cares about.

But the Transparency Act doesn’t lay a hand on those exceptions, something freedom of information researcher Ken Rubin also mentioned in a column for the Hill Times.

In fact, when I spoke with Simms, he repeatedly confirmed the Liberals are comfortable with the Access to Information Act’s existing exemptions and exclusions.

“I wouldn’t want to say this is exhaustive, it’s perfect, it’s fine, it’s just a matter of how you are applying it. But I think, for the most part, what frustrates Canadians is how the [exemptions and exclusions] are applied.”

Later in our interview, though, Simms said he wouldn’t want to endorse all of the exceptions. He also said, even if the Transparency Act doesn’t result in more transparency, it would still require the government to immediately review the Access to Information Act. That review would then be repeated every five years, creating an opportunity for future reform.

“It’s a step-by-step process to find out about all of these exemptions and rip them apart,” he said, adding that if history shows one of them “is one that does not comply with open government then so be it. Let’s have a look at that and change the act accordingly.”

But more than 30 years of freedom of information history in Canada – including numerous reports, reviews and recommendations by parliamentarians and past access commissioners – has already shown the existing exemptions and exclusions often don’t comply with the principle of open government.

Whoever drafted the Transparency Act would need to have ignorant to the limits of Canadians’ access rights to not know that. To think otherwise would tantamount to believing Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s claim that his government, which has been in office for almost nine years, ran out to time to review the Access to Information Act in a “meaningful” way.

Moreover, history has also shown political parties of all stripes often promise more openness in opposition and then deliver more secrecy once they form government. So I trust Simms will excuse me for predicting that, if the Liberals oust the Tories, their efforts to bring more sunshine into the corridors of power may very well both begin and end with the passage of the Transparency Act.

But much more is at stake here than Trudeau’s credibility as an access advocate and my own credibility as a political prognosticator.

The Conservatives, in their barefaced efforts to black out the inner workings of government, may have done the near impossible: turned freedom of information from an esoteric to a ballot box issue in 2015.

But, as American corporate and constitutional law professor Kent Greenfield recently said, “The energy for change is a finite resource.”

That means the Liberals could be wasting such energy with their Transparency Act – a piece of legislation that may do just enough to win the votes of those fed-up with government secrecy but not enough to make a major difference in the amount of information accessible to Canadians.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

Canada is more open with its data than 69 other countries, according to this year’s Open Data Barometer. But it’s also less open than six other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Among Canada’s failings: the low availability of data related to government accountability, as well as the low impact open data has had on improving social policy. (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• The Harper administration has taken a strong stand for freedom of information in other countries. But, according to the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt, “there’s ample evidence already to illustrated that this freedom is somewhat more cherished at long distance by this government than it is at home in Canada.”

• The Globe and Mail unfavourably compares the opacity of Canada’s drug approval process to the transparency that exists in the United States, writing, “Health Canada treats nearly every aspect of the drug approval process as a state secret.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• “The more security agencies grapple with terrorist threats, the less they appear to be telling Canadians,” according to the Ottawa Citizen, which looks at “four current examples of secrecy.”

• The Canadian Press reports, “A New Democrat MP is raising the spectre of a political coverup in asking the federal information watchdog to investigate the Canada Revenue Agency’s systematic deletion of employee text messages.”

• The New Democrats round up some quotes to prove that, even though the Liberals and the Conservatives say they’re in favour of openness, they have often ended up “governing in the same old secretive style, breaking all their promises to fix the Access to Information Act.”

• Ottawa Citizen columnist James Gordon shows off his “favourite” freedom of information response on twitter, adding, “Access to information in this country is a disgrace.”

• In response to a freedom of information request, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada sent Canadian Press reporter-editor Steve Rennie a CD with two blank pages on it.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• New Brunswick’s Tory opposition is worried a review of the province’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act may reinstate fees for access requests. Reporting on those concerns, the Telegraph-Journal stated the Tories did away with such fees in 2011, making New Brunswick the only province where such requests are free.

• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has asked the province’s information commissioner to investigate the government’s decision to not post “at least two embarrassing reports because of ‘reputational interests’ of various public servants or public figures.”

• The Winnipeg Free Press takes the Manitoba government and the city’s school board to task for not publicly disclosing details about safety and violence in the education system.

• The Canadian Press reports, “Ontario’s New Democrats plan to introduce legislation next month to force the government to disclose the names of physicians who bill the province’s health insurance system and the amounts they charge each year.”

