CELEBRATING RIGHT TO KNOW WEEK

A panel discussion during Right to Know Week will take place at Carleton University later this month. (Photograph by nismonick)

A panel discussion during Right to Know Week will take place at Carleton University later this month. (Photograph by nismonick)

I’m excited to announce I’ll be speaking at my alma mater for an event celebrating Right to Know Week. On Sept. 26, Carleton University and the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada will be holding an afternoon seminar on open and transparent government. Treasury Board President Scott Brison will be the keynote speaker. I’ll be part of a panel discussing access in journalism along with Toronto Star investigative reporter Jayme Poisson – who has been studying the access to information process – and VICE News features editor Justin Ling. There will also be panels on policy issues and open government. If you’re in Ottawa, I look forward to seeing you there.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION BY THE NUMBERS

What secrets do Canadians learn thanks to freedom of information laws? I'll be scanning news coverage across the country to find out. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

What secrets do Canadians learn thanks to freedom of information laws? I’ll be scanning news coverage across the country to find out. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Canada’s freedom of information laws may be broken. But they can still be used to make public records that the powerful want to keep secret. That’s why, in addition to working on a book about the early history of the Access to Information Act, I’m compiling a database that tracks the media’s coverage of freedom of information requests and issues.

You can read more about the methodology I’ll be using here. Suggestions are welcome since this is a work in progress. I’ve also created two pages on the site that display live information from that database. The first page shows summaries of stories that have been published or broadcast by English-language outlets in Canada since July 2016 which broke news based on records obtained via a freedom of information request. It also shows summaries of any editorials, op-eds or columns advocating for greater freedom of information. The second page shows statistics from that database, including charts showing freedom of information successes by date, jurisdiction, public body, news outlet and journalist.

Over time, I hope those statistics will provide Canadians with a better sense of how freedom of information laws are and aren’t being used in this country – going beyond the aggregate data provided by public bodies. Indeed, some of those gaps are already all too apparent. But, in the meantime, it’s also somewhat comforting to know that there were at least 118 stories published or broadcast last month that told the public something they didn’t already know because of that legislation – a living memorial to all those who have fought for greater openness in Canada.

Author’s note: This project wouldn’t have been possible without the instruction and counsel provided by my friend Fred Vallance-Jones. Over the summer, I attended his data journalism school at the University of King’s College – a program that gave me the skills necessary to setup and analyze this database. For anyone interested in digging into and telling stories with data, I can’t recommend it enough. Coincidentally, Fred conducted a similar study on the media’s coverage of freedom of information requests in Ontario. He presented the findings to the 2012 annual meeting of the Canadian Communication Association in a paper entitled “Journalists’ Use of Freedom of Information: A Failed Promise.” He’s also been gracious enough to share that work with me.

HEADING INTO THE STACKS

This is where I'm going to be for the next little while. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

This is where I’m going to be for the next little while. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

As you may have noticed, I’ve been absent from this site for the past few weeks. Part of the reason for that absence is the approaching end of the fall semester and all marking that entails. But I’m also pleased to announce I’m working on an early history of the Access to Information Act (1965-1983).

The book will tell the story of the long fight for that law by a somewhat incongruous group of politicians, academics, lawyers and activists. And it will help explain why that fight continues to be fought — and often lost  today. I look forward to sharing that story with you.

But, in the meantime, I’ll will be stepping back from penning my weekly column about government secrecy. From time to time, I’ll still write about current attempts to frustrate the public’s right to know, as well as the results of my research. So be sure to sign-up as a email subscriber to this site to stay informed. I’ll also continue to be active on Twitter, contributing to the #cdnfoi discussion. But this book is a major undertaking that will need as much time as I can give it.

P.S. If you or anyone you know was part of the early history of the Access to Information Act, please drop me a line at this address. I would love to hear from you.

THE FIRST TEMPTATION OF TRUDEAU

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising a "fair and open government." But that openness could a lot like what a NDP MP proposed half-a-century ago. (Graphic by Liberal Party of Canada)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising a “fair and open government.” But that openness could a lot like what a NDP MP proposed half-a-century ago. (Graphic by Liberal Party of Canada)

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is serious about making government information “open by default,” he’ll have to deal with the same arguments that helped scuttle Canada’s first right-to-know bill a half-century ago.

Prior to the recent election, Trudeau unsuccessfully tried to demonstrate his commitment to that principle by introducing a private member’s bill entitled the Transparency Act.

