Monthly Archives: May 2014


How do the values of all these people compare to those in other countries? Without the World Values Survey, we might not know. (Photograph by

How do the values of all these people compare to those in other countries? Without the World Values Survey, we might not know. (Photograph by

As a result of a lack of federal government funding, Canada wasn’t included in the most recent World Values Survey — one of the few means we have of knowing what our values are, how we differ from people in other countries and whether those values have changed over time.

The survey — which uses individual, face-to-face interviews rather than phone calls — has happened six times over the past 33 years, with the most recent being conducted in 59 different countries. Respondents answer a questionnaire that measures nearly 250 indicators covering everything from someone’s feelings about race to their political leanings.

In the past, the survey has included Canada, with 2,164 Canadian respondents in 2005 and 1,931 in 2000.

Because of that work, we know, for example, that 14 percent of Canadians in 2005 said they wouldn’t like someone who was gay to be their neighbour. By comparison, 24.9 percent of Americans said the same thing.

Past surveys have also told us 64 percent of Canadians in 2005 would have agreed or strongly agreed to an increase in taxes if the extra money was used to prevent environmental pollution — an seven point increase over 2000.

And we know 16.8 percent of Canadians in 2005 agreed or strongly agreed that politicians who don’t believe in God are unfit for public office, compared 30.5 percent of Americans.

Findings such as these are valuable for everyone from journalists and researchers to politicians and everyday voters — potentially leading to stories, studies and policy-changes. But Canadians won’t know if those values or any others changed between 2010-14 because our country — which has been part of the survey since 2000 — wasn’t included in its most recent wave, the results of which were released late last month.

University of Toronto political science professor Neil Nevitte, the investigator in charge of the survey’s Canadian component, stated the money for that research previously came from a number of federal government departments, as well as Statistics Canada.

“Each had very good reasons for wanting these kinds of cross time data for policy reasons,” Nevitte wrote in an email.

According to Nevitte, the cost of gathering the data for the new survey would have been around $650,000. That data gathering would have included hour-long, in-person interviews with 1,500 Canadians and additional interviews with 600 new immigrants.

But Nevitte stated, “In the last round, the members of that [government] consortium faced cutbacks of one sort or another and, in the end, we could not put the team together. Not an unusual story. But truly a shame from many, many points of views.”

Indeed, University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston said the absence of the World Values Survey will result in a “huge hole.”

“It means anything we have to say [about political and social values] will be stale to the tune of at least a decade. We won’t have current stuff,” said Johnston, the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation.

As a result, he continued, more public policy decisions will be made in a “vacuum.”

“It’s akin to why the Canadians should care about the long form census,” said Johnston, a reference to the Conservative government’s 2010 decision to replace it with a voluntary national household survey, which is less comprehensive and reliable.

Keith Neuman, executive director of The Environics Institute — a non-profit public opinion research group — echoed Johnston’s comments.

Neuman said the absence of the World Values Survey is another example of where “research that has been historically present and important in terms of how we understand who we are and how we fit into an international context is all going missing.”

He said such research is important because it doesn’t come “through the sometimes distorted lens of the media and special interests.”

Nevitte stated he is currently in the process of trying to secure funding so Canada is included in the World Values Survey’s next round. That round is scheduled to get underway in 2017 with the data being released in 2018 or 2019.

Several federal government departments were unable to respond by deadline to requests for comment placed on Friday last week.


Voters are engaged by a good political fight, according to new research. (Photograph by

Voters are engaged by a good political fight, according to new research. (Photograph by

IS THERE SUCH A THING AS BEING TOO POLITE? The past four years have seen two failed attempts by MPs to reform question period — both of which included measures that would have resulted in more decorum in the House of Commons. But new research suggests future would-be reformers might want to be careful they don’t bring too much civility to our legislatures.

In an article for Democratic Audit UK, former New Zealand political advisor and University of Michigan political science professor Rob Salmond writes that his data shows, “More spontaneous, combative question times are associated with higher levels of voter turnout, deeper partisan attachments, and higher levels of political knowledge. These relationships hold even when accounting for many other factors known to affect political engagement.”

By comparison, according to Salmond, “More ‘serious’ question times, often featuring longer questions and answers that can all be prepared in advance, do relatively little to promote public political engagement.” Although they likely result in less bruised-feelings on the part of politicians.

