IS CABINET CONFIDENTIALITY REASONABLE?

Social scientist Alex C. Michalos was among those who questioned the notion of cabinet confidentiality in the 1970s. (Photograph by University of Northern British Columbia)

If you think about it, the whole notion of cabinet confidentiality is pretty anti-democratic. It means Canadians don’t have any right to know what happens inside the government’s most important decision-making body. We only have a right to know what our government lets us know. Moreover, members of cabinet who disagree with the decisions it makes have to pretend they agree in public. And that means they may have to lie to the very people who elected them.

Yet, in Canada, questioning cabinet confidentiality rarely seems to happen. And, when it does, such questioning is often branded as radical at best and foolish at worst. Indeed, in 1979, the eminent Canadian political scientist Donald V. Smiley observed, “No informed person suggests that the proceedings of the cabinet should be published.”1Donald V. Smiley, “Freedom of Information: Rationales and Proposals for Reform,” in Freedom of Information: Canadian Perspectives, ed. John D. McCamus, 1981), 16.

However, between the mid-sixties and early eighties, informed people were actually making such suggestions. Among them was social scientist Alex C. Michalos. In a brief prepared for the Ontario Commission on Freedom of Information and Individual Privacy, Michalos, who was then a philosophy professor at the University of Guelph, took issue with the claim that differences between cabinet ministers must be resolved in the strictest confidence, writing:

This is assertion without justification. It is possible to have ‘stability and cohesion’ while admitting honest difference. Does anyone expect a monolithic set of views out of a Cabinet? It seems to be greater ‘stability and cohesion’ would be displayed by the honest display of differences of opinion which are occasionally comprised in the public interest. To pretend that there are no disagreements within an organization is dishonest in the first place, and self-destructive in the second. Instead of preaching rational debate and accommodation, we will be preaching authoritarianism and control. Instead of displaying a model of reasonable people struggling over difficult problems with conflicting but legitimate points of view, we will be displaying a model of rigid people struggling to control diversity with secrecy. How can this help? How can we in good conscience give this example to our children and our neighbours?2Alex C. Michalos, “A Brief to the Commission on Freedom of Information and Individual Privacy.” (unpublished submission), July 1977.

How indeed? Yet, that’s exactly what we’ve continued to do. And it’s well-past time for Canadians to change that.

References   [ + ]

1. Donald V. Smiley, “Freedom of Information: Rationales and Proposals for Reform,” in Freedom of Information: Canadian Perspectives, ed. John D. McCamus, 1981), 16.
2. Alex C. Michalos, “A Brief to the Commission on Freedom of Information and Individual Privacy.” (unpublished submission), July 1977.

WHAT NEVER? HARDLY EVER!

The American government was declassifying millions of pages of documents while the Canadian government was still trying to keep most of its documents secret. (Photograph by Office of the National Archives)

For all its faults, the United States government has almost aways proven more open than our own government in Canada. And, in 1976, Philip Chaplin, the senior research officer of the directorate of history at Canada’s National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, sketched out a dramatic and somewhat depressing illustration of that difference.

In a paper entitled “Well, Hardly Ever! A Response to the Plaintive Question: Does Anyone Ever Declassify Anything?” Chaplin wrote, “As far as I know (and I am in a position to hear of such things) I am the only full-time public servant in the country who put a (sic) least half of his past year’s work into declassification.”1Philip Chaplin, “Well, Hardly Ever! A Response to the Plaintive Question: Does Anyone Ever Declassify Anything?” (unpublished paper, April 1976), 1 By comparison, when he visited the declassification division of the United States National Archives, he found that “with a staff of 100, they expected to have reviewed 160,000,000 pages of 30 year old records in just over three years ending on 31 December 1975 at a cost of $4,500,000.”2Ibid, 3

Nor did Canadian officials seem particularly concerned about this difference. Chaplin’s paper was prepared for a Public Service Commission seminar that was supposed to take place between April 12-13, 1976. But that seminar was cancelled for lack of interest.”3Ibid, 7

References   [ + ]

1. Philip Chaplin, “Well, Hardly Ever! A Response to the Plaintive Question: Does Anyone Ever Declassify Anything?” (unpublished paper, April 1976), 1
2. Ibid, 3
3. Ibid, 7

MEASURING TRUDEAU’S COMMITMENT TO OPENNESS

 

The federal Liberals like to claim they’re commitment to being more open and democratic. But how can we tell if they actually are? (Image by Liberal Party of Canada)

At the very least, you’ve got to admire the federal government’s open government team’s chutzpah. Despite the Trudeau administration’s utterly unsurprising failure to keep its election promises to be open by default and reform our electoral system, late last month the team enthusiastically asked civil society members for feedback on its draft open government commitments.