That bill, which was defeated on second reading, would have made it somewhat easier to ask for government records and get more of them.

But it wouldn’t have closed the some of the biggest loopholes in the Access to Information Act, which let the government keep its most informative and important records secret.

That made Trudeau’s commitment to “raise the bar on openness and transparency in government” questionable.

Nevertheless, the prime minister repeated that commitment following last week’s swearing-in ceremony.

So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt I didn’t during the campaign and assume his post-election effort to make information “open by default” will actually do just that.

Such an effort would have to allow the public to access all sorts of records that are usually under lock and key, including, for example, advice and recommendations developed for the government, as well as accounts of deliberations involving government officials.

In some ways, such a law wouldn’t be dissimilar to the one former Vancouver Sun columnist and NDP MP Barry Mather proposed in April 1965 – two months after United States Senator Edward Long introduced the bill that would lead to that country’s Freedom of Information Act.

Mather’s legislation would have required government to make any information or records “concerning its doing available to any person at his request in reasonable manner and time,” with the Exchequer Court of Canada (the predecessor to the Federal Court of Canada) adjudicating that access.

In the words of the Globe and Mail, exceptions would have been made for “matters of national security, matters exempted by statute from disclosure, trade secrets, commercial information obtained from private persons and subjects of private interest ‘to the degree that the right to personal privacy excludes the public interest.'”

But that’s a short shadow compared to the long darkness of the Access to Information Act, which includes 75 separate exemptions and exclusions.

The Globe and Mail wrote favourably about Mather’s bill, stating it would do much to open the government’s “many closed doors and keep the public informed about what is, after all, its own business.” As a result, the newspaper advised the ruling Liberals to put their “blessing” on the bill and “ensure its passage.”

The Liberals didn’t heed that advice. And, when the bill made it to second reading three years later, after being re-introduced by Mather, two of the party’s MPs, Yves Forest and Colin Gibson, seemed to explain why.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Forest, the then-parliamentary secretary to the president of the privy council, said that bill did not “give enough important to the generally accepted principle” of administrative secrecy. According to Forest, that principle allows:

…complete freedom of expression and also of communication between the members of the administration at various levels, and particularly from lower to senior officials. In my opinion, the contrary could reduce the efficiency of our whole administrative system as we know it.

In other words, Gibson said, “if official files are opened to the public scrutiny too much administration caution will result, which will seriously inhibit the effective functioning of civil servants. No one likes to work with someone leaning over his shoulder reading what he is writing.”

So it’s not surprising that the Access to Information Act, which was introduced by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1980, appears to have been drafted to guard against what Gibson called “eavesdropping and spying,” helping legally fortify the anachronistic notion that political decision-making must happen in private.

But what is surprising is how much purchase that notion still has in Canada.

In response to the Transparency Act’s proposal to make records in ministerial offices subject to access requests, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former communications director Andrew MacDougall argued that change would cause politicians and their staffers to “pull their punches” when discussing and debating public policy:

Think of all the internecine battles that are part and parcel of any office. Think of the snide comments about your colleagues often said in frustration. Now picture it on a front page. Think that would change your behaviour — or drive it further underground? Would that make your company perform better, or worse?

Nor is MacDougall the only one making such arguments. For example, two years ago, the Globe and Mail opposed proposals from two information commissioners that would have required government officials to document their decision-making.

The reason: “Cabinet ministers and their closest advisers should be free to talk about the reasons for a decision without making a paper or electronic memorandum. Their motives and purposes are best scrutinized in parliamentary debate, question periods and legislative committees.”

In principle, that may seem reasonable to many Canadians. But, in practice, it means that government officials only have to disclose what they want to disclose to us about their decision-making – a behaviour that’s too often tolerated and accommodated by the Access to Information Act.

Such secrecy was politically beneficial to Harper, as it surely could be to his successor Trudeau. So it remains to be seen whether Trudeau will resist the temptation to cultivate rather than uproot that secrecy.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Toronto Star has paraphrased newly-appointed Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains as saying that government “scientists are free to speak to the media about their work.”

• “Tens of thousands of records amassed during various stages of the settlement process with the survivors of Indian residential schools” have begun being released to the public, according to the Global and Mail. The newspaper reports those documents will shed “further light on a long and often brutal attempt by the government at forced assimilation.”

• The Toronto Star reports, “Restoring the long-form census will be among the first acts of the new Liberal government.”

• Writing in the Hill Times, long-time right-to-know advocate Ken Rubin writes that Trudeau must act quickly to introduce transparency legislation “as majority governments become more defensive and secretive over time.”