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE Canada’s information commissioner Suzanne Legault has long-wanted the legal power to raise public awareness about the Access to Information Act. But archival material recently posted online by her office provides a reminder that she isn’t the only one to have put that power on a wish list.

For example, in her very first annual report, Canada’s first information commissioner Inger Hansen wrote that “one of the most serious problems” with the Act was Canadians’ lack of understanding of it.

Hansen appeared to blame the government for lack of understanding, writing that a “press conference was held when the Act came into effect but no other announcements or explanations have been disseminated to the public.”

But the commissioner stated she couldn’t pick up that slack because her office didn’t have the authority to “actively engage in public education and no funds will be allocated for such activities.”

Nevertheless, Hansen recommended, “Either the government, or the Commissioner, should actively inform the public of the meaning of the Act, the rights it grants to individuals and the importance of those rights in a modern democratic society.”

HOPES GO ASTRAY In that first annual report, Hansen withheld judgement of the Access to Information Act — even though contemporaries had described the legislation as “no good,” “a big disappointment” and a “farce.” But she was more forthcoming in her final annual report, published six years later.

Mirroring modern concerns about the Act, Hansen wrote that she remains convinced “the political will in support of freedom of information could be stronger,” “the bureaucratic resistance to freedom of information could be weaker” and that “the tendency to withhold government information should give way to attitudes favouring its disclosure.”

MIC CHECK What is the future of the news industry? How are reporters being impacted by the absence of data and information in Canada? Does our country have a lazy citizenry?

Those are just some the questions I pondered last week while speaking with Paul Holmes and John Juricic, the hosts of John, Paul and Mic. It’s a new Victoria-based weekly podcast covering “ideas, discussions and innovations in politics, technology and society.”

You can check out that episode here.

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


Mandatory voting might make our democracy look better on paper. But it might not make our democracy better in practice. (Photograph by

Mandatory voting might make our democracy look better on paper. But it might not make our democracy better in practice. (Photograph by

THINK BEFORE YOU VOTE? Last week, the National Post’s Andrew Coyne argued in favour of mandatory voting. The reason: “‘majority’ governments are now formed in this country with the support of barely one in five adult citizens” resulting in a “crisis of democratic legitimacy.” But while such a measure would undoubtedly increase turnout at the polls, it may do little else.

The results of a 2007 experiment published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science and conducted by Université de Montréal political scientists suggests compulsory voting may have little or no effect of political knowledge or engagement.

And if our electorate continues to be uninformed and unengaged — as indicated by a recent survey commissioned by Samara — how much more legitimate will our majority governments be if voter turnout increases? On paper, the answer would be quite a lot. But in actuality, the answer may be very little. After all, how much more legitimate is a government elected by the ignorant than a government elected by a minority? And if we try to paper over that lack of legitimacy, whose interests are we really serving?

A new book surveys Canada's surveillance systems. (Graphic by Athabasca University Press)

A new book surveys Canada’s surveillance systems. (Graphic by Athabasca University Press)

UNKNOWN KNOWNS Our weak access to information laws mean Canadians can often find out very little about our country’s public and private institutions. But those institutions do find out a lot of information about us.

Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada — which is available as a free ebook, as well as in paperback — takes a look at why and how that surveillance is expanding.

The book — edited by University of Victoria political science professor Colin Bennett, University of Alberta sociology professor Kevin Haggerty, Queen’s University sociology professor David Lyon and University of Ottawa criminology professor Valerie Steeves — was launched earlier this month at an event in Ottawa.

IT’S A CELEBRATION! Who’s your favourite actor? What’s your favourite movie? Who’s your favourite writer? These kinds of questions are common during dinner parties, first dates and all manner of casual conversation. That’s because most people can answer to them. And I suspect it’s one of the reasons why there are so many festivals celebrating films and books.

Cartoonist Dan Murphy was among those who took part in J-Fest. (Image by Dan Murphy)

Cartoonist Dan Murphy was among those who took part in J-Fest. (Graphic by Dan Murphy)

But who’s your favourite reporter? What’s your favourite investigative news story? Who’s your a favourite columnist? I suspect not many Canadians have answers to those questions. It’s one of the reasons why I organized J-Fest this past weekend at the Canadian Association of Journalists annual convention. It was a public event where documentary filmmaker Damien Gillis, Michener Award-winning reporter Lindsay Kines and former Province columnist Dan Murphy spoke about their work and why it matters.