• The Northern Light wants the RCMP to share information about a police shooting that happened in Bathurst, N.B. “as soon as possible.” According to the newspaper, a spokesperson for the Mounties said on Jan. 13 that the findings of the investigation into that shooting may not be made public. But the spokesperson later reversed that position saying, “When the investigation is complete…it will be a matter…of public interest so it will be made public.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Earlier this month, Waterloo, Ont. city councillors were encouraged to ask budget questions during closed door meetings “designed to sidestep open meeting rules” under the province’s Municipal Act. The Waterloo Regional Record also reported one of those councillors was so “frustrated with an inability to get budget information from [city] staff” that he resorted to the Freedom of Information Act to get his questions answered.” But, following that coverage, Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky decided to put an end to those secret meetings, which the province’s ombudsman described as a “transparent, amateurish attempt at just flaunting the law.”

• Ontario’s information commissioner is “still investigating allegations that Toronto school board trustees interfered in the release of an audit of their expenses.” The Toronto Star requested that audit under the province’s freedom of information legislation.

• The Parksville Qualicum Beach News says local councils in some Vancouver Island communities are “too quick to go in camera.” Moreover, according to the newspaper, under British Columbia law, the “list of circumstances in which a council can close meetings…is a long one. Too long, we’d submit. In fact, one could make an argument every piece of business a council conducts could fall into one or more categories that allows for in camera proceedings.”

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: I’m please to announce that, beginning today, this weekly summary of freedom of information news will be syndicated on J-Source. As a result, I’m moving the publication time for this column from Sunday to Monday.

Correction: In last week’s column, I reported the Blytheville Courier News – which sent a copies of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook to the state’s freshmen elected officials – had a circulation of just over 4,000. In fact, that circulation has dipped to “about 2,500,” according to the newspaper’s managing editor Mark Brasfield.

 

TOO SMALL TO BE ACCOUNTABLE?

The Yukon may be "Larger Than Life" but is it too small for a lobbyist registry? (Photograph by Yukon Tourism)

The Yukon may be “Larger Than Life” but is it too small for a lobbyist registry? (Photograph by Yukon Tourism)

SIZE MATTERS? Can a government be too small to need a lobbyist registry? Elaine Taylor, Yukon’s deputy premier, thinks so. But the deputy mayor of a much smaller jurisdiction in Ontario has a different opinion.

The Whitehorse Star reports Taylor made that observation in response to the NDP’s call for a law that would force anyone paid to influence Yukon politicians to disclose their activities. Speaking in the legislature, the deputy premier said, “This is a relatively small jurisdiction. We do not see the need in resolving issues such as this through legislation, regulation.”

But Collingwood Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson, whose town had a population of just 19,241 in 2011 compared to the 36,667 souls who currently reside in the Yukon, doesn’t seem to think size matters.

Earlier this month, Saunderson recommended his town should look at creating a registry, a proposal that has been discussed before, according to the Collingwood Connection.

“[This is about] making sure this community, and this council in particular, is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve our transparency and accountability,” he told the newspaper.

THROWING A BOOK AT THEM Canadian news outlets can seem shy about calling for greater freedom of information in this country – especially when measured against some of their American counterparts.

An example: earlier this month, Blytheville Courier News, which has a circulation of just over 4,000, sent freshmen elected officials in Arkansas a copy of the state’s freedom of information handbook.

The reason: according to the newspaper’s managing editor Mark Brasfield, “We feel it’s important to educate elected officials what the law requires regarding public records and public meetings.”

That’s because “many violators just simply do not know the law, which is not just a tool for members of the media, but anyone who wants a copy of a public record or is interested in attending a particular meeting.”

By comparison, three similarly-sized newspapers included in the Canadian Newsstand database – the Cranbrook Daily Townsman, the Nanaimo News Bulletin and the Sherbrooke Record – appear to have been much quieter about defending their readers’ right to know.

I searched those newspapers for articles with the words “access to information” and “freedom of information” in them over the past year. That search turned up just two opinion pieces pushing for more openness in government – an editorial from the Nanaimo News Bulletin and an op-ed that was published by the Sherbrooke Record but penned by the Quebec Professional Federation of Journalists.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Medicine Hat News reporter Peggy Revell juxtaposes the terrorist attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo with the federal government’s clampdown on information access, writing, “There’s more ways to muzzle freedom of speech than by the barrel of the gun, to end freedom not with a bang, but a whisper.”

• CBC News reports a Federal Court judge has ruled that records “filed by oil companies on safety-related incidents in the Newfoundland offshore can be kept off-limits from the public.”

• University of King’s College journalism professor Dean Cobb celebrates the 20th anniversary of a Supreme Court of Canada decision that ruled bans on publishing evidence presented in court “should be the exception, not the rule.”