• The Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt makes three modest suggestions to improve the federal government’s relationship with the media: “let ministers speak,” give a “daily media briefing” and don’t “go over the heads of reporters with coverage complaints and straight to their bosses or head offices.”

• In an op-ed published in the Toronto Star, William Kowalski — a member of PEN Canada’s Canadian Issues Committee — writes that, “If freedom of expression in Canada were a medical patient, it would be dangerously close to needing life support. With Canada’s new government assuming its place, now is the time to make good on the promise of an open, more transparent relationship between the government of Canada and its citizens.”

• Global News’s Rebecca Lindell tweets that the Correctional Service of Canada has asked for a three year extension to an access request relating to fentanyl deaths. (hat tip: Jordan Press)

• The Green Party of Canada has refused to say how much money it was paying MP Bruce Hyer to be its deputy leader, claiming it’s private information.

• The raw data from Newspapers Canada’s 2015 freedom of information audit is now available.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Globe and Mail reports British Columbia’s former information commissioner David Loukidelis will be paid $50,000 to tell the provincial government how to implement the recommendations in a “stinging report that said officials — including those in the premier’s office — routinely deleted information.”

According to 24 hours Vancouver, NDP MLA Carole James has alleged provincial government lawyers attempted to “impede” the release of that report, which was penned by the province’s current information commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

• Loukidelis is scheduled to complete his work before Dec. 15. But CKNW reports the family of a Highway of Tears victim worries that means his advise may “get lost in the days leading up to Christmas.” Emails about the Highway of Tears were among those deleted by the government.

• The Vancouver Courier’s Geoff Olson writes that “contravening Freedom of Information laws isn’t a glitch in the provincial government’s doings, it’s a feature.”

• Speaking of which, B.C. MLA Vicki Huntington’s reports that when freedom of information requests were filed on the decision to replace the Massey Tunnel with a bridge, each of them received a “no records reply.”

• In response, according to the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, “Transportation Minister Todd Stone confirmed the sought-after business plan and cost-benefit analysis for the Massey replacement remains a work in progress. Due for release soon, he assured me.”

• Nevertheless, according to the Times Colonist, it’s both “ludicrous” and “insulting” to It’s ludicrous to say that no records exist of a project that will cost an estimated $3 billion. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News reports, “The backlog for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to review applications is currently two years. That means if a government department refuses a request for information, it will be two years before the appeal is even heard.”

• The Alberta government has, according to Global News, expanded its sunshine list to disclosure the salaries for “all employees of public sector bodies, including Alberta Health Services and post-secondary institution.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “The City of Saint John has taken an important step toward greater transparency and accountability by launching an open data portal,” according to the Telegraph-Journal.

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

Author’s note: Publication of this column was delayed due to illness.

THE HIGH PRICE OF SECRECY

British Columbians are spending millions to make sure they can't find out what their elected officials are doing.

British Columbians are spending millions to make sure they can’t find out what their elected officials are doing. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The British Columbia government’s continued efforts to prevent the public from seeing its paperwork is costing millions of dollars each year.

The public is supposed to be able to access that paperwork using the province’s freedom of information law, allowing them to make “informed judgments about government policy” in the words of former New Democrat attorney general Colin Gablemann.

But the 53 exceptions or loopholes in that law, which Gablemann introduced 23 years ago, can make it extremely easy for the government to keep the public uninformed or misinformed.

For example, one of those loopholes allows the government to refuse access to any advice or recommendations about those policies. And another makes most of what happens in cabinet inaccessible, even though that’s where many policy decisions are made.

As a result, the government doesn’t just need bureaucrats to find records requested under its freedom of information law. It needs bureaucrats to apply those loopholes. It needs, in other words, censors.

According to the ministry where those bureaucrats work, the price of all that finding and censoring in fiscal 2014/15 averaged $2,358 per request, for a total cost of $19.7 million. That means the most prolific requesters can easily run up bills totalling $100,000 or more in their pursuit of government records and, often accountability.

I certainly must have when I was covering provincial politics and filing over a hundred requests each year. After all, thanks to the muzzling of the bureaucracy, those requests (even with their limitations) are one of the few means reporters have of finding out what the government doesn’t want you to find out.

That’s also why freelancer Bob Mackin, who has written for publications such as The Tyee, Business in Vancouver and the Vancouver Courier, filed 1,913 freedom of information requests in the almost five years between Jan. 1, 2009 and Sept. 22, 2014.