Those commitments include a promise to review the Access to Information Act, which has already been extensively reviewed since it was passed in 1982. The government also states it will implement activities to “strengthen democracy in Canada.” But those activities remain unidentified.

Such non-reforms are as expected as they are frustrating. And I’m sure I’m not the only transparency advocate who felt that way. That said, I do appreciate the approach the open government team has taken during this consultation process, providing us with an opportunity to comment on its proposals via Google Docs. As a result, I thought it might be helpful to share what I think are the two things the Trudeau administration would have to do to demonstrate it was serious about being more open and democratic:

1. Reduce the number of secret spaces in government

It is not an understatement to say we are blind to much of what our sitting government does. Right now, we have no right to know what happens in its cabinet, the government’s top decision-making body. We have no right to know what happens in its cabinet ministers’ offices. And we have no right to know what recommendations are being made to those ministers by government employees. In short, we have no right to know why our government makes the decisions it makes. We only know what our government decides to tell us. Moreover, our right to know what our government knows about corporations, federal-provincial affairs, international affairs, defence and law enforcement is often limited. All this is odd for a supposed democracy. So, if the government wanted to be more open, it would do something about this.

2. Reduce the government’s power to do whatever it wants

Party discipline is the practice whereby all representatives from the same party vote together in Parliament. In combination with cabinet solidarity, it means a government with a majority of MPs in the House of Commons can often do whatever it wants. And, because our first-past-the-post voting system almost always produces such majorities, that’s usually the rule rather than the exception. This has the affect of making government resistant to public, press and opposition opinion between elections. Again, this is odd for a supposed democracy. As such, if the Trudeau administration wanted to be more democratic, it would do something about this too.

That said, these are hard things for any government to do because it means giving up control. And that’s even more difficult now because the informed, rational and empathetic decision-making that’s supposed to be the foundation of democracy is being undermined. But part of the reason for that is people don’t feel they have any control over an economic and political system that seems rigged against them. That’s why the work of the open government team is so important. I just wish the Trudeau administration would recognize that.

THE LONG MARCH FOR SCIENCE

Demonstrators at the 2017 March for Science in Washington, DC. (Photograph by Becker1999)

The international March for Science movement has helped popularize the importance of science-based decision-making in government. But concerns about its absence are longer standing than many of us may realize. An exemplar of those concerns is a 1971 article that was written by future Nobel Prize winner Martin L. Perl and published in the prestigious journal Science.

In that article, Perl wrote that “since World War II, scientists and engineers have been going to Washington in increasing numbers to help the government make decisions” about “perilous technological problems”1Martin L. Perl, “The Scientific Advisory System: Some Observations,” Science 173, no. 4003 (September 24, 1971): 1211. – including how to stop the arms race, how to stop the destruction of the natural environment and how to raise the standard of living in the poor countries. However, Perl stated that the American government’s scientific advisory system had “substantially failed” to influence the administration’s decisions on “broad technical issues.”2Ibid, 1213.

The Stanford University physics professor then described a number of reason for that failure, ranging from “strong pressures” exerted by “industries, labor, unions, or municipalities”3Ibid. to a reluctance on the part of politicians to adopt policies that would expose them to “electoral difficulties.”4Ibid. In other words, if he was still alive, Perl could have written the same article today. But what’s even more troubling is that if the electorate had paid more attention to those concerns back in 1971 and if we had had the will to do something about them, many of the technological problems that bedevil our world today might never have happened.

References   [ + ]

1. Martin L. Perl, “The Scientific Advisory System: Some Observations,” Science 173, no. 4003 (September 24, 1971): 1211.
2. Ibid, 1213.
3, 4. Ibid.

DISCERNING THE TRUTH

Demonstrators marching in the street holding signs during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko)

If you’ve been a reader of this site, you’ll know I’ve been busy working on a dissertation about the early history of freedom of information in Canada. So I’m very excited to announce I’ll be sharing some findings from that work next week. This coming Thursday, I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “The falling currency of democracy: information as an instrument of control and certainty in the postwar and post-truth eras” at Mount Royal University and Medicine Hat College’s second Liberal Education Conference. This year’s conference theme is “Can a liberal education make you a better discerner of the truth?”