• “A New Democrat MP is accusing Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander of thwarting her efforts to learn more about how the government deals with visa applications,” according to CBC News. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Shareholder Association for Research and Education and Ryerson University’s Institute for the Study of Corporate Social Responsibility are hosting a panel discussion on political spending as a corporate issue. (hat tip: Samara Canada)

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• “All Freedom of Information requests submitted by journalists, opposition politicians and anyone who might publicly discuss their findings are singled out for special treatment by the province’s transportation ministry,” according to records obtained by the Toronto Sun.

• The Toronto Star reports a legislative loophole has allowed Ontario hospitals to “handle [privacy] violations internally” rather than reporting them to the province’s information and privacy commissioner.

• A National Post investigation has found that just a “tiny fraction of [medical errors] are publicly acknowledged and usually only in the form of antiseptic statistics. For most serious gaffes, not even the sparest of details is revealed, making the vast problem all but invisible.”

According to the Calgary Herald, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has told reporters his government will be expanding its sunshine list to include high salaries at post-secondary institutions, school boards and Alberta Health Services.

• The Edmonton Journal reports, “Alberta’s Wildrose opposition has asked the Information and Privacy Commissioner to investigate after Alberta Justice revealed Wednesday the department sought to cancel outstanding access-to-information requests to address a severe backlog.”

• Ryerson’s new Privacy and Big Data Institute is holding an “inaugural seminar on Privacy by Design” on January 22. The institute is headed by former Ontario information and privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• New Maryland Mayor Judy Wilson-Shee has told the Daily Gleaner the New Brunswick government should compensate local communities for the cost of responding to freedom of information requests. Wilson-Shee made that suggestion after an unnamed law firm filed a request for information that has involved village staff reading 2,000 pages, as well as a $3,000 legal bill. There are no fees associated with such requests in New Brunswick.

• The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons reports the city’s police force kept the homicide of 35-year-old aboriginal woman Freda Goodrunning a secret for four months, only telling the public about it at an “odd pre-Christmas news conference.” According to Simons, police have suggested that secrecy “somehow helped them.” But the columnist writes, “We don’t need more secrecy about the deaths of aboriginal women. We need more honesty. And more answers.”

• The Winnipeg Free Press reports, “The City of Winnipeg is rethinking its refusal to divulge part of the rationale for pursuing the $210-million Winnipeg police headquarters project.” The province’s ombudsman had earlier criticized that refusal.

• The Alberni Valley Times reports Port Alberni “could be releasing more information about closed-door meetings” if the British Columbia city’s councillors “approve a change to in-camera meetings.” A discussion about that change was scheduled to take place on January 12 but the minutes of that meeting have yet to be published.

• The Powell River Regional District’s board of directors is reviewing “what records are publicly available and what records require special written requests for release.” Audits and auditor reports are among the records that are currently only available via a freedom of information request, something that – according to the local newspaper  – appeared to surprise regional district director Russell Brewer.

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

GOVERNMENT TIGHT-LIPPED ABOUT YOUR RIGHT TO KNOW

You have a limited right to look through records like this. But the federal government has done little to help Canadians exercise those rights. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

You have a limited right to look through records like this. But the federal government has done little to promote those rights. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

In their recently published book Your Right to Know, journalists Jim Bronskill and David McKie have done yeomans’ work explaining how Canadians can use freedom of information requests to get government secrets. But, at the federal level, it’s work they shouldn’t have needed to do – pointing to another problem with Canada’s broken Access to Information Act.

Introduced in 1980 by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, that legislation gave Canadians a limited right to request government records. The bureaucracy’s filing cabinets could now metaphorically be opened by anyone – unless the records in them included 75 different kinds of information that would still be considered secret.

But, even with those limits, the Trudeau administration seemed to have little interest in telling voters about their newfound rights or how to exercise them.

Just before the Act came into force, the Globe and Mail told readers the government would be “placing posters in post offices and public libraries” to advertise the new program. But “it plans nothing else in the way of public information,” a deficiency noted by information commissioner Inger Hansen in her first annual report.

At a news conference announcing the fees for access to information requests, then-Liberal cabinet minister Herb Gray seemed unconcerned about that lack of advertising, smiling when he told reporters, “That’s why we invited you here.”

Nor did the government give the information commissioner the power to aid journalists in the job of educating the public about their information rights, with Hansen writing her office had no mandate or funding to do so.

As a result, Hansen stated, “The public appears unaware of the meaning of the Act and the role of the Information Commissioner to mediate complaints and take proceedings to the Federal Court. Indeed, many who have tried to use the Act soon gave up because the found procedures too complicated or too slow.”