Those requests, which made up 40 percent of the total filed by the media during that time period, resulted in big stories, small stories and often times no story at all – the later being a common experience for reporters using freedom of information laws.

Among Mackin’s biggest stories were those that revealed the government:

• feared a riot if the Vancouver Canucks lost game seven of the Stanley Cup finals;

• considered privatizing its liquor stores;

• used 2010 Winter Olympic advertisements to promote Premier Gordon Campbell; and

• wanted to invest in a Victoria condominium development with “unresolved” financial issues.

According to a freedom of information request filed by a private individual and sent to me by Mackin, the government claims the reporter’s requests costed $3.85 million to respond to.

But that price, which was calculated by just dividing the cost of all requests responded to between Jan. 1, 2009 and Sept. 22, 2014 with the total number Mackin filed, was likely unnecessary.

By closing some of the bigger loopholes in its records access law, the government wouldn’t need so many censors to read and then blank-out information before it’s released to individuals such as Mackin. And by releasing more records without requiring costly access requests, the government could further reduce its expenses.

In fact, releasing more records without requests is something British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham and her predecessors have repeatedly recommended.

For example, in a 2013 investigation report, Denham advised government to routinely publish 18 different kinds of information, ranging from government calendars, contracts and audits to public opinion polls, statistical surveys and economic forecasts.

But, despite an initial limited and now utterly discredited initiative to make her government more open, Premier Christy Clark hasn’t heeded that advice.

And, as a result, British Columbians are continuing to pay to keep themselves in the dark.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Calgary Herald reports the Supreme Court of Canada will “hear a case that Alberta’s access czar says could impact her office’s ability to provide effective oversight when organizations refuse to release records requested under the province’s freedom of information law.” (hat tip: Charles Rusnell)

• The Guelph Mercury’s editorial board writes, “We hope the incoming [federal Liberal] regime demonstrates a will to enhance transparency.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Toronto Star’s public editor Kathy English hopes incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau’s “call for ‘sunny ways’ does indeed shine much-needed light on Canada’s government.”

• Writing in the Hill Times, long-time freedom of information advocate Ken Rubin states Trudeau must “act quickly to introduce transparency legislation as majority governments become more defensive and secretive over time. So far though, Trudeau has announced as his first legislative priorities a law to give income ‘relief’ to middle class earners and an amended anti-terror Bill C-51.”

• In an op-ed published in the Chronicle-Herald, University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jone and freelancer Emily Kitagawa states there is “reason for skepticism” about the federal Liberals promise to reform the Access to Information Act.

• The Winnipeg Free Press’s editorial board writes it won’t be surprised if the federal Liberals fail to live up to their lofty promise to be open and accountable. “It is, after all, just part of tradition in this country.”

• Science journalist Margaret Munro writes that even a “modest improvement” in the federal government’s communication with the media will be welcome. “But a return to more open government will require not only new policy, but also a new mindset in the bureaucracy the Conservatives have left behind.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman writes, “It is crucial that this trend of limiting media access be reversed. Journalists at the very least act as a proxy for citizens; we have access – or should – to those in power. In order to hold governments to account, reporters require access to those governments. This is how journalists can expose bad behaviour – systemic or individual (the senate scandal, Rob Ford) – and effect change. When journalists are cut off, society suffers.”

• “Restoring the mandatory long-form census in time for the 2016 survey is doable,” according to two former chief statisticians of Statistics Canada who spoke to the Globe and Mail.

• Two people working on Kennedy Stewart’s campaign asked Global BC reporter Catherine Urquhart and her cameraman to leave the NDP MP’s office on election night, reports Burnaby Now.

• CBC News reports air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukas is “calling on the Transportation Safety Board to release more information about a Porter Airlines flight that made an emergency landing in Sydney [N.S.] earlier this week.”

• The Calgary Herald’s Darcy Henton tweets that Alberta’s environment ministry wants $1,423 for records about what options it considered before deciding to repair the Kananaskis Country Golf Course. (hat tip: Erika Stark)

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• Last month, British Columbia’s information commissioner released a investigation report that found staff in Premier Christy Clark’s government “delete emails response to access to information requests,” “wilfully or negligently” failed to produce records responsive to those requests and failed to “keep any sent emails, irrespective of the topic.” In response, Clark has ordered her cabinet minister and all political staff to save their email.

