Monthly Archives: November 2013


The United Kingdom's information commissioner wants young people to know about their right to know. (Graphic by Information Commissioner's Office)

The United Kingdom’s information commissioner wants young people to know about their right to know. (Graphic by Information Commissioner’s Office)

• In Canada, our country’s information commissioner is still fighting for the power to educate citizens about their right to know. Meanwhile, across the pond, the United Kingdom’s information commissioner Christopher Graham already has that power and has been exercising it.

Specifically, according to a proposal released last week, Graham’s office intends to continue its work to “embed information rights within the school curriculum” — having recently participated in the government’s review of England’s national curriculum. As part of that participation, the office stated teaching students about those rights will have several benefits, including allowing young people to “participate in society” and “hold public authorities to account.”

• A 23-word statement by Treasury Board President Tony Clement has given the Globe and Mail cause to believe the Conservatives “sound receptive on access to information” reforms. Earlier this month, NDP MP Charlie Angus accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of “lording over the most opaque and secretive government in memory,” demanding to know when Canada’s governing party will “finally agree to reform the Access to Information Act.”

In response, Clement defended the government’s transparency record. But he also said it is  “waiting for the [information] commissioner’s report on other changes [to the Access to Information Act] that she would suggest. If the opposition has other positive changes, we would consider those as well” — prompting this editorial from the Globe.

• Saskatchewan’s government just introduced it’s first lobbying transparency law. But, as reported by the Leader-Post’s Murray Mandryk, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff Guy Giorno believes there are “large gaps in the legislation.” In a bulletin posted on Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP’s Website, Giorno states the bill won’t require non-profit entities or those who spend less than 100 hours lobbying to disclose their government relations activities. But it also features “among the toughest” lobbying conflict-of-interest rules in Canada.

• “It’s time to turn the page. Day after day, we are inundated with ‘news’ about the Senate scandal. Nobody cares, except the CBC, the Toronto Star, and some others, who seem to drip with venom at any announcement that Harper may have known something about who did what, when.”

That’s the pith of an editorial published last week in the Nanaimo Daily NewsIshmael N. Daro,’s trends editor, was quick to mention that’s the same newspaper that published two letters to the editor disparaging First Nations peoples. But what hasn’t been mentioned is the newspaper’s managing editor Mark MacDonald also appears to have some strong opinions about the political leanings of Canadian journalists.

In a three-page document document obtained by the B.C. Reporter Reporter Website, MacDonald stated many editors are “sympathetic to the socialist cause” and that, while there are “some positive aspects of socialism,” they “shouldn’t dominate the editorial flavour [sic] of the paper.” He clarified that doesn’t mean newspapers need to be become “‘right wing rags’…It is not a fair representation of the community at large. But they do need balance.”

• If you think Canadian legislatures are fortresses of free speech and expression, think again. Consider this example, first reported by the Province’s Mike Smyth: earlier this month, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation asked permission to use British Columbia’s legislative lawn for a news conference on December 2. During that event, the federation wanted to fly their nine-metre-tall Mike Duffy balloon. But the group’s British Columbia director Jordan Bateman was advised the news conference would be an “inappropriate use of the Legislative Precinct Grounds.” The following is a complete copy of that rejection letter.

• “The Japanese government, which already has a long history of cover-ups and opaqueness, is on its way to becoming even less open and transparent after the lower house the Diet, Japan’s parliament, passed the Designated Secrets Bill on Tuesday.” According to the Daily Beast, “With new powers to classify nearly anything as a state secret and harsh punishments for leakers that can easily be used to intimidate whistleblowers and stifle press freedom, many in Japan worry that the if the bill becomes law it will be only the first step towards even more severe erosions of freedom in the country.”

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


NDP MP Pat Martin is one of those publicly pushing for more freedom of information. How many journalists will join him? (Photograph by Pat Martin)

NDP MP Pat Martin is one of those publicly pushing for more freedom of information. How many journalists will join him? (Photograph by Pat Martin)

Journalists must “take the gloves off by pushing governments to be more transparent.”

Award-winning CBC News producer David McKie rang that fight bell in a column published earlier this month in J-Source.

But so far, many newspaper columnists and editorial writers appear to have left their gloves on when it comes to covering recent proposals to fix the country’s broken access to information system.

Consider this: on October 9, the Canada’s information commissioners issued a joint resolution calling for a modernization of the laws that allow the public to obtain public records.

Eight days later, federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault — while releasing her annual report — warned there are “unmistakable signs of significant deterioration” in the federal access to information system.