Nevertheless, more than 30 years later, Hansen’s successors still don’t have that mandate, despite repeatedly requesting it. A spokesperson for the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which administers the Access to Information Act, didn’t provide a direct answer when asked why those requests hadn’t been acted on.

By comparison, our country’s privacy commissioner can “foster public understanding” about the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by organizations outside government. Spending on that mandate totaled more than $3-million in the past fiscal year, with past expenditures resulting in the publication of a graphic novel and cartoons about privacy issues, as well as presentation packages for teachers and a youth video contest.

The government doesn’t currently publish anything comparable about Canadians’ access rights. The Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson stated in an email that individual departments do have instructions on their Websites about how to file an access request, as well as a legal requirement to assist applicants. But the manual bureaucrats use to interpret and often restrict Canadians’ right to know dwarfs those brief instructions.

The secretariat’s access advice, for example, weighs in at just 389 words. But 57 of the manual’s 133 pages are devoted to what kinds of information must or can be kept secret. Moreover, the government currently doesn’t spend any money advertising Canadians’ information rights – instead relying on news releases, speeches and tweets to do that job.

As a result, responsibility for popularizing that right continues to be principally shouldered by journalists such as Bronskill and McKie, as well as the handful of non-governmental groups concerned with freedom of information issues.

So it’s near miraculous that, according to government statistics, 59,947 access requests were filed in the past fiscal year. But that still means just 169 requests were filed per 100,000 persons in Canada. By comparison, during 2012/13, 222 requests were filed per 100,000 persons in the United States.

That means Americans – who have considerably greater access to government records without using freedom of information requests – are using their right to know law 31 percent more than we are. And that’s probably just the way Canada’s paternalistic public officials want it.

After all, for them, the fewer Canadians who understand how to file freedom of information requests the better. At their best, the responses to those requests tell us what’s really happening behind the closed doors and drawn curtains of government. And, at their worst, they remind us just how little the government cares about our right to know – a secret parties of all stripes have been trying and failing to cover up for years.

FOI ADVOCATES GIVEN A LUMP OF COAL

Freedom of information advocates didn't get many presents from Canada's governments over the holiday season. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Those who care about Canadians’ right to know didn’t get many presents from the government over the holiday season. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

HOLIDAY HANGOVER The winter break is over and so is this column’s hiatus. That means I’ve assembled a lengthy collection of all the freedom of information news you may have missed over the holidays. From now on, I’ll also be dividing that roundup into federal, provincial and local news. Look for further commentary next week. Enjoy!

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• In an interview with the Toronto Star, Treasury Board President Tony Clement — who is responsible for administering the country’s Access to Information Act — acknowledged there’s a need to review that legislation. But he said his government has “run out of time” to do that in a “meaningful” way. This, despite the fact his party promised in 2006 to simply “implement the Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act.” (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• Clement also told the Canadian Press that some data can’t be released to the public in an electronic format because the government doesn’t want to “create a file that can be in some way manipulated and altered, and thereby creating a situation of false information.” But the Treasury Board Secretariat was unable to provide Maclean’s magazine with any examples of such manipulation taking place. Clement’s comments come as Canada’s information commissioner investigates “multiple cases where it appears that government departments aren’t releasing data in easy-to-read formats, even though the law requires it.”

• “The Canada Revenue Agency has destroyed all text message records of its employees and has disabled logging of these messages in the future,” according to the Toronto Star. (hat tip: Michael Karanicolas)

• “Three months after voting to undertake air strikes in Iraq, the federal government still hasn’t given a cost estimate for the mission to the Parliamentary Budget Officer,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.

• In an op-ed published in the Leader-Post, University of Saskatchewan history professor emeritus Bill Waiser writes, “The past few years have not been kind to [Canada’s] archives — through no fault of their own — and unless the situation improves, Canada’s understanding of its past will be decidedly poorer.”

• Mike De Souza, who has been hired as an investigative resources correspondent for Reuters, shares with readers some of his “recent experiences with government efforts to either release or hide information.” Among those experiences: a spokesperson telling colleagues that one of De Souza’s questions was “undeserving of a response.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The appointment of Amrik Virk as British Columbia’s new technology, innovation and citizens’ services minister has not been a comfort to journalists in that province. The reason: the BC NDP had released leaked emails appearing to show that when Virk on Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s board of governors he knew more than he previously admitted about a plan to circumvent the province’s compensation disclosure guidelines. That means — in the words of to The Tyee’s Jeremy Nuttall — “a minister busted by leaked emails” is now going to be running the ministry responsible for freedom of information in British Columbia.

• “Hospitals can easily get around Ontario’s accountability legislation to hide executive expenses,” according to the Hamilton Spectator. The newspaper also reports “no outside agency monitors how hospital board and executive expenses are posted publicly online.”

