Monthly Archives: June 2014


Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is looking toward giving Canadians more access to government information. (Photograph by MATT HEALY, Matt Healy Photography)

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is looking to give Canadians more access to government information. (Photograph by MATT HEALY, Matt Healy Photography)

THE SINS OF THE FATHER Pierre Trudeau’s government may well have balked at one of Justin Trudeau’s proposed fixes to our country’s broken freedom of information system.

Earlier this month, the younger Trudeau introduced a private member’s bill that would — among other measures — bolster the powers of the federal information commissioner.

Currently, the commissioner can review the government’s Access to Information Act decisions, such as whether it has improperly blacked out material in records requested using that law. But the commissioner has no power to order the government to disclose that material. Instead, such an order must come from the courts.

Trudeau’s private members bill would change that — although the government can ask the courts to review the commissioner’s orders.

But, when his father was in the prime minister’s office, the Liberals seemed to hold a different position.

In the years prior to the passage of the Access to Information Act, the party favoured legislation where cabinet ministers would have the final say on freedom of information decisions. No court appeal would have been possible — let alone a disclosure order from an information commissioner.

Indeed, even in the months prior to the Liberals introducing that Act, the Globe and Mail reported the Trudeau’s cabinet “had not yet decided whether judicial review will be applied in all cases where requests for Government documents are denied.”

But even the possibility of such a review hasn’t been enough to uphold Canadians’ information rights. So the younger Trudeau is now trying to patch up a legislative flaw created by his father’s secretive government.

“A SMALL CONSPIRACY” The Liberals are far from the first opposition party to promise more openness and accountability should they win power in the next election. It’s become a political trope of sorts. But journalists sometimes fail to mention just how often those promises remain unkept or are eventually broken when those parties form government.

In a 1978 column for the Globe and Mail, Geoffrey Stevens described that tendency as “a small conspiracy between the press and politicians.”

According to Stevens, “Opposition parties pretend that, if they were in power, they would do good things that the Government doesn’t want to do, because they are inconvenient or potentially troublesome, politically…For its part, the press pretends that, yes, the opposition parties would actually do these things, given the opportunity.”

But, he added, “We all know they probably wouldn’t, that (at the risk of being cynical) all parties act in much the same way in office.”

Stevens was specifically referring to then Opposition leader Joe Clark’s commitment to freedom of information.

Of course, Clark’s minority government did eventually introduce legislation in support of that principle. But it failed to pass Parliament before his Progressive Conservatives were defeated in the House of Commons.

Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government went on to bring into force a similar piece of legislation. But, since then, Canada’s governing politicians have too often worked against the public’s right to know — regardless of their pre-power promises.

GAG ORDERS ON A GLOBAL RISE? Earlier this year, Vancouver-based journalist Jeremy Hainsworth quoted media lawyer Dan Burnett as saying, “In the good old days, the media would fight anything that infringes freedom of the press.” But nowadays, sealing orders and closed courts are challenged “less and less” as a result of newsroom cutbacks — something that’s also appears to be happening in Down Under.

Here’s what Australian lawyer Peter Bartlett had to say in an interview with the Media Report‘s presenter Richard Aedy:

Bartlett: There’s been a significant increase, I think, in the number of suppression orders, especially in Victoria, over the last couple of years. And there seems to be a trend of an increase in New South Wales, despite the fact that there has been legislation introduced in New South Wales – and also Victoria — promoting open justice.

Aedy: So why is that the happening?

Bartlett: Potentially, it’s linked to the fact that the rivers of gold for traditional media have gone and the media companies are not appearing in court to oppose suppression orders to the degree they used to.

Aedy: Right. So even though there are specific laws in our two most populous states which should make it easier for media organizations to challenge suppression orders, they still have to be challenged and that has to be funded?

Bartlett: They still have to be challenged…

THE HIGH PRICE OF ADVERTISING In recent months, eyebrows have been raised about the new relationship being created between advertisers and some of our country’s major news publishers.

For example, the Vancouver’s Observer reported Postmedia Network Inc. was trying to convince Canada’s oil and gas lobby to sponsor energy “channels” on it’s newspaper Website.