• Following the release of that report, columnists and editorial boards were critical of what BC NDP Opposition leader John Horgan called a culture of deception, deceit and “delete, delete, delete” in the Clark administration. Among them were the Vancouver Sun, the Times Colonist, the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, the Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason, the National Post’s Brian Hutchison, the Province’s Michael Smyth, The Tyee’s Paul Willcocks, the North Shore NewsKamloops This Week, the Peace Arch News and the Cowichan Valley Citizen’s Andrea Rondeau.

• In an open letter to Clark, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs writes that it is “shocked, alarmed and deeply offended” that records about the Highway of Tears were among those deleted by the Clark administration.

• The Times Colonist reports the head of the province’s public service also “apparently never kept any records related to the firing of eight drug researchers during the two-year period when the provincial government was under heavy fire for its handling of the case.”

• In the wake of these revelations, the Georgia Straight reports the BC NDP is “collecting a growing body of evidence that proves a Liberal government practice of deleting emails was ‘systemic’ and explicitly for the purpose of preventing the release of information to the public.”

• The Times Colonist’s Les Leyne reports British Columbia’s information commissioner is swamped with complaints about the handling of access requests by the province’s government.

• In an interview with CKNW’s Jon McComb, the minister responsible for introducing British Columbia’s freedom of information law Colin Gabelmann speaks about the history of that legislation.

• Newfoundland and Labrador’s information commissioner has ordered that province’s government to release records about how much an external consultant charges for information technology work.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• CBC News reports a retired New Brunswick high school teacher is “fighting what he calls ‘ridiculous’ secrecy at one of the province’s school districts for failing to disclose information over the naming of a new school in Woodstock.”

• The Ubyssey reports that lack of answer around University of British Columbia president Arvid Gupta’s resignation has resulted in a “deluge” of freedom of information requests at the post-secondary institution.

• “How much the District of Muskoka [Ont.] is setting aside for capital projects could become shrouded in secrecy to prevent skewed bids from contractor,” according to the Bracebridge Examiner.

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

Author’s note: Publication of this column was cancelled last week due to illness.

THE WEEK CANADIAN JOURNALISM WAS BETRAYED

The National Post's front page endorsement of Conservatives Leader Stephen Harper could have troubling consequences for its employees, as well as its bottom line. (Graphic by National Post)

The National Post’s front page endorsement of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper could have troubling consequences for its employees, as well as its bottom line. (Graphic by National Post)

By endorsing the Conservatives for another term in government, some of Canada’s biggest dailies have betrayed both democracy and themselves.

Last week, papers owned by Postmedia Network Inc., the country’s largest English-language daily newspaper publisher, ran editorials with headlines such as “Conservatives are the most prudent choice,” “Let’s keep Harper’s steady hand on the helm” and “No change is best.”

Those papers were joined by the Globe and Mail, which endorsed the Tories but not Stephen Harper – seemingly and improbably suggesting his party colleagues weren’t, at the very least, responsible for enabling their leader’s baser decisions.

In the main, the pith of those newspapers’ contestable argument is that, according the Vancouver Sun, “The Harper government has kept a steady hand on the economic rudder” and, as such, is “best able to maintain a stable and healthy economy.”

Yet at least some of those editorials also affirmed the Conservative’s slide into crypto-despotism.

For example, the Montreal Gazette wrote that the party has “demonstrated high-handed disrespect for Parliament and the democratic process on occasion.” Meanwhile, the Ottawa Citizen was even more fulsome, stating Harper has:

…picked political fights with major pillars of our democratic system – Elections Canada, the judiciary, officers of parliament – for no obvious reason apart from the fact that they appear to stand in his way. Under his watch there were unreasonably high levels of moral and even criminal corruption among some of those closest to him. He has indulged his MPs in their quest to make a mockery of Question Period.

That means, in their endorsements, those papers weren’t just choosing between left and right. They were choosing between democracy and stability. And, in the end, they choose what they see as stability.

In a strange way, it was a very Canadian decision.

Our nation was born in the lukewarm cauldron of colonial deference rather than revolution, with its founding document declaiming the importance of peace, order and good governance.

That secular trinity of stability – which contrasts sharply with the American commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – is exemplified by our secretive, winner-take-all, Father Knows Best political system and is part of our often unacknowledged political values.

For example, in 2014, 24 percent of Canadian surveyed by AmericasBarometer said it would be justifiable for the prime minister to govern without Parliament if the country was facing very difficult times.

Among the other countries polled in the western hemisphere, only respondents in Haiti, Peru and Paraguay were more supportive of such a coup.