BIG BROTHER AND THE PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO KNOW

The threat and fear of Big Brother contributed to the rise of the right to know. (Photograph by 20th Century Fox)

Transparency scholars and advocates have often said that freedom of information laws are a reaction to a growth in government – something I’ve found can be seen at the very beginnings of the modern right to know movement.

In a 2015 paper, public administration professor Alasdair Roberts wrote that such growth happens “either because the country confronts some new challenge, or has the opportunity to adopt some new technology of administration. These movements create risks, such as the possibility that an expanded or more complex bureaucracy might slip from the legislative or public control. Sometimes there are scandals or abuses that give evidence of these new risks. Then there is a countermovement, concerned with the imposition of openness requirements and procedural checks,” which include transparency measures such as freedom of information laws.1Alasdair Roberts, “Too much transparency? How critics of openness misunderstand administrative development,” (paper prepared for the Fourth Global Conference on Transparency Research, Lugano, Switzerland, June 4-6, 2015).

In the United States, just such a countermovement began in earnest in the early 1950s, as journalists, politicians and others started expressing concerns about the “omnipotent administration” of the “superstate,” which was “so vividly pictured by George Orwell in his novel 1984.”2House Committee on Government Operations, Twenty-Fifth Intermediate Report of the Committee on Government Operations, 74. That countermovement included the publication of The People’s Right to Know. Commissioned by the American Society of News Editors in October 1950 and printed three years later by Columbia University Press, it was the first “scholarly, legally documented presentation on the subject” of freedom of information in the United States.3James S. Pope, Forward to The People’s Right to Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings by Harold L. Cross (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), ix.

The 405-page book “nearly sold out within a week of its publication date,” despite a weighty US$5.50 price tag – just over $50 in today’s money.4J.R. Wiggins, “An arsenal of arguments for the right to know,” The Washington Post, April 26, 1953. Reviewing the book in The Washington Post, the paper’s managing editor James R. Wiggins remarked that such popularity wasn’t surprising since it contained “information so essential to the exercise of a fundamental right.”5J.R. Wiggins, “An arsenal of arguments for the right to know,” The Washington Post, April 26, 1953. Yet it was New York Times general Louis M. Loeb who offered the most insight into that purported popularity. In his own review of the book, Loeb described it as a timely and helpful text because its publication coincided with Americans’ search for a  “new balance” between “the citizen and his Government owing to the tremendously enlarged field in which the Government enters the life of every citizen”6Louis M. Loeb, “The Need for Facts,” The New York Times, May 17, 1953. – foretelling one of the principle arguments that would be made in favour of the public’s right to know.

References   [ + ]

1. Alasdair Roberts, “Too much transparency? How critics of openness misunderstand administrative development,” (paper prepared for the Fourth Global Conference on Transparency Research, Lugano, Switzerland, June 4-6, 2015).
2. House Committee on Government Operations, Twenty-Fifth Intermediate Report of the Committee on Government Operations, 74.
3. James S. Pope, Forward to The People’s Right to Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings by Harold L. Cross (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), ix.
4, 5. J.R. Wiggins, “An arsenal of arguments for the right to know,” The Washington Post, April 26, 1953.
6. Louis M. Loeb, “The Need for Facts,” The New York Times, May 17, 1953.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND THE FRENCH ATOM BOMB

The dangers of atomic bomb tests like this one – conducted by France in the Sahara on February 13, 1960 – contributed to the rise of the right to know movement. (Photograph by ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Stock Photo)

“The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”1Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962; New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2002), 14. Anyone who has read Silent Spring, the 1962 book that “ignited”2Eliza Griswold, “How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement,” The New York Times, September 21, 2012. the environmental movement, will remember that phrase. Indeed, it was one of author and biologist Rachel Carson’s favourites.3Samuel A. Tower, “Rachel Carson is Pictured on New 17-Cent Issue,” The New York Times, May 31, 1981. Since then, it has been repeatedly used to argue for the disclosure of information about how science, corporations and governments may be damaging us and our environment.4David C. Vladeck, “Information Access – Surveying the Current Legal Landscape of Federal Right-to-Know Laws,” Texas Law Review 86, no. 7 (June 2008): 1787. But French scientist and philosopher Jean Rostand, who coined that phrase on April 21, 1960 while accepting the Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science,5 The UNESCO Courier, “Jean Rostand Receives Kalinga Prize,” The UNESCO Courier, June, 1960 was concerned with a specific kind of damage.