Approximately 40 people showed up to J-Fest, which was covered by The Tyee, the Georgia Straight and Vancouver Coop Radio’s Media Mornings. You can read also read J-Source’s live blog of that event here. But I think we’re going to need a lot more of these kinds of events and a lot more of this kind of coverage in the future.

After all, according to the Canadian Election Study, 55.7 percent of the 1,567 respondents who completed its mail back survey in 2011 said they have little or no confidence in the media. The quality of the work we sometimes produce can partially explain that lack of confidence. But journalists also don’t do enough to explain the value of the quality work we do produce.

Now that media advertising revenues are declining, we need to change that. Because the same people who say they have little or no confidence in the media are the same people we need to start paying for our work. And if that’s doesn’t happen, the shrouded future of journalism will look even darker than it does right now.

EXPLORING THE UNKNOWABLE COUNTRY Over the past few months, I’ve been assembling a list of Canadians who tweet about openness and accountability issues from a principally non-partisan perspective. That curated list also includes people and groups from other parts of the Anglosphere who are concerned about those issues. It’s part of a small attempt to further encourage more discussion about openness and transparency — which are often seen as only being of interested to a select few rather than of importance to the masses of the many. I welcome you to subscribe to that list on the twitter and email me any suggested additions.

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: To increase readability, I’ll be including subheads in forthcoming editions of The Week That Was. I’ll also be using more specific headlines to encourage sharing on social media.


Americans and the citizens of 30 other countries have better access to government information than Canadians do, according to a new study. (Photograph by

Americans and the citizens of 30 other countries have better access to government information than Canadians do, according to a new study. (Photograph by

• Canadians’ access to information doesn’t compare favourably to some other countries, according to the latest Sustainable Governance Indicators survey. In 2011, that survey ranked Canada 13th among 32 nations in an evaluation of our media independence, diversity and access to government information. And now we’re 26th among 41 countries evaluated in the 2014 survey.

The 2014 survey also found we have less access to government information than the five other Anglosphere countries. When that access was measured on a scale of one to ten, New Zealand and the United States scored a nine, while Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom scored an eight. By comparison, Canada scored a six. That puts us in the same company as Croatia, Hungary, Japan, Luxembourg and Mexico.

• The United States’s Sunlight Foundation recently conducted a review of lobbying disclosure in Canada. But the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying didn’t seem to want to participate in that study.

The Sunlight Foundation — which has won awards for its work promoting government accountability — wanted to talk to the commissioner’s office as part of the review. After all, it’s the agency that administers Canada’s lobbying disclosure law. But, after “submitting questions in written form at their request, [the foundation] did not receive any response. Multiple follow ups did not yield results.”

The foundation’s study — which I was interviewed for — found “generally positive views” of lobbying disclosure in Canada, with a few caveats.

• One of the supposed benefits for MPs in Conservative backbencher Michael Chong’s proposed Reform Act is that it would take away the final say our party leaders have on who gets to run under their political banner and who doesn’t.

But I’ve often questioned the value of that benefit, given the myriad of other means those leaders have to manipulate the nomination battles that determine whose name makes it onto the ballot sheet – something I saw during my university years as a member of the Liberal Party of Canada.

In fact, the Hill Times brought some of those other means into relief last week, reporting, “If a party is not happy with an MP because he or she has not been a ‘team player,’ then party officials manipulate the [nomination] rules against that MP or stay neutral depending on if they want to get rid of that MP or merely teach them a lesson.”

The newspaper also reported, “Parties sometimes also disqualify candidates on technicalities, reject applications without giving any pertinent reasons to would-be candidates, and retroactively change the cut-off dates for newly-signed membership forms.”

But former MPs who spoke with the Hill Times said “most of the unsuccessful candidates do not speak out publicly because they don’t want to burn their bridges with the party or for their comments to be perceived as sour traps.”

Chong has told the Huffington Post that his bill “should receive its first vote at second reading either in mid-June or in late September.”

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: Due to my duties as co-chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists annual convention, distribution of my weekly look at news about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada was delayed. Weekend distribution of the column will resume next week.