Similarly, just 45 percent of Canadians approve of people participating in legal demonstrations – 10 percentage points lower than respondents in the United States.

Nevertheless, it was still jarring to see newspapers favour a party that has shown such disdain and disregard for democracy because, in its absence, journalism is put in peril.

Without the twin freedoms of expression and information associated with that political system, the power of reporters to challenge the decisions and actions of those they cover is crippled.

Those freedoms have always been less than absolute in Canada – sometimes to serve the public interest and too often to serve the private interests of the powerful.

But the Conservatives, like the Liberals when they were in government, have further attenuated them, something the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders decried in a statement released late last week.

That attenuation deepens Canada’s democratic deficit, and possibly the financial deficits of its already flagging newspapers.

After all, who will pay to read those publications if the journalists who write for them become more and more frustrated in their ability to report on what the government doesn’t want the public to know about?

Yet neither Postmedia nor the Globe and Mail seem to have recognized that four more years of the Conservatives might be bad news for them – regardless of what it would mean for the rest of Canada.

It would be easy to blame the owners and managers of those newspapers for this lack of foresight. But, with a few notable exceptions, too many reporters in this election were just as negligent in covering issues such as government secrecy and accountability.

That collective failure brings into relief the question of how much responsibility journalists and their employers feel they have to protect the freedoms they exercise on behalf of the public. And during this campaign, in newsrooms across the country, the answer, tragically, appears to have been very little.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones’s latest annual freedom of information audit has been released by Newspapers Canada. That audit “ tells the story not only of Newfoundland and Labrador’s success and Ottawa’s failure, but also of foot-dragging by police forces, and widespread resistance at all levels of government to releasing computer data in formats useful in the digital age.”

• Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has released a report card grading the four major political parties for their stances on critical free expression issues.

• A coalition of 22 civil society groups concerned about the disrepair of Canada’s Access to Information Act has distributed a statement noting “the NDP and Liberal parties have included commitments in their platforms to improve the Act. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party did not see fit to even mention access to information in its platform.”

• CBC News’s Neil Macdonald argues that the federal government is simply prosecuting embarrassment by calling in the RCMP to investigate leaks at Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

• “Four years after he first asked Health Canada for all the information it had on a popular morning sickness drug, Toronto doctor Nav Persaud finally has the documents,” reports the Toronto Star. “But he cannot tell his patients or any other Canadians what’s in them” because of a confidentiality agreement he had to sign with the federal regulator.

• “Thousands of pages of correspondence and briefing notes on the federal government’s anti-terror Bill C-51 are so secret the government won’t disclose its reasons for censoring them,” according to Global News.

• “Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau scolded some of his own supporters Thursday after a journalist’s question on the resignation of his campaign co-chair elicited groans,” reports the Huffington Post.

• “Transport Canada is not releasing the results of its last two inspections of the Ambassador Bridge,” reports CBC News. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News takes a look at the back-and-forth debate over cameras in the courts. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• “Despite several high-profile privacy breaches and controversies over the destruction of government documents, MLAs studying changes to B.C.’s Freedom of Information legislation have had to cancel public meetings due to lack of interest in the topic,” reports the Vancouver Sun.

• IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis argues that cancellation may have had less to do with a lack of interest and more to do with the fact those meetings were announced during a federal election campaign, on the Friday before the Thanksgiving Day long weekend.

• The Telegraph-Journal opines that the New Brunswick government’s “treatment of a series of independent legislative officers shows a disturbing pattern — a growing cavalier attitude toward these important watchdog roles.” That treatment includes ignoring the province’s information commissioner.

• The Times-Transcript’s Norbert Cunningham writes that the Atcon fiasco demonstrates “why taxpayers should demand far more acountability from provincial governments, They all provide grants, subsidies, and loans in efforts to spur economic development. Have we ever seen a full accounting of outcomes? We hear positive announcements and expectations. Politicians boast when recipients prosper, but run for cover if they fail. We get an overall accounting of spending and losses, but few details.”

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

LATE NDP ANTI-SECRECY PROMISES LEAVE QUESTIONS

The cover of the NDP's campaign platform promises that party leader Tom Mulcair is "Ready for Ch" But what kind of "Ch" will the Mulcair make to the country's records access law? (Photograph by NDP)

The cover of the NDP’s campaign platform declares that Canada is “Ready for Ch.” But what kind of “Ch” would party leader Tom Mulcair make to one of the country’s most important anti-secrecy laws? (Photograph by NDP)

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER? Last month, the Toronto Star reported the NDP would have more to say on freedom of information reform before Election Day.