• The British Columbia government has denied a freedom of information request by the Western News for information about how much a new jail is going to cost to taxpayers. The reason: the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services believes disclosing that information would harm the financial interests of the government and its business partners.

• “The B.C. Ambulance Service has refused to release data that would show whether it is taking longer to respond to 911 calls,” according to the Vancouver Sun. The reason: the agency responsible for that service is “concerned about ‘re-identification’ — that releasing the data may make it possible to identify individual patients, especially in smaller communities.”

• The Toronto Star reports the Ontario government has “no idea” how many complaints have been lodged against its Crown prosecutors or “how many have been disciplined for misconduct in recent years.”

• “Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin is demanding to know why the province’s police watchdog is keeping secret its findings from an investigation into an altercation involving an OPP officer that left an Orillia woman with a busted knee last year,” according to the Toronto Star.

• Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation wants to charge the Toronto Star $2,000 for information about the pass rates for drivers seeking a license to operate a tractor-trailer. The reason: a computer programmer would have to ‘write new code to extract the data from the ministry’s licensing and control system database.” But, according to the newspaper, “this appears to contradict earlier communication from the ministry, which told the Star in September that pass rates by driver examiner and DriveTest centre are tracked in monthly reports from Serco, the private company that administers driver exams in Ontario on behalf of the government.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Leader-Post reports Saskatchewan’s new information commissioner plans to continue pushing for the province’s municipal police to be subject to the province’s freedom of information laws.

• The Edmonton Sun reports Alberta’s information commissioner is getting the provincial government to “cough up legal records” relating to its “ongoing $10-billion lawsuit against big tobacco.”

• CBC News reports an Alberta legislative committee “comprised mostly of Tory MLAs voted to cut about $1 million from six independent offices.” Those offices include the province’s information and privacy commissioner.

• When Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty was in power the Ontario government “billed taxpayers $10,000 to pay the husband of a top party official to wipe computer hard drives in Mr. McGuinty’s office,” according to the National Post. Those deletions happened as the “Liberals battled to contain the fallout” from the billion-dollar cancellation of two gas-fired power plants. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The association representing Canada’s restaurant industry has written an open letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne asking her government to bring “accountability and transparency” to the province’s chicken prices. According to the association, “Waiting three years for chicken farmers to publish a simple and forthright price formula for a food staple many Ontario families put on their dinner table every night is simply not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable that the vested interest with the greatest stake in the price set for chicken, the producers themselves, should be in charge of the price-setting program.”

• The Burnaby News Leader reports that former British Columbia MLA Barry Jones, who pioneered the province’s freedom of information legislation, became interested in the issue while cleaning out the constituency office he had inherited from former legislator Eileen Dailly. That’s when he found a private members bill on FOI she had proposed. “I was about to throw it out and then started reading and got fascinated,” he told the newspaper.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Manitoba’s ombudsman has found Winnipeg was technically within its rights to refuse a request by the Winnipeg Free Press for documents “revealing why city officials recommended buying and renovating the 56-year-old former Canada Post building instead of fixing the 48-year-old Public Safety Building.” But the ombudsman also said the city should revisit that decision.

• The St. Albert Gazette has been denied access to information about whether the Alberta city hands out radar tickets for drivers going less than 10 km/h over the speed limit. According to the newspaper, the city believes the disclosure of that information would be “harmful to law enforcement.”

• The Georgia Straight reports the Coalition of Progressive Electors, a Vancouver civic party, “accepted $12,500 in combined campaign contributions from a commercial real-estate company and left those amounts off the list of donations it released ahead of the November 15 election.” The coalition has since apologized for that lack of disclosure.

• The City of Oshawa is considering a staff recommendation to discontinue publication of a monthly report outlining payroll and vendor payments, according to the Oshawa Express. The newspaper also reports the city’s mayor frustrated a proposal to let the public know when Oshawa awards sole-sourced contracts.

• A Manning Foundation for Democratic Education report states “25% of Calgary City Council’s time is spent in secret and closed the public, up from 18.5% for the previous term.”

• Saskatoon residents will now know how their city councillors are voting. In the past, councillors needed to make a formal request for those votes to be written down. But now all of them will be recorded thanks to a motion made by local politician Randy Donauer.

• The Montreal Gazette reports the city is “on the hunt for an information-technology company that can help it create a new, searchable database of municipal contracts.”

• Kimberly Mayor Don McCormick hopes his new monthly brown bag lunches with the public will “eliminate the need for some of the Freedom of Information requests” his city has been dealing with, according to the city’s local newspaper.

• The Times-Transcript reports that, during a December 15 meeting, Moncton city councillors discussed an interim report on their efforts to “enhance democracy.” And, according to CBC News, information technology business owner Andrew MacKinnon made a presentation during the same meeting encouraging the city to open up its data.

• Summerside is looking to form an open government committee and a transparency committee. The Prince Edward Island city’s local newspaper reports the later committee will “study, review and make recommendations to council on ways to achieve more openness, accountability and transparency, and will consist of the city’s chief administrative officer, two councillors and two members of the public.”

• Maple Ridge is establishing a citizen’s committee on open government to develop recommendations for how the British Columbia city “can be more responsive and transparent to residents and other stakeholders.” According to the Maple Ridge News, “Once it starts to work, it will have a three-month time limit to bring recommendations.”

• The Flamborough Review reports Hamilton “staff and politicians will begin the interviewing process” for the Ontario city’s first combined lobbyist registrar and integrity commissioner “starting next February or March.”

• In a letter published in the Stoney Creek News, a Hamilton resident writes that the city’s freedom of information request process “required me to download and fill out a paper form, write a cheque to the city for $5, put a stamp on an envelope and mail it all to city hall. Much time and effort could be saved if this Freedom of Information transaction could have taken place online, like other electronic services available to residents, like dog tags.”

• In a letter published in the Hamilton Spectator, retired civic employee Shekar Chandrasekhar writes, “One can not get blood from a stone. Likewise, obtaining information from police services is next to impossible even though it is completely funded by the citizens of Hamilton.”

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

 

HOLIDAY HIATUS

I’ll be taking the next few weeks off to celebrate the holiday season and prepare course outlines for the coming semester. That means the Unknowable Country’s weekly look at openness and accountability in Canada will be on hiatus until the New Year. But check back then for more insights and information about your right to know. In the meantime, my best wishes to you and yours.

ROOKIE’S PITCH FOR ACCESS GOES WILD

This letter from Liberal MP Scott Simms appeared again and again and again... (Graphic by Lloydminster Source)

This letter from Liberal MP Scott Simms has appeared again and again and again… (Graphic by Lloydminster Source)

A TRANSPARENT ATTEMPT The federal Liberals’ new open government critic Scott Simms appears to be still figuring out how the country’s broken access to information system works. But that didn’t stop him from encouraging Tory MPs to vote for proposed reforms to that system in a series of form letters published in newspapers across the country.

Simms’s rookie status showed earlier this month during his first meeting as vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

At that meeting, the Liberal MP asked information commissioner Suzanne Legault if she thought a parliamentary review is necessary “for what you do…of your job in general.”

The response: “Well, we are here. There is a standing committee reviewing the work of my office on a regular basis.”

Simms, who was named open government critic in November, replied, “I told you I was new.”

Nevertheless, less than a week later, he was out pitching the merits of Liberals’ Transparency Act — which would require a statutory review of the Access to Information every five years.

That pitch took the form of nearly identical letters to the editor that, according to the Canadian Newsstand database, were published in at least nine newspapers and called on local Tory MPs to support that bill.

Those letters, which were written in Simms’s capacity as the Liberals’ democratic reform critic, all began in a similar way. For example:

• “Local Member of Parliament Mike Allen couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘we will make government more open by strengthening access to information laws;'” (Bugle-Observer)

• “Local Member of Parliament Robert Goguen couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘broad exclusions are undesirable in an access to information regime from the perspective of openness and transparency;'” (Times-Transcript)

• “Local Member of Parliament Cheryl Gallant couldn’t have been clearer when she said that ‘we put our words into action … we live within the realms of accountability and transparency;’ (Arnprior Chronicle-Guide)

• “Local Member of Parliament Gerry Ritz couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘no aspect of responsible government is more fundamental than having the trust of citizens;'” (Lloydminster Source)

• “Local Member of Parliament Tony Clement couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘it is important to make sure that there is transparency for not only members of the House but the people of Canada;'” (Almaguin News)

• “Macleod MP John Barlow couldn’t have been clearer when he said, ‘Accountability and transparency are the hallmark of this government;'” (Macleod Gazette)

• “Local Member of Parliament [Dan Albas] couldn’t have been clearer when he said that what I hear from Canadians is they want more accountability;” (Summerland Review)

• “Local MP Ron Cannan couldn’t have been clearer when he said: Strengthening accountability and transparency was part of the governments promise to Canadians when we were first elected in 2006…We continue to move forward as an open and transparent government;” and (Kelowna Capital News)

• “Local Member of Parliament Rob Moore couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘Canadians were demanding more accountability from public office holders and from Parliament, more accountability in the way their tax dollars are spent and more transparency in the way we run our democratic process.'” (Kings County Record)

The letter then continued by stating those MPs will soon have a chance to put their sentiments “into practice” by breaking party ranks and voting for the Liberals’ Transparency Act.