The lack of freedom of information in Canada is just one of many topics that will be discussed at the Canadian Association of Journalists annual convention. (Graphic by Canadian Association of Journalists)

The lack of freedom of information in Canada is just one of many topics that will be discussed at the Canadian Association of Journalists annual convention. (Graphic by Canadian Association of Journalists)

When journalists complain about Canada’s freedom of information system, we often fault its costs, the currency of the responses we receive, as well as their completeness.

After all, it’s not uncommon to be asked to pay hundreds of dollars to process a request, wait months for a response and receive pages and pages of blanked out records. But these are mere symptoms of the disease plaguing Canada’s freedom of information system — a disease whose causes can be traced to the political and social culture of this country.

I’ll be speaking more about that issue tomorrow afternoon with former Vancouver Sun managing editor Kirk LaPointe at the Canadian Association of Journalists annual convention, which gets underway today in Vancouver. You can tune in here on Saturday at 3:15 to follow the live blog of that workshop.

In addition, I’ll be hosting J-Fest on Friday evening at 7:00. It’s a celebration of the some of the best reporting in British Columbia, with Times Colonist’s Lindsay Kines, former Province editorial cartoonist Dan Murphy and Fractured Land filmmaker Damien Gillis giving the stories behind the stories they covered or opined on. Tickets to the event, which takes place at the Holiday Inn Vancouver Downtown, are $5 at the door.


Some Canadians speak no evil about the Conservative Party of Canada's broken promises to strengthen access to information. (Photograph by

Some Canadians appear to have neither seen nor heard any evil about the Conservative Party of Canada’s much publicized secrecy. (Photograph by

• The Harper administration has been repeatedly criticized by the press and the opposition for its secrecy — despite its commitment to strengthen public access to government information.

Nevertheless, according to an opinion poll conducted by Nanos Research for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, just 36 percent of those polled disagreed with the statement that we have “more access to government information now then they ever had before.”

Meanwhile, 18 percent somewhat disagreed with that statement, while 43 percent agreed or somewhat agreed with it. The telephone poll, which surveyed 1,000 Canadians, was conducted between March 6-12 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

• Canada’s NDP has “practical proposals” to improve government transparency and accountability, according to a news release distributed last month. But many of those proposals and their details have yet to be revealed.

During a news conference last month, the NDP — which earlier introduced a bill to strengthen Canada’s Access to Information Act — also committed to develop a standard that will be used to proactively release government research and data.

In an interview, NDP MP and Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat compared that commitment to “what Obama did when he first came to power.” That’s a reference to United States President Barack Obama’s open government initiative, in which he promised to work to “ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.”

Ravignat said the NDP doesn’t yet know what that proactive disclosure standard will look like “because what we were launching is the consultation process to come up with those standards with stakeholders in civil society and experts on data, as well as access to information.”

Ravignant also said that standard is “only one part of an entire open government package that we’ll be rolling out in the months ahead. There’s stuff on whistleblowers that we’ll be announcing and a few other pieces to enhance the transparency and accountability of government writ large.”

Such commitments are common among opposition parties and new governments but are also commonly broken. For example, the Obama administration has been criticized as being the most secretive presidency in American history.

Asked why Canadians should trust the NDP to act on its commitment to transparency and accountability Ravignant acknowledged, “That’s kind of the $100 million question.”

But he said his party has a track record of being a “strong principle voice” and is presently made up of “the least amount of career politicians ever elected in a single caucus in Canadian history.”

Moreover, Ravignant said NDP leader Tom Mulcair “came on record to say we would have an open data by default government so we can certainly keep him to his word. Canadians can keep him to his word for sure. And I think he’s proven to be a pretty principled individual.”

• Earlier, I mentioned how the United Kingdom has an annual audit of political engagement but Canada doesn’t — even though our country’s voter turnout plunged to 58.8 percent in 2008. But thanks to Samara, a Toronto-based charitable organization focused on improving political participation, that’s going to change later this year. This week, in a blog posting, the group mentioned its Samara Index — an open data tool measuring key areas of Canadian democracy — will be rolled out in November 2014.

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: Due to end of semester commitments at Mount Royal University, I was unable to publish last week’s look at news about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada.