Monthly Archives: October 2014


The title information commissioner doesn't make many headlines. (Photograph by

The title information commissioner doesn’t make many headlines. (Photograph by

PRIVACY GETS BIGGER BILLING THAN FOI In Canada’s provinces and territories, a single official is responsible for protecting the public’s information rights, as well as their privacy rights. But even when those officials are talking about information rights, some headline writers only refer to them as “privacy commissioners” or “privacy watchdogs.”

According to my count, there have been at least 84 such headlines published between 2003 and the present. For example, on August 15, the Globe and Mail reported British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner would be looking into whether the provincial government should have told the public about the state of the Mount Polley Mine prior to the collapse of its tailings pond. But even though that story has little to do with privacy rights, it appeared in print under the headline “Privacy watchdog launches mine probe.”

By comparison, I only found 40 headlines between 2003 and the present that referred to those watchdogs using a title that was about their information rights protecting responsibilities. And that makes me wonder what impact this difference is having on how the public views privacy versus access issues.*

LEGAL BILLS ABOVE FOI LAW? British Columbia’s justice minister doesn’t think the public should have a right to know what lawyers working for the government are making. During an interview on the public affairs show Voice of BC, the minister, Suzanne Anton, was asked by BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek if her administration would stop blocking the release of that kind of information. Her response: “When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.” The following is a complete transcript of that segment, which include show host Vaughn Palmer.

Gogolek: Minister, we’ve been hearing a rising number of complaints from FOI requesters who are trying to get information on how much lawyers or law firms are charging the government and the usual excuse is that somehow either handing over invoices or sometimes even just the total amount billed would violate solicitor-client privilege. Will you commit your government to stop blocking the release of this kind of information?

Anton: When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.

Palmer: What about total billings by a law firm for a prominent case like the BCTF case? Is the public entitled to know what the government has spent fighting the teachers’ union in court all these years?

Anton: I think it’s a complicated question because there’s government lawyers – it’s mainly government lawyers on that case. As a matter of fact, there’s one outside counsel right now. These are not things that are generally released.

Palmer: Well, I think the public’s entitled to know something like that don’t you?

Anton: I think it’s a very interesting case and we will see where it gets to. But in terms of the bills we have policy in legal services that we follow.

THE CLOSED DOOR CLUB Why do so many Canadian politicians appear to feel so comfortable making decisions out of the public eye?

In a letter published in the North Shore News earlier this month, retiring North Vancouver district councillor Alan Nixon suggested this rationale: “I, along with many others, believe effective and efficient administration and stewardship of the taxpayers’ best interest is more important than whether the meeting gets held in-camera or in the council chamber.”

Nixon was responding to an earlier column by former councillor Trevor Carolan, who criticized how much of the district’s public business has been happening in private.

According to Carolan, in 2013, “a total of 22 regular council meetings equalled 49 hours of open business; 47 closed meetings resulted in 81 hours of closed door sessions.

But Nixon has wrote, “The meetings that have been ‘secret’ or ‘in-camera’ have been fully justified under the rules which we operate, namely the Local Government Act and the Community Charter.”

THE POWER OF THE PSA The Inter American Press Association has passed a resolution calling on governments in the Americans to tell citizens about their information rights — something our own federal access watchdog can’t do. As I earlier reported, Canada’s first information commissioner wrote about the need to raise public awareness about those rights back in 1984. But, 30 years later, the current commissioner Suzanne Legault still doesn’t have that authority.

THE TRUTH AS A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE If religion is the opiate of the masses, is freedom of information their stimulant? That’s what Josh Gordon, state political editor for the Australian newspaper The Age, has suggested in his latest column. Writing about an attempt to withhold records about ambulance response time for people having heart attacks, Gordon states that information in the State of Victoria ‘is all too often treated as a dangerous drug, to be carefully meted out in controlled doses. Get the dose wrong and it might provoke an outbreak of ‘unnecessary debate.’ God forbid.”


• American authorities told American journalists the name of Parliament Hill shooter Michael Joseph Zehaf-Bibeau long before Canadian authorities released the same information. According to Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell, that may be an example of the “difference in fundamental philosophies about democracy” between the two countries. (hat tip: David Mayhood)

• A request by Prince Edward Island’s information commissioner for more government money prompts Holland College journalism instructor Rick MacLean to write, “There are many ways to hide things. Underfunding those who hold you to account is one.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Calgary Herald reports a care home provider is trying to block the release of records that would tell the public how much money it makes from its contract with the Alberta government. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Embassy’s Carl Meyer covers his frustrating experience filing access requests for information about Canada’s relationship with Vietnam.

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

* = I searched the Canadian Newsstand database for headlines that included the words “privacy commissioner,” “privacy watchdog,” “privacy ombudsman,” “privacy ombudsperson,” “privacy officer” and “privacy review officer” above stories that included the words “freedom of information” or FOI. I also searched the same database for headlines that included the words “information commissioner,” “info commissioner,” “information watchdog,” “info watchdog,” “FOI commissioner,” “FOI watchdog,” “information ombudsman,” “info ombudsman,” “info formation ombudsperson,” “information ombudsperson,” “information review officer,” “info review officer,” “information officer” and “info officer.” But I excluded from that later search stories that included the names of federal access commissioners Suzanne Legault, John Reid or Robert Marleau.


Should our right to be unknown trump our right to know? (Graphic by Privacy and Access Council of Canada)

Should our right to be unknown trump our right to know? (Graphic by Privacy and Access Council of Canada)

Does our narcissistic obsession with privacy compromise our information freedoms? That’s one of the questions I’ll be addressing Friday morning at the National Privacy and Data Governance Congress in Calgary. I’ll be sharing the stage with former Canwest News Service national columnist Catherine Ford and social media influencer Lori Ruff during a panel discussion entitled “Exposing Secrets: Privacy Ethics and the Media.”



Scientists aren't the only ones being muzzled by the government. (Photograph by

The ability of government scientists to speak out has been under a media microscope. But what about all the other bureaucrats who are being muzzled? (Photograph by

THE SELECTIVE SOUND OF SILENCE? When it comes to the silencing of federal employees, government scientists seem to be most popular kids on the block.

According to Canadian Newsstand, phrases about the muzzling of those scientists have appeared in newspapers and wire services included in that database at least 280 times since the 2002 election.

But other government workers are also gagged, equally compromising Canadians right to know.

Nevertheless, similar phrases about their silencing have appeared appeared just 63 times over the same period.*

MORE POWER FOR THE FEW The federal government’s proposed new copyright law amendment could further fortify the power political parties have in comparison to other civil society groups.

Unlike charities and non-profits, those parties can engaged in unrestricted political activities and issue a tax receipt when Canadians donate to them.

The Tory’s proposed copyright law amendment could increase that advantage by allowing parties to use news content for their advertising without permission.

But, given the fact that a 2006 study estimated just one to two percent of Canadians belong to a political party on a year-to-year basis, one wonders whether all that power is deserved.

WHEN THE PRIVATE SHOULD BE PUBLIC Canada’s freedom of information law doesn’t allow the public access to disciplinary records about public servants. But that’s not always the case in the United States.

In an editorial complaining about Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act — which allows for a similar kind of shielding  — the Daily Press writes, “Other states require disclosure of this information.”

“Consider Montana, where the Supreme Court said, ‘The public has a clear and unambiguous right to know the information involved in the internal investigation of a public employee for any alleged violation of any policy, law or rule.’”

As such, the paper is urging those reviewing the Virginia’s sunshine law “to pay special attention to the personnel exemption that effectively enables” bad behaviour on the part of public officials.

Perhaps Canadians should be arguing the same thing?

* = I searched Canadian Newsstand for the phrases “gagging,” “gagged” “muzzling,” “muzzled,” “silencing” and “silenced” next to the words scientists, bureaucrats, public servants, civil servants, government employees and government workers. I limited the search to stories that included the words Harper or federal government. I then removed stories about other governments, as well as bestseller lists mentioning Chris Turner’s book The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada.

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


The potential sale of Sun Media's English-language newspapers will be a big blow to media competition and quality. (Graphic by Quebecor Media Inc.)

The potential sale of Sun Media’s English-language newspapers will be a big blow to media competition and quality. (Graphic by Quebecor Media Inc.)

Quebecor Media Inc.’s potential sale of its 175 English-language dailies may be good news for buyer Postmedia Network Canada Corp. But, in interviews yesterday with CBC’s Calgary Eyeopener, CBC’s As It Happens, CBC News Calgary, CTV Calgary and DeSmog Canada, I argued it will likely be a bad news for Canadians.

Here’s the pith of my argument: first, if the $316 million sale is approved by the Competition Bureau, one company will be able to dictate editorial direction to almost every major urban daily in country. Even if that power isn’t used, the possibility of abuse is enough to give pause to anyone concerned about democracy and debate in Canada.

Second, despite Postmedia president and chief executive officer Paul Godfrey’s assurances, this deal will likely result in layoffs and newsroom closures, further reducing the resources the fourth estate has to hold power to account in this country.

And third, the birthing of such a behemoth will almost certainly push the already endangered beat of media criticism to the brink of extinction. After all, the number of journalists willing to risk future employment by criticizing the country’s largest newspaper chain would be few and far between.


#cdnfoi wasn't the only hashtag under consideration. (Graphic by Will Brown)

#cdnfoi wasn’t the only hashtag under consideration. (Graphic by Will Brown)

The campaign to encourage Canadians to tag stories about government secrecy with #cdnfoi on twitter has so far been a success.

According to the service Hashtracking, from September 17 to 24, there were just 79 tweets using that tag. But between September 25, the day before that campaign was officially launched, and October 2, there were 1,018. That’s almost 13 times more.

#cdnfoi usage between September 5 and October 5 (Graphic by Hashtrack)

#cdnfoi usage between September 5 and October 5. (Graphic by Hashtrack)

But what made us decide to promote #cdnfoi , which was originally created by former Canadian Press deputy Ottawa bureau chief Dean Beeby, over another hashtag?

Well, here’s the list of the other options that were under consideration by the campaign’s sponsors —  the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists, IntegrityBC and DeSmog Canada  — as well as why they weren’t selected.

#ATIP This abbreviation for access to information and privacy is common at the federal level but not at the provincial level.

ATIP, which is sometimes used as a hashtag for “a tip,” also refers to requests for information under two pieces of legislation: the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.

By comparison, the principle of freedom of information is about more than that, encompassing the need for policies such as open meetings and less restrictive media relations policies.

Moreover, there has been some controversy over the federal Access to Information Act not being named the Freedom of Information Act. In a 2001 article published in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, former MP John Bryden wrote:

…the Canadian government has never stated that it believes in [the principle that the public’s right to know is superior to whatever right to privacy public officials might have]. Indeed, it has prevaricated by the very choice of name for its freedom of information legislation: Access to Information Act. It is a cautious title, used only by Canada, Hong Kong and South Africa. It implies that people are entitled to government information but the government has no responsibility to provide it.

#FOI This abbreviation for freedom of information is common at the provincial level. But foi is also the word for faith in French and is sometimes used as a hashtag by speakers of that language.

#CDNRTK This abbreviation for Canadian right to know has the advantage of being about a powerful principle. But RTK isn’t a common abbreviation, nor is RTI, which stands for right to information.