Twenty-eight days later (and just ten days before Canadians go to the polls) the party has finally opened its mouth after having spent the past nine years criticizing the Conservative government’s secrecy.

As part of its election platform, the NDP has promised six bullet points worth of fixes to the Access to Information Act — the long-broken law that is supposed to allow the people and the press to obtain unreleased government records but too often doesn’t.

Those proposals, totalling 116 words, match or surpass many of those already advanced by the Liberals.

Both parties promise to eliminate all access to information fees except the $5 cost to file a request.

Both parties promise to give the information commissioner the power to order the release of government records.

And both parties promise to make the administration of Parliament, the prime minister’s office and minister’s offices subject to the Access to Information Act.

The NDP isn’t committing to review the Act every five years or require government data and information to be available in “formats that are modern and easy to use,” as promised in the Liberal platform.

Nor does it make the so far empty promise of making government information “open by default” — which, according to commissioner Suzanne Legault, is the way that law is already written.

But, unlike the Liberals, the NDP would require public officials to document their action and decisions.

It would make claims of cabinet confidentiality subject to review by the commissioner.

And it would give access to information users a means of forcing the government to release information that’s in the “public interest.”

That appears encouraging.

But the effectiveness of that mechanism will depend on how the NDP defines the “public interest.”

After all, the public interest override in British Columbia’s freedom of information law is so narrowly defined that it’s been almost useless.

Similarly, the NDP has promised to “start implementing the Commissioner’s recommendations to strengthen and modernize the Act.”

But does that mean all of those recommendations, including proposed reforms to the exclusions and exemptions in the Act — loopholes that our public officials use and abuse to hide even the most basic information about their decisions from Canadians?

I’ve emailed Mulcair’s press secretary George Smith asking for answers to those questions with a deadline of Wednesday.

I’ll let you know if I get an answer.

OPEN AND SHUT The NDP’s proposed Access to Information Act reforms are part of the party’s  commitment to lead a “transparent government” that’s more open and accountable than the Harper administration. But some of the party’s dealings with journalists during the election campaign could give cause to doubt that claim.

On Saturday, the Globe and Mail published a 8,927-word profile of Tom Mulcair after “all efforts” to interview him over a two-month period failed. According to the newspaper:

E-mail and in-person requests made to various people, from the chief press officer and chief of staff to the press secretary and campaign manager, led nowhere. Eventually, our inquiries were sent down the chain of command, and landed with a junior press officer, who did not return calls. Ten weeks after our initial request, and shortly before going to press, The Globe and Mail was offered a telephone interview – an offer we declined due to the imminent publication date. That prompted a senior aide to say that a face-to-face interview could be arranged; this request was rejected for the same reason.

That wouldn’t be so troubling if Mulcair hadn’t also refused to take questions during his campaign launch, with the Toronto Star noting he was the only leader not to do so:

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, notorious for how rare he is available to media, took five questions from reporters outside Rideau Hall Sunday morning. Those questions had conditions, though: the questions were restricted to those media outlets that have agreed to go on tour with the Conservatives, at a cost of $12,500 a week. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who launched his campaign in Vancouver several hours after the other two, was prepared to answer more questions than the seven reporters there had for him.

This could just be incompetence on the part of Mulcair’s campaign staff. Goodness knows there’s enough reason to believe that. But it could also be a sign that a NDP government would only be open and accountable on its own terms.

TOTALLY TRANSPARENT National Newswatch’s Don Lenihan continued overstating the Liberal’s government transparency platform plank last week, writing that party leader Justin Trudeau “has a long list of Open Government reforms.” For the record, that list is comprised of five bullet points and totals 128 words.

BY THE NUMBERS Last week, I noted that reporters are estimated to have filed over ten times more freedom of information requests with British Columbia government ministries per 100,000 people living in that province than they did in Alberta. But how does the rest of the provinces outside Quebec stack up? Well, only four other provinces track the data needed to make that comparison. Nevertheless, the numbers we do have make for interesting reading:

Ontario (calendar 2012)

215 media requests

1.9 percent of all requests

1.6 requests per 100,000

Alberta (fiscal 2012/13)

110 media requests

4.6 percent of all requests

2.8 requests per 100,000

Nova Scotia (fiscal 2012/13)

73 media requests

4.7 percent of all requests

7.7 requests per 100,000

Manitoba (calendar 2012)

146 media requests

8.7 percent of all requests

11.7 requests per 100,000

Newfoundland and Labrador (fiscal 2012/13)

73 media requests

25.6 percent of all requests

13.9 requests per 100,000

British Columbia (fiscal 2012/13)

1,356 requests

28.1 percent of all requests

29.9 requests per 100,000

RIGHTS BUT NO RESPONSIBILITIES? In Canada, journalists exercise our right to information, as well as our freedom of expression, in their own interest, as well as the public interest.

But to what extent do journalists have a responsibility to protect those rights and freedoms?

And, if journalists don’t feel such a responsibility or don’t feel able to act on that responsibility, why is that and how is that affecting the decline of journalism and the ascendancy of spin in this country?

Those are just some of the questions I’ve been asking myself after the news media provided little or no coverage of an effort to make freedom of information an election issue, as well as the 20th anniversary of Alberta’s broken records access law.

I’ll be ruminating more about this in the future. But, in the meantime, I invite you to share your own perspectives by emailing me at this address.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Hill Times reports the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has called in the RCMP to conduct an investigation into the leak of an internal briefing document warning senior federal government insiders that Canada’s clout in the international community is diminishing.

• Meanwhile, according to CBC News, the Mounties are also looking into the leak of internal documents showing the Prime Minister’s Office directed officials to “stop processing a preliminary group of Syrian refugees, pending an audit of their cases.”

• The Tyee reports Conservative Leader Stephen Harper “met privately with select media outlets at the Red Truck Beer Company in East Vancouver this morning.” A source told the online magazine that “those invited were asked to submit three questions days ahead of time [and] then told which ones they could ask the Prime Minister.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Telegraph reports Newfoundland and Labrador’s information commissioner has ordered the “release most of a controversial, secret report into sexual exploitation in the province.” According to the newspaper, the government has “argued that the report was based on interviews with sex workers and vulnerable individuals who could be put in danger if it was released publicly.”

• New Brunswick’s public safety minister has, according to the Telegraph-Journal, “shut down a right-to-information request seeking details around the death of man at the Saint John Regional Hospital last month, citing an ongoing coroner’s investigation.”

• The Telegraph-Journal reports New Brunswick’s Horizon Health Network is “refusing to release two reports about how to improve hospital security and patient safety after the death of Serena Perry,” a 22-year-old patient who was staying in Saint John Regional Hospital’s psychiatric unit on the nigh of Valentine’s Day 2012.

• The Globe and Mail reports, “Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne agreed to bar the media from three events with a high-ranking Chinese official at the request of the Communist Party.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• The Times-Transcript opines that New Brunswick’s “access to information and protection of privacy regulations appear to have worked well in the case of a Moncton daycare inspection report, in that the public’s right to know has been upheld in a way that also protects an individual worker at the daycare in question.”

• An all-party legislative committee is reviewing British Columbia’s freedom of information law, with submissions being due on Jan. 29, 2016. (hat tip: Dale Bass)

• SooToday.com reports the Ontario government “fought beak and claw” to prevent the release of information about wood turtles in the vicinity of the Bow Lake Wind Farm.

• Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets the British Columbia government “wants to charge $3K to show info about its propaganda website redesign.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Metro Ottawa’s Steve Rennie tweets that the Ottawa Police Service wants him to pay $6,300 for a freedom of information request.

• The Vancouver Sun’s Daphne Bramham reports an online poll of 611 Metro Vancouver adults was asked to rank the University of British Columbia’s assets. According to the poll, “transparency was dead last, with 32 per cent saying it was ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ representative of UBC.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• UBC Insiders reports University of British Columbia board members are likely using private email addresses to conduct their business. (hat tip: Katja Thieme)

According to the New Westminster Record, British Columbia’s Douglas College has “declined to answer questions about the departure of its former president or why the institution continued to pay him $14,000 a month after he left suddenly last year.”

• A freedom of information request filed by the Collingwood Connection for the Town of Collingwood, Ont.’s Elvis festival contract has been denied.

• The Richmond News quotes the City of Richmond, B.C.’s planning policy manager Terry Crowe as saying the switch from the mandatory long-form census to the National Household Survey means, “You’re starting from scratch so it’s difficult to get a sense of the trends.”

• The Region of Peel, Ont. is debating creating a lobbyist registry, reports the Calendon Enterprise. But, according to the newspaper, the “hiccup is not knowing what a lobbyist is.”

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