But before that vote happens, perhaps Simms should also learn more about some of the problems that bill is meant to fix?

SQUIBS

• The Chronicle Herald reports a “little-noticed bill from the Senate” would allow federal government regulations to be altered without them being reported in a public record. (hat tip: Jeremy Nuttall)

• Twenty-one countries make their data more available than Canada does, according to a new survey by the Open Knowledge Foundation.

• Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell details how “both Liberal and Conservative governments — usually supported by federal bureaucrats — have slowly but surely frustrated the workings of Canada’s Access to Information system.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek warns the Australia government is in process of abolishing their information commissioner, setting a “worry precedent” for Canada.

• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association is hiring a new program director.

• Public interest researcher Ken Rubin, an expert on government secrecy, writes that freedom of information reforms being proposed by the Liberal Party won’t “drastically increase opening up government records and meetings.”

• The Ottawa Citizen writes that proposals to increase access to information application fees make for “interesting brainstorming, but that’s about it.”

• A transcript of information commissioner Suzanne Legault’s appearance before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics is now available.

• The Ontario government has passed legislation that “strengthens political accountability, makes the business of government more transparent, and gives Officers of the Legislature more responsibility in their roles.” Among the reforms: those who alter, conceal or destroy records with intent to deny an access request can now face a penalty of up to $5,000.

• The Toronto Star reports “nearly every single piece of information in a recent Ontario Court of Appeal ruling is being kept secret…But it’s unclear why.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Toronto Star and the Ontario NDP are calling on the government there to make public how much individual doctors bill the province’s healthcare system — information that is already available in Manitoba and British Columbia.

• A Toronto Star investigation has found “Ontario’s most vulnerable children in the care of an unaccountable and non-transparent protection system. It keeps them in the shadows, far beyond what is needed to protect their identities.”

• CBC News reports the University of Prince Edward Island Student Union is continuing to push for the school to be subject to the province’s freedom of information legislation.

• “Many school boards are limiting media access to trustees in a way the public would never accept if they were city councillors or members of Parliament,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. As a result of that limited access and tepid interest in school board elections, the newspaper argues “the entire trustee system is looking increasingly like a farce, and trustees themselves are doing the system no favours by acting like mere cogs in a wheel.”

• North Vancouver’s school district has twice stopped a former school trustee candidate from trying to record its board meetings, reports the North Shore News. As a result, the newspaper has written an editorial stating the board is “finishing its term with an F in transparency.”

• The North Shore News writes Stephen Harper’s new era of accountability has been defined by “tight control of the message, where no one is actually accountable.”

• The Mississauga News reports the “Peel Regional Police are keeping secret their list of restaurants and bars in the Region that are notorious for producing drunk drivers, even though a Peel officer revealed one of the establishments in court earlier this year.”

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: For most people, the holiday season is already here. But, for many of us in academia, it’s still marking season. Hence, the delay in posting this column.

TORY MPS PROPOSE HIGHER WATCHDOG TAX

MP Erin O'Toole led a Conservative charge to increase the application fee for access to information requests. (Photograph by Erin O'Toole)

MP Erin O’Toole led a Conservative charge to increase the application fee for access to information requests. (Photograph by Erin O’Toole)

TO FEE OR NOT TO FEE? Three Conservative MPs have proposed hiking the cost of using Canada’s already broken access to information system. But it’s uncertain if those proposals will be acted on by government or how they would affect those filing record requests in the public interest.

The MPs made those proposals last week during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. At that meeting, information commissioner Suzanne Legault told members her office was in a financial crisis because of budget cuts and the need to investigate a growing number of access complaints.

While questioning Legault about that crisis, MP Erin O’Toole proposed that crisis could be adverted if the $5 fee for filing an information request was changed, even though that money goes into the government’s coffers rather than the commissioner’s.

Under that proposal, citizens would pay nothing if they were just asking for information about “their life.” But citizens asked for something else there would be a “nominal charge” that would be “a lot more” than the present amount. And “commercial entities” could pay $200.

By comparison, MPs Ed Komarnicki and Joan Crockatt’s proposals for fee increases were less detailed.

Crockatt told the commissioner, who is opposed to such an increase,  that “a lot of people, particularly in business” pay a “great deal” for information. She also said those same people were “anxious to receive the information that you have,” seemingly forgetting that it’s government rather than Legault’s office which holds those records.

For his part, Komarnicki proposed increasing fees for everyone “to bring it more in line with inflation.”

Following those recommendations, NDP MP Murray Rankin asked Treasury Board President Tony Clement whether he agreed with his more junior colleagues that “jacking up fees” was a good way to fix the access to information system.

Clement — whose government last considered such an increase in 2011 — didn’t answer that question. Instead, he stated, “If the information commissioner has a problem with her budget she knows where to go.”

O’Toole was somewhat more forthcoming in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, telling the paper he pulled the $200 fee for commercial entities “out of thin air” and that the media could be excluded from that category.

Meanwhile, Crockatt told National Post Calgary correspondent Jen Gerson that she “never suggested” such a fee for journalists. Indeed, she considers the “mass media to be an extension of the public.” Crockatt is the former executive editor of the Calgary Herald.

TRIBAL POLITICS To some members of the media (including myself), Crockatt’s proposal to hike access to information application fees seemed at odds with her background as a journalist. Among them was Toronto-based reporter Saleem Khan:

Crockatt, who acknowledged during the committee meeting that the newspaper industry relies “a lot on access to information to get our information,” didn’t respond to Khan’s tweet.

But it’s notable that Crockatt might not have had much opportunity to use Alberta’s equivalent of that law. By the time it came into force in October 1995, Crockatt had already moved on from her job as the Edmonton Journal’s legislature bureau chief to become the Calgary Herald’s editorial page editor.

Alberta was the second to last jurisdiction in North America to pass a freedom of information law.

THANKS FOR NOTHING The Liberals have done a lot of chest beating about their Transparency Act, which they claim would “raise the bar on openness and transparency in government.” But information commissioner Legault has essentially said a major selling point for the bill is meaningless.

Liberal MP Ted Hsu asked the commissioner if she agreed the purpose section of the Access to Information Act should be changed so all government data and information must be made open by default in a machine readable format, with exceptions to the release of records being rare. Coincidentally, just such a change is proposed in the Transparency Act.

But Hsu was likely disappoint with the Legault’s response: “In my opinion, that’s the way the Act is constructed as it is…The purpose clause has been interpreted quite well by the courts in the last 30 years. I am somewhat leery of amending a purpose clause for that Act.”

Indeed, according to the commissioner, the current access to information system is “supposed to be based on open government by default. I looked at the Hansard for 1982-83 when our current legislation was put forward and it was put forward on the basis of open government. Open government is a 30-year concept.”

PRICE DROP Legault told MPs at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics that the cost of filing a federal access to information request was “low compared to other jurisdictions — certainly compared to Ontario.” That statement likely gave comfort to Conservative MPs, who were pushing for an increase to that fee. But, in actuality, the federal government charges more for those requests than many of the provinces. Here’s the breakdown:

British Columbia – $0
Saskatchewan – $0
Manitoba – $0
Quebec – $0
New Brunswick – $0
Yukon – $0
Ontario – $5
Newfoundland and Labrador – $5
Nova Scotia – $5
Prince Edward Island – $5
Alberta – $25
Northwest Territories – $25
Nunavut – $25

SQUIBS

• The Vancouver Sun has published a tick-tock on how the Canadian Border Services Agency dodged questions about an in-custody suicide.

• CBC News reports the government went to Federal Court to try to prevent public sector integrity commissioner Mario Dion from tabling a report about wrongdoing within the Ottawa air section of the RCMP. (hat tip: Chris George)

• Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Paul Davis has suggested the province’s freedom of information law should be changed so that emails sent to legislators can only be released if the writer gives their permission, according to the Telegram.

• Ontario’s auditor general has asked legislators to restrict the investigative authority of that province’s ombudsman, reports the Toronto Star. (hat tip: Mark Bourrie)

• Manitoba’s ombudsman has said there’s “no plausible explanation” why freedom of information requests didn’t reveal an email showing one of the province’s cabinet ministers was behind a plan to use civil servants for apparently partisan purposes. (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• The City of Vancouver has relaxed its media relations policy, according to the Vancouver Sun. Its communications department has issued a a list of nearly 30 senior staff who will now take direct calls and emails from journalists.

According to the Windsor Star, the Ontario Public School Board Association’s guidelines state that “once a motion has been voted upon by the board, trustees are required to support the decision — and the board chair becomes the only member who can offer public comment.” But the newspaper reports newly-elected local public school board trustee Alan Halberstadt won’t necessarily be following those guidelines.

• Last week, the Brandon Sun reported a longtime paediatrician in the community had been publicly censured by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba “following the death of one infant and an unnecessary liver transplant in another.” But fellow doctor W.E. Meyers objected to the paper’s front page coverage of that story and its use of an anonymous sources, writing that Eves was now “being re-censured in a more public forum” and that his reputation had been “savaged” by the Sun.

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