Meanwhile, Canadaland obtained a memo that appears to confirm the Globe and Mail’s management “wants journalists to generate articles directly paid for and approved by advertisers.”

In a recent interview with Desmog Canada, I weighed in on that controversy, commenting that such initiatives may well erode “the social and political value of the content that media institutions are supposed to be producing.” You can read more here.

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: With summer upon us, my weekly look at news about the state of democracy, openness and accountability was interrupted for a well-deserved break. Weekend distribution of the column will now resume.


Daniel Therrien now guards the locks on Canadians' private information. But he's not the first to have been put in that position under a cloud of scandal. (Graphic by

Daniel Therrien now guards the locks on Canadians’ private information. But he’s not the first to have been put in that position under a cloud of controversy. (Graphic by

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF AT PRIVACY COMMISSIONER’S OFFICE The Harper administration’s selection of Daniel Therrien as Canada’s next privacy commissioner has been the subject of much understandable concern from critics and the country’s commentariat.

After all, Therrien, a former assistant deputy attorney general at the Department of Justice, will now be watchdogging government agencies he once advised and policies he helped develop.

But it’s worth remembering past appointments to that same post have stirred up comparable controversy.

For example, in 1991, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s ex-communications director Bruce Phillips was named privacy commissioner.

The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial boards opposed that hiring, with one of the capital city newspaper’s columnists arguing the commissioner must be a “standard-bearer not a spin doctor.”

Meanwhile, Liberal and New Democrat MPs described Phillips — who was once CTV News’s Ottawa bureau chief — as a “lap dog” and a “Tory hack,” voting against his appointment.

Nevertheless, after seven years, there was widespread opinion that Philips had done a good job — so much so that he was unanimously reappointed.

And, two years later, Phillips was described by the Globe and Mail’s Hugh Winsor as leaving his job “with stars on his epaulettes.”

His successor George Radwanski would depart under different circumstances.

Like Phillips, Radwanski was a former journalist.

But, like Phillips, he also had a partisan background, advising Liberal leaders John Turner and Jean Chretien when the Grits were in opposition.

And, like Phillips, his candidacy was questioned by the opposition and the press because of that background, with columnist Jim Travers writing that the privacy commissioner’s role should “not be diminished by real or imagined political conflicts.”

“While Radwanski, like Phillips before him, may succeed despite political ties, the government is needlessly risking the position’s most valuable asset, its credibility.”

Ultimately, it was questionable spending rather than partisanship that jeopardized that credibility, resulting in Radwanski’s resignation in 2003.

But, regardless of what Phillips and Radwanski’s records were as privacy commissioner and what Therrien’s will be — the shared controversy over their appointments demonstrates a long-ignored need to reconsider how that office is filled.

Indeed, during the flap over Phillips’s connection to Mulroney, the Globe and Mail reported Liberal senators were “considering the introduction of a bill to require consensus from all political parties when appointments are made to key parliamentary offices.”

Twenty-three years later, it’s still not too late to make that happen.

MERGER INTERRUPTUS? Last week, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek questioned whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper might merge the offices of Canada’s information and privacy commissioners — making Thierren responsible for both briefs.

But proposals for such a merger have failed in the past. In a 2005 report for then Attorney General Irwin Cotler, former Supreme Court justice Gérard La Forest summarized that history this way:

In 1985 and 1986, the idea of merging the two offices was considered by the parliamentary committee responsible for the three year statutory review of the [Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act]. The committee recommended that the offices be kept separate in order to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest in the discharge of the commissioners’ mandates.

In the 1992 budget, the Government announced an intention to merge the two offices as part of an effort to streamline government and “encourage a balancing of interests between the two objectives of privacy and access to information.”

The Government planned to use section 55 of the Privacy Act to appoint the Information Commissioner as Privacy Commissioner. Information Commissioner John Grace spoke in favour of the proposal.

The proposal was criticized, however, by a number of parties (including Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips, privacy advocates, and the Canadian Bar Association), and it was not implemented.

In the mid-1990’s, the Government considered the idea of merging the Information and Privacy Commissioners’ offices with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. This proposal too was ultimately rejected.

The Government returned to the idea of merging the Information and Privacy Commissioners’ offices in 1998, but again no action was taken.

In 2001, an ad hoc parliamentary access to information committee recommended the merger of the two offices, but the government did not respond publicly to the proposal.

Lastly, in October 2003, Information Commissioner John Reid authored a position paper advocating the merger of the two offices. The Government, however, did not move forward on this proposal.

La Forest also recommended against such a merger. So, if Harper did consider combining the information and privacy commissioners’ offices, the weight of history would be strongly against him.

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


Does the federal government care if it doesn't know what Canadian values are? (Photograph by

Does the federal government care if we don’t know what Canadian values are? (Photograph by

OTTAWA SAYS IT’S COMMITTED TO RESEARCH DESPITE NOT FUNDING VITAL SURVEY Three federal government departments decided not to fund the latest round of the World Values Survey in Canada because they dedicated their research budget to “other priority areas.”

Earlier, I exclusively reported the absence of such funding meant our country wasn’t among the 59 countries included in that round — one of the few means we have of knowing what our current values are, how we differ from people in other countries and whether those values have changed over time.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Justice Canada and Canadian Heritage were among the departments that financed the survey’s last wave, which took place in 2005.

Justice contributed $22,150, while Heritage contributed $85,000 to allow the survey’s Canadian investigator Neil Nevitte to “explore social capital and values, including the World Values Survey.”

By comparison, Citizenship and Immigration did not disclose the amount of funding it provided. However, spokesperson for Statistics Canada, which provided $1.4 million for the survey’s Canadian component between 1998 and 2006, stated the department approached it about providing additional financing for the 2010 round. That approach was declined.

There have been concerns that the lack of World Values Survey data for Canada will mean more policy decisions will be made in a “vacuum” and create a “huge hole” for socio-political research.

Government spokespeople didn’t directly respond to a question about those concerns.

Instead, communications staff for the three departments I contacted stated their ministries remain “committed to research and meeting the needs of Canadians today.”

Justice Canada and Citizenship and Immigration Canada will be relying “on many sources of information” to inform their policy development and program delivery work

Meanwhile, Canadian Heritage has “identified other research priorities to inform performance measurement and policy and program development.”

Nevitte, a University of Toronto political scientist, earlier estimated the cost of gathering the data for the 2010 Canadian component of the World Values Survey would have been around $650,000.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER Earlier, I reported the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying appeared to have passed on participating in a review of lobbying disclosure in Canada. But the office now says it will be making a late contribution to that study, which was already published by the Sunlight Foundation on May 5.

The study stated the United States-based foundation did not receive any response to written questions that had been sent to the commissioner’s office, despite “multiple follow ups.”

However, in an email, a spokesperson for the office stated it is now “in the process of finalizing its response to the Sunlight Foundation. It is the Office’s understanding that its responses will be added to the case study when received.”

THE OVERSTATED POWER OF THE PRESS “Don’t put anything on paper that you don’t want to read on the front page of the Vancouver Sun.” That was the advice I got as a communications advisor for the British Columbia government — versions of which, I suspect, are given to bureaucrats the world over.

But I was always surprised at how much didn’t end up on the front page of the Vancouver Sun. And, as a reporter, I was always frustrated about how difficult it was to get the papers bureaucrats were writing. Which is why I appreciate famed leaker Daniel Ellsberg‘s observation that this adage is “flatly false” — a lie that serves the self-interests of those who were in newsrooms and government.

In his 2002 bestselling memoir Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers — which, given Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning’s revelations, has become more relevant than ever — Ellsberg states, such truisms are “in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well.”

“Of course eventually many secrets do get out that wouldn’t in a fully totalitarian society,” continues Ellsberg. But “the reality unknown to the public and to most members of Congress and the press is that secrets that would be of the greatest important to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders.”

As such, the statement, “Don’t put anything that you don’t want to read on the front page of the (insert paper of record here)” may simply ensure circumspect record-keeping on the part of bureaucrats, an overstated sense of efficacy on the part of journalists and continued public complacence about the amount of transparency and accountability in our political system.

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