Legault was principally referring to increased complaints about that system, as well as delays in responding to access requests.

But, when I analyzed Ottawa’s own access statistics, I found other troubling indicators.

For example, the percentage of records released in full — without having information stricken from them — has dramatically decreased.

It’s gone from a high of 40.5 percent in fiscal 1999/00 to a low of 15.8 percent in 2009/10, increasingly slightly to 21.2 percent as of 2011/12.

Now the NDP want “urgent reforms” made to the Access to Information Act, with Legault having earlier told reporters “the health of Canadian democracy is at stake.”

Of course, she could also have said the health of Canada’s fourth estate is at stake since that system is one of the few means journalists have of obtaining information that hasn’t been managed and massaged by government and opposition message makers.

Without it, journalists have one less tool to deconstruct the state and hold it to account — further relegating reporters to role of repeaters, a repugnant and unsustainable proposition.

After all, thanks to social media, institutions and officials increasingly no longer need the news media to reach the masses. So what is the economic or social value of reporters just regurgitating political press releases and advertising?

Yet, despite journalists’ self-interest in getting into the ring with the NDP, Legault and the country’s other information commissioners, many newspaper editorial writers and columnist have yet to do so according to a search of Canadian Newsstand.

That database features articles from 270 of the country’s newspapers. Among the papers are those published by Postmedia Network Inc. and Brunswick News Inc., as well as FP Newspaper Inc., Glacier Media Inc., Torstar Corp.’s dailies and some of the properties owned by Black Press Group Ltd. Among those excluded are papers owned by Quebecor Inc. and Transcontinental Inc.

Of the newspapers in Canadian Newsstand, just four — the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, the Times Colonist and the Toronto Star — ran editorials or columns in their print editions between October 8 and November 25 following up on the commissioners’ announcements or the NDP’s reform proposals.

The database also shows just 35 articles covering those stories were published in print or on the Canadian Press’s wire during that same period.

Of course, there are many reasonable explanations for this drought of ink and I’ve heard them all.

Some journalists assume Canadians aren’t interested in “inside baseball” stories such as this one.

Others rightly conclude it’s unlikely any majority government would introduce or pass legislation letting more sunlight into its dark, private spaces.

And then there are those who say criticisms of our access to information system aren’t news given that they aren’t new.

But if journalists don’t “take the gloves off by pushing governments to be more transparent” we and the citizens of this country will continue to be on the losing side of the fight to know how Canada is being run and on who’s behalf.


It's never too early  to learn about democracy, argues freelance United Kingdom journalist Ellie Levenson. (Graphic by Democratic Audit UK)

It’s never too early to learn about democracy, argues freelance United Kingdom journalist Ellie Levenson. (Graphic by Democratic Audit UK)

• Freelance United Kingdom journalist Ellie Levenson has successfully crowdfunded the creation of a book that will introduce toddlers to democracy. In a posting on Democratic Audit UK, Levenson states, “The plan is that this book will normalise turning out to vote so that children grow up thinking it is just something that everybody does. So that not voting is a conscious and deliberate decision (and hopefully one they don’t make) rather than voting being something you have to make an effort to do.”

• Calgary’s elected public school board members signed an agreement last month that they wouldn’t “speak to the media except as authorized by the board’s communications policy.” According to the Calgary Herald, the trustees also committed to avoid telling reporters “anything that might be misconstrued as business of the board.” Three of those officials have since asked for their names to be struck from the agreement. But there’s now differing statements over who initiated its drafting – the trustees or the board’s general counsel.

• The board of internal economy — which makes decisions about how money gets spent by Canada’s House of Commons members — claims it is “committed to increasing public understanding of its role.” But, according to the newspaper the Hill Times, the House’s top bureaucrat Audrey O’Brien has said that board shouldn’t hold any of its meetings in public. “I don’t consider them secret because the minutes are published and the decisions are published…but I think that if the meetings are public, to tell you the Gods honest truth, what would worry me is that that drives the actual discussion under ground.”

• The Economist’s Phillip Coggan argues, “The financial crisis has eroded the deal that underpinned democracy: that voters support politicians in return for greater prosperity.” Coggan acknowledges that system of government has also become too distant. Meanwhile, the war on terror has limited citizen rights and globalization has meant many decisions are outside of voters’ control. Nevertheless, Coggan writes, the “best quick remedy for democracy’s ills would be growth strong enough to bring down unemployment and boost real incomes, making voters more content.”

• The Supreme Court of Canada has unanimously struck down Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act, reports the Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons. At issue: in 2006, a union representing striking employees at an Edmonton casino recorded and photographed individuals who crossed its picket line. An adjudicator appointed by Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner concluded the union had run afoul of the province’s privacy legislation because it didn’t obtain the individuals’ consent. But the country’s top judges have ruled that fetter violated the union’s freedom of expression, giving the government 12 months to amend the law.


International poll finds surprising Canadian attitudes toward technocracies and dictatorships. (Graphic by World Values Survey)

International poll finds surprising Canadian attitudes toward technocracies and dictatorships. (Graphic by World Values Survey)

Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has been courting the country’s young voters. So it seems only appropriate that some of those same voters could be among the Canadians most likely to understand his controversial admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship.”

Here’s the reason: earlier, I mentioned that, in 2006, the World Values Survey asked 2,046 of us what we would think if Canada was led by a “strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.”

Surprisingly, 21.2 percent of respondents said having such a leader would be a very good or fairly good way of governing the country. But what’s even more surprising is almost 30 percent of the 404 respondents aged 15-29 years gave the same response.

Just over 48.5 percent of that age group also said having experts make political decisions rather than government would be a good way of running the country. By comparison, 39.4 percent of respondents from all age groups said the same thing.


NPR segment exposes the differences between American and Canadian journalism. (Graphic by On The Media)

NPR segment exposes the differences between American and Canadian journalism. (Graphic by On The Media)

• During an interview with NPR’s On The Media, Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank and Gawker deputy editor Tom Scocca discussed the differences between American and Canadian journalism and politics. The whole segment, in which Cruickshank and Scocca talk about their competing coverage of Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s crack use, is worth a listen. But this is a transcript of what I think is arguably the most interesting part of their conversation:

Cruickshank: It really is a different country. We are fighting for free speech. But it’s in a context of a society that does think differently from your typical American social setting. And that reflects the way people think and are. So, yes, I’m always looking for ways of importing American standards of fervour around free speech. But I do it in the context of a Canadian audience. And I realize that I can lose the reputation I have for trustworthiness if I push too far because it’s not a New York audience.

Scocca: And yet you have this guy as your mayor.

Cruickshank: No, exactly.

Scocca: As an armchair observer of Canadian politics and culture over the past few months, it seems to me that there’s probably a connection between right-thinking and good behaviour and the fact this monstrous thug of a bully was able to seize power and ride roughshod over everybody. In the land of the passive-aggressive, the truly aggressive is king.

• “Elections about nothing, parties reduced to leadership cults, the impotence of ordinary MPs, the irrelevance of our parliament, the near dictatorial power of the prime minister – if we were writing about a Third World country with a system like ours we would be careful, we media types, to refer to its largely ceremonial parliament and quote sham elections.” That’s the pith of National Post columnist Andrew Coyne‘s speech on “The Alarming State of Canadian Democracy,” delivered at the University of Calgary earlier this month and now available on YouTube.

• Alberta journalist Bob Edwards — who founded the legendary newspaper the Eye Opener in 1902 — has been described as “a social crusader, a champion of ‘the little guy,’ who worked tirelessly to expose graft and corruption.” So it’s surprising that, last week, an award named after him was given to controversial former newspaper baron Conrad Black. The vice-president of the Calgary Library Foundation – which hosts the Bob Edwards Award Gala – told the Calgary Herald that Black had a “viewpoint that our audience would want to hear.” Tickets to the black-tie event were $375. The award is meant to honour a “provocative Canadian who challenges convention.”

• “Before she was a candidate, she was a citizen who had freedom of speech, now she’s a PQ candidate and she must endorse the policies that were taken by the PQ government.” According to CJAD 800 AM, Quebec minister Bernard Drainville made that statement after shooting down comments by party candidate Tania Longpré that Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital should remove the word “Jewish” from its name and stop performing circumcisions.

• The British Columbia government, in response to a freedom of information request, released a 13-page report on what the risks would be if it routinely disclosed the calendars of ministers and deputy ministers. But the public won’t be finding out what those risks are anytime soon. That information was stripped from the report because it’s considered a cabinet confidence.


Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's admiration for China's "basic dictatorship" has attracted controversy. But that admiration is also deserving of further scrutiny for what it says about us as a people. (Photograph by Liberal Party of Canada)

Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship” has attracted controversy. But that admiration is also deserving of further scrutiny for what it says about us as a people. (Photograph by Liberal Party of Canada)

When Justin Trudeau said last week that he had a “level of admiration” for China’s “basic dictatorship,” the understandable knee-jerk reaction from some politicians and pundits was to kick the federal Liberal leader.

But while that gaffe was reprehensible, it was hardly incomprehensible given the structure of our own political system, the parties within it and how some Canadians feel about dictatorships.

Don’t misunderstand me: the extreme repressiveness of China’s government — with its fetters on rights, freedoms and expression — is indefensible and, I believe, foreign to our values.

But even at first blush, the temptations of a dictatorship for some Canadian politicians should be obvious.

For Trudeau, its a political system that he believes is allowing China to “turn their economy around on a dime and say ‘we need to go green fastest…we need to start investing in solar.”

It’s a system where a government and its leaders can potentially act without being frustrated by or even considering public opinion or political opposition.

That’s why it’s so seductive.

Nevertheless, in response to Trudeau’s statement — which was first reported by Sun News — NDP leader Thomas Muclair was quoted by the news outlet as saying, “I’m not a big fan of dictatorships. I rather prefer democracies. I don’t understand how someone can say that their favourite government was a dictatorship, frankly.”

But, frankly, I can’t understand how Mulcair — just one of many who piled on the Liberal leader — can’t understand that.

To be sure, the abuses that China’s government has inflicted on its own people have been denounced by governments and human rights advocates worldwide.

But we should also consider the defects and deficiencies of our own political system, which Mulcair and Trudeau are part of.

Canada’s leaders often enjoy extraordinary powers within their own parties — punishing dissent, rewarding loyalty, making decisions in private and expecting obedience in public.

For example, according to the Canadian Press, when NDP MPs Bruce Hyer and John Raferty voted to abolish the long-gun registry, interim party leader Nycole Turmel punished them.

Postmedia News described those punishments as being their removal from any critic roles or committee memberships, as well being muzzled from making statements or asking questions in the House of Commons.

Thanks to that kind of party discipline, majority governments enjoy extraordinary powers in Canada’s legislatures — circumscribed by the rule of law and regular elections.

Of course, there’s an extremely long march between the polite problems of our own political system and the brutality of China’s administration, which has tortured, jailed and executed dissidents rather than just suspending or expelling them from caucus.

Still, if Mulcair really can’t understand how someone can say that their favourite government was a dictatorship, he must not know how Canadians feel about that subject.

A case in point: in 2006, the World Values Survey found Canadians overwhelmingly believe it’s important the country is governed democratically.

But the survey’s 2,059 respondents were also asked, during in-home interviews, what they would think if experts — rather than the government — made the political decisions in this country.

Almost 40 percent said they thought it would be a very good or fairly good way of running Canada.

But, perhaps even more surprisingly, 21.2 percent gave the same response when asked about having a “strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.”

And that’s just counting those who answered the question honestly.

After all, if we were to be honest with one another, just how much of a democrat are you?

Would you cast aside public opinion and political opposition if it meant bringing into law a bill that would dramatically reduce pollution, crime, terrorism, unemployment or homelessness?

What happens when the will of the people compromises another principle you believe in?

Just how much of an admirer would you be of “basic dictatorship” then?


Ipsos Reid poll suggests consumer protection may trump democratic reform. (Graphic by Ipsos)

Ipsos Reid poll suggests consumer protection may trump democratic reform. (Graphic by Ipsos)

Recent polling from Ipsos Reid includes both good and bad news for those concerned about openness and accountability in Canada.

The online poll, which was released last Friday, asked 1,042 Canadians about seven potential federal government policy options and how each would influence their support for the Conservatives.

Five of those policies dealt with consumer issues. But respondents were also asked what would happen if the Harper administration required all parliamentarians to post their travel and office expenses online.

Ipsos Reid found that policy could be a big vote winner for the Tories, with 50 percent saying it would make them more likely to support Canada’s governing party.

That’s the same reaction the polling company got when it asked what would happen if the Harper administration passed a law requiring products sold in the United States and Canada to have the same price.

By comparison, respondents weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about the Harper administration giving individual MPs a greater say in how the country is run.

Just 30 percent said such a policy would make them more likely to support the Conservatives – the lowest vote-getter among the potential policies surveyed.

And eight percent would be less likely to support the Conservatives if MPs were given more power.

That suggests Canadian ballot box decisions may be more influenced by policies that impact their pocketbooks than their democratic rights.

Ipsos Reid conducted the survey between October 16-20 on behalf of CTV News.