Earlier that month, on April 1, France completed its second atomic bomb test. The test, which took place at the atomic proving grounds at Reggan in southwestern Algeria, exploded with a force of “less than 19,000 tons of TNT, which was the power of the United States atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.”6W. Granger Blair, “Compact A-Bomb Closer in France: Sizable Step Taken Toward Operational Device with Second Sahara Blast,” The New York Times, April 2, 1960. That explosion, and the 16 others that France detonated in the Sahara, “vitrified vast tracts of desert with heat and plutonium and left a legacy of uncontained radiation that is still crippling inhabitants.”7Johnny Magdaleno, “Algerians Suffering from French Atomic Legacy, 55 Years After Nuke Tests,” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/1/algerians-suffering-from-french-atomic-legacy-55-years-after-nuclear-tests.html accessed March 12, 2018

At the time of the second detonation, representatives of 22 Asian and African nations called for a special session of the United Nations General Assembly to consider those tests.8Special to The New York Times, “French A-Tests Scored: Africans and Asians Again Ask Special U.N. Session,” The New York Tines, April 6, 1960. But, on April 14, those representatives only had 36 of the 42 votes they needed to do so, out of the 82 nations casting ballots. According to The New York Times, one reason for the defeat of the special session was a feeling that since French President Charles de Gaulle was going to be in the city between April 26-27 “it would have been discourteous to take this means of protesting his decision to make France a nuclear power.”9Thomas J. Hamilton, “Neutrals in the U.N.: Asian-African Differences Pointed Up by Defeat of Move on Atom Tests,” The New York Times, April 17, 1960.

That vote happened just seven days after an American Chemical Society symposium designed to “describe in detail the path of nuclear particles from bombs through the soil, plants, food, animals, and milk into human bone and tissue.”10Frank Carey, “85 per cent of fallout now down,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1960. During the symposium, Columbia University geochemistry professor John Laurence Kulp said that plants used for food may have picked up “less radioactive poison than earlier calculations indicated.”11Editorial, “Qualified Comfort,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 7, 1960. However, Wright Haskell Langham, the group leader for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory’s biomedical research division, also said fallout from past nuclear weapon tests may have increased “the incidence of bone cancer and leukemia 5 to 10 per cent in the generations presently growing up.”12Editorial, “Qualified Comfort,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 7, 1960.

It was against this backdrop, at UNESCO House in Paris, that Rostand – whose father was the author of Cyrano de Bergerac – said, “Any distinction between the man of science and the ordinary man is no longer admissible, any more than a form of segregation based on an inequality of knowledge. Whether we like it or not, the laboratory henceforward opens right onto the street. Science not only affects us at any given moment of our day-to-day existence, it dogs us, it pursues us. Have we not all of us been transformed into involuntary guinea pigs ever since atomic fission, without asking our opinion, began to plant harmful particles in our bones?”13Jean Rostand, “Popularization of Science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.

As a result, he continued, “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know. The time is clearly coming when the man in the street will have his say with regard to the great social, national, international and moral issues latterly raised by certain applications of science; and it may be that the specialist himself, weary of bearing on his own the weight of his too-heavy responsibilities will rejoice at finding understanding and support in public awareness.”14Jean Rostand, “Popularization of science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.

References   [ + ]

1. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962; New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2002), 14.
2. Eliza Griswold, “How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement,” The New York Times, September 21, 2012.
3. Samuel A. Tower, “Rachel Carson is Pictured on New 17-Cent Issue,” The New York Times, May 31, 1981.
4. David C. Vladeck, “Information Access – Surveying the Current Legal Landscape of Federal Right-to-Know Laws,” Texas Law Review 86, no. 7 (June 2008): 1787.
5. The UNESCO Courier, “Jean Rostand Receives Kalinga Prize,” The UNESCO Courier, June, 1960
6. W. Granger Blair, “Compact A-Bomb Closer in France: Sizable Step Taken Toward Operational Device with Second Sahara Blast,” The New York Times, April 2, 1960.
7. Johnny Magdaleno, “Algerians Suffering from French Atomic Legacy, 55 Years After Nuke Tests,” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/1/algerians-suffering-from-french-atomic-legacy-55-years-after-nuclear-tests.html accessed March 12, 2018
8. Special to The New York Times, “French A-Tests Scored: Africans and Asians Again Ask Special U.N. Session,” The New York Tines, April 6, 1960.
9. Thomas J. Hamilton, “Neutrals in the U.N.: Asian-African Differences Pointed Up by Defeat of Move on Atom Tests,” The New York Times, April 17, 1960.
10. Frank Carey, “85 per cent of fallout now down,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1960.
11, 12. Editorial, “Qualified Comfort,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 7, 1960.
13. Jean Rostand, “Popularization of Science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.
14. Jean Rostand, “Popularization of science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.

THE “CURRENCY OF DEMOCRACY”

Martin Grove Brumbaugh shared his ideas on education and democracy when he was the superintendent of public schools of Philadelphia. (Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The aphorism “information is the currency of democracy” has often been used by transparency advocates to lobby for openness in government. Most attribute that phrase to consumer advocate Ralph Nader.1Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the Committee on Government Operations, Hearings on S. 1637 to Establish Standards and Procedures for Government Advisory Committees, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., 1971, 985; Washington Bureau of The Sun, “Flaws in Congress are Next Target for Nader’s Band of Reformers,” The Baltimore Sun, November 3, 1971; Ralph Nader, “The Underachievements of Congress,” The New York Times, December 23, 1971. Nader used that phrase on October 11, 1971 while testifying before a Senate subcommittee. He used it again and more publicly during a November 2, 1971 speech to the National Press Club where he announced the launch of “the most comprehensive and detailed study of the Congress since its establishment.” Others misattributed it to Thomas Jefferson.2Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, s.v. “Information is the Currency of Democracy (Spurious Quotation),” accessed March 2, 2018, https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/information-currency-democracy-spurious-quotation. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a non-profit corporation that owns and operates the American Founding Father’s former plantation, currently has “no evidence to confirm that he ever said or wrote, ‘Information is the currency of democracy.’” As a result, it has labelled it a spurious quotation. But I’ve found what appears to be an antecedent of sorts to the saying. In his 1908 annual report, the superintendent of public schools of Philadelphia, Martin Grove Brumbaugh wrote:

Two individuals can participate in a common cause only to the extent that they possess common sentiment and common knowledge. To increase their effective participation requires a broadening of their common knowledge. To make participation impossible requires only the absence of common knowledge. This holds true throughout. Hence our democracy depends upon the possession by all its individual participants of a fund of common knowledge, which fund is the currency of democracy; and the function of the public school is to impart such a fund of common knowledge to all that participate in our democracy as to make facile the interchange of ideas and the reciprocal regard of each for the other. The initiation into democracy should always be contingent upon the possession of this common knowledge. For that reason the stranger from without should serve an apprenticeship in the American public school before he is invested with the toga of American citizenship. Likewise any one in our midst, native or foreign born, that has neglected to fit himself for participation in our democracy should be denied what his own neglect prevents him from comprehending.

Moreover, the growth of democracy, as well as its security, depends upon the widening of this fund of common knowledge. Hence the specific means of promoting the best traditions in our national life will be found to lie in the increased efficiency of the schools. What the school is as the creator of common thought and common sentiment determines what our democracy is. Upon this basis the state supports the school, and the system of education is maintained by taxation prescribed by the laws of the state. The measure of this financial support is the measure of our belief in democracy. When any citizen opposes an equitable, indeed, a liberal support to the schools, he opposes the government itself.3Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia, Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia for the Year Ending December 31, 1908 (Philadelphia, PA, 1909), 18.

Brumbaugh, who “drastically reorganized the ways schools operated and taught children by building additional primary and secondary schools, reforming academic programs in the high schools, and raising teacher salaries,” would go on to become the Republican governor of Pennsylvania.4The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, s.v. “Martin G. Brumbaugh,” accessed March 2, 2018, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/education-and-opportunity-2/3c09824v/.

References   [ + ]

1. Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the Committee on Government Operations, Hearings on S. 1637 to Establish Standards and Procedures for Government Advisory Committees, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., 1971, 985; Washington Bureau of The Sun, “Flaws in Congress are Next Target for Nader’s Band of Reformers,” The Baltimore Sun, November 3, 1971; Ralph Nader, “The Underachievements of Congress,” The New York Times, December 23, 1971. Nader used that phrase on October 11, 1971 while testifying before a Senate subcommittee. He used it again and more publicly during a November 2, 1971 speech to the National Press Club where he announced the launch of “the most comprehensive and detailed study of the Congress since its establishment.”
2. Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, s.v. “Information is the Currency of Democracy (Spurious Quotation),” accessed March 2, 2018, https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/information-currency-democracy-spurious-quotation. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a non-profit corporation that owns and operates the American Founding Father’s former plantation, currently has “no evidence to confirm that he ever said or wrote, ‘Information is the currency of democracy.’” As a result, it has labelled it a spurious quotation.
3. Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia, Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia for the Year Ending December 31, 1908 (Philadelphia, PA, 1909), 18.
4. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, s.v. “Martin G. Brumbaugh,” accessed March 2, 2018, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/education-and-opportunity-2/3c09824v/.

INFO WATCHDOG’S PARTING SHOT ECHOES PAST CRITICISM

Suzanne Legault isn’t the first and likely won’t be the last information commissioner to give the federal government a parting shot. (Graphic by Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada)

During her last week as Canada’s fifth information commissioner, Suzanne Legault excoriated the federal government’s secrecy and the Liberals’ failure to make it more open.1Daniel LeBlanc, “Information watchdog blasts Liberals ahead of her retirement,” The Globe and Mail, February 21, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/information-watchdog-blasts-liberals-ahead-of-her-retirement/article38060282/ (accessed February 22, 2018). But she’s far from the first commissioner to do so on their way out of office, a reminder of how long the federal freedom of information system has been broken and the equally long chances of it ever being fixed. For example:

  • in her final annual report, which was released on May 18, 1990, Canada’s first information commissioner Inger Hansen wrote that she remained convinced “the political will in support of freedom of information could be stronger,” “the bureaucratic resistance to freedom of information could be stronger” and “the tendency to withholding government information should give way to attitudes favouring disclosure;”2Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1989-90 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1990), 2.

  • in his final annual report, which was released on June 4, 1998, Canada’s second information commissioner John Grace wrote, “A culture of secrecy still flourishes in too many high places even after 15 years of life under the Access to Information Act. Too many public officials cling to the old proprietorial notion that they, and not the Access to Information Act, should determine what and when information should be dispensed to the unwashed public. If bold boasts are to be believed, some have taken to adopting the motto attributed to an old New York Democratic boss: ‘Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink;’”3Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1997-1998 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 3. and

  • in his final annual report, which was released on June 13, 2006, Canada’s third information commissioner John Reid wrote, “After almost 23 years of living with with the Access to Information Act, the name of the game, all too often, is how to resist transparency and engage in damage control by ignoring response deadlines, blacking-out the embarrassing bits, conducting business orally, excluding records and institutions from the coverage of the Access to Information Act, and keeping the system’s watchdog overworked and under-funded.”4Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 2005-2006 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 6.

Even Robert Marleau, who failed to finish his seven-year term as the country’s fourth information commissioner and was criticized for being “more lapdog than attack-mutt,”5Greg Weston, “PM is the biggest muzzle master yet,” Whitehorse Star, March 16, 2009. wrote, “Much more is needed to bring about a true culture of openness and transparency, and allow Canada to regain its status as a leader in the area of access to information.”6Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report 2008-2009: Maximizing Compliance for Greater Transparency (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 2009), 1. As such, the question isn’t when the government will do that, since both the Liberals and Conservatives have repeatedly demonstrated they won’t. The question is whether Canadians care.

References   [ + ]

1. Daniel LeBlanc, “Information watchdog blasts Liberals ahead of her retirement,” The Globe and Mail, February 21, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/information-watchdog-blasts-liberals-ahead-of-her-retirement/article38060282/ (accessed February 22, 2018).
2. Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1989-90 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1990), 2.
3. Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1997-1998 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 3.
4. Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 2005-2006 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 6.
5. Greg Weston, “PM is the biggest muzzle master yet,” Whitehorse Star, March 16, 2009.
6. Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report 2008-2009: Maximizing Compliance for Greater Transparency (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 2009), 1.

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.