What started out as a British Columbia government attempt to defend the job its communication staff do has, ironically, ended up demonstrating the weakness of the province’s freedom of information law, as well as how those officials can work against the public’s right to know.
Earlier this year, I wrote an open letter about how such staffers often don’t respond or give non-responses to the questions reporters ask. They also advise elected officials to do the same thing, as well as restrict access to bureaucrats who actually have answers.
That cross-Canada issue was then covered by three radio shows, including Daybreak South. The Kelowna, B.C.-based CBC program succeeded in getting Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for British Columbia’s spin doctors, to agree to an interview.
Following that interview, on Feb. 27, I filed a freedom of information request for all of the communications materials prepared for that appearance.
The government responded 49 business days later.
That’s 19 days longer than the legal time limit, even though there were only nine pages to release.
Of those pages, four were simply a copy of my open letter and a transcript of an earlier interview I had done with Daybreak South.
The remainder featured communication advice for Wilkinson, including a recommendation that he should “point to [his] own recent examples of media availability, comments and interviews” during his appearance on the program.
In fact, that’s exactly what the minister did when host Chris Walker told him “every single reporter” he’d spoken with over the past week had had difficulty getting answers from the government.
“Having spoken with probably 25 reporters so far this week, I find it a little confusing when they say they don’t have access to us. You know, I talk to them on a daily basis,” said Wilkinson.
“And, as I say, I’ve got a list here in front of me of encounters with Daybreak South in the last few months on a whole range of issues that were dealing directly with ministry staff people.”
That list, which was part of the advice provided to the minister, also named provincial bureaucrats who had done interviews with other news outlets.
But most of those interviews were about politically uncontroversial subjects. And, as Walker pointed out, “What you don’t have is all the times we’ve been rejected for interviews.”
Instead, what Wilkinson did have was government communications-approved responses that anticipated many of Walker’s other questions. I say responses, because that doesn’t mean they were spin-less answers.
Indeed, at one point during their conversation, Walker said, “Doesn’t this interview sort of illustrate our point: that when we try to ask questions we get instead a series of talking points and examples that suite your argument. This kind of illustrates the problem we have, don’t you think?”
Appropriately, Wilkinson responded, “No, I think it kind of points out you’re, perhaps, misperceiving this issue” before returning to his talking points – which, equally appropriately, were sent to me two months after the interview, at a time when most of the audience will have already forgotten about it.
The following is a complete copy of those records.
• It was a big week for the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. The association released its sixth annual review of freedom of expression in Canada, which included a look at our country’s “crippled” access to information system. The report gave that system a failing grade and published the results of a poll showing 79 percent of those surveyed think improving government openness and access to information is personally important to them.
• The association also hosted Flying Blind, a conference at Ryerson University in Toronto looking at the “current challenges to creating, accessing, and sharing information in Canada, and work to create a path forward.” J-Source live blogged the first and third panels of that conference.
• Embassy’s Carl Meyer tweets that the federal Conservative’s omnibus budget bill will retroactively revoke Canadians’ ability to file an access request for long gun registry data. In a subsequent article, iPolitics quotes access lawyer Michel Drapeau as saying, “We shouldn’t go out and purge records because we changed our mind or we don’t believe in what it is. I find that wrong and I find it is like robbing part of our collective and national memory and to what purpose.”
• The Canadian Press reports NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus filed an order paper question asking about the process the government followed to ensure an individual meets the constitutional residency requirements for appointment to the Senate. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra refused, stating, “The government does not comment on matters before the courts.” That’s a reference to “fraud, bribery and breach of trust trial of Mike Duffy, where the suspended senator’s qualifications to represent Prince Edward Island when he lived primarily in Ottawa is a pivotal issue.”
• The Globe and Mail reports that, due to lousy data, researchers had difficulty creating a Canadian version of a New York Times report showing “where Americans are healthy and wealthy, or struggling.” (hat tip: Laura Tribe)
• The Tyee reports, “Canadians will have to wait until the end of June or longer to find out the full effects of the Tories’ changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, despite the government’s promise to release information about it every three months.”
• Citing an article from the Canadian Press, the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugilese writes, “The Defence Department is refusing to release the text of a ministerial directive that sets out how the Canadian Forces can seek and share information from foreign partners even when it may put someone at risk of torture.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Winnipeg Free Press criticizes Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “blatantly” undermining “the Office of the Correctional Investigator or other watchdogs, whose roles are fundamental to good and open government.”
• Just in case you missed the news last week, PEN Canada has relaunched its Censorship Tracker. The tracker allows for the mapping of free expression violations across the country.
• The Times Colonist reports the British Columbia Court of Appeals has “reversed an earlier ruling about the publication of cabinet documents.” That ruling had given the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation permission to publicly use those documents, which “reflected the provincial cabinet’s thinking” during tense contract negotiations a few years ago. Those negotiations eventually resulted in court action that alleged the government negotiated in bad faith, something the Court of Appeals has also sided against.
• CBC News reports, “Documents are being shredded at the Alberta Legislature as one political party prepares to hand the reins of power to another.”
• In response, the province’s information commissioner Jill Clayton issued a news release stating, “There are rules for government ministries and their employees relating to the retention, destruction and preservation of records, and these rules apply and must be followed during the government’s transition period. If there is evidence that the rules are not being followed, a complaint can be submitted to my office.”
• Meanwhile, according to the Calgary Sun, Alberta Party leader Greg Clark has submitted a “number of Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP) requests to halt what he thinks could be improper shredding or digital deletion of files and to gain access to documents that have been destroyed.”
• The Tyee’s Andrew Nikiforuk is calling on Alberta’s incoming New Democrat government to restore transparency in the province by changing its freedom of information law.
• “The LCBO provides huge discounts on alcohol for foreign diplomats, but who buys what is being kept secret,” according to the Hamilton Spectator.
• BC NDP MLA Doug Routley asked Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk whether he encourages “senior public officials to avoid creating records of important government decisions.” But, rather than answer that question, Virk simply offered to provide Routley with a copy of the province’s freedom of information law. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)
• The Ontario government is asking the public to provide feedback on its draft open data directive. According to a news release, the directive “aims to make data that the government collects and generates on topics, like school enrollment and traffic volume on provincial highways, open to the public.” (hat tip: Herb Lainchbury)
• Ontario’s information commissioner has ordered the Town of Arnprior to release records about the town’s computer system. Those records have been withheld from a private citizen who requested them for about 10 years. According to the Chronicle-Guide, the citizen had asked for a report prepared by chief administrative officer Michael Wildman, which detailed the need to replace that system.
• On twitter, Springtide Collective founder Mark Coffin quotes Mahone Bay, N.S. councillor Lynn Hennigar as saying, “The only difference between us and the people we represent is access to information.”
• The Winnipeg Free Press reports, “Attempts to create a lobbyist registry at city hall hit a hurdle Thursday.” Acting city auditor Brian Mansky has told councillors the City of Winnipeg Charter does not have provisions to create such a registry. That means provincial “amendments would be necessary to give the registrar authority to enforce the registry and also to investigate activities.”
• Edmonton Coun. Andrew Knack has told CBC News the city should update its freedom of information policies to make it easier for people to access electronic data. According to the broadcaster, “The issue was raised when local cycling advocated encountered what he called an ‘obstructionist’ policy” after requesting a spreadsheet of locations where pedestrians and cyclists have been injured or killed.
• I’ll be speaking about access to information as part of a Monday evening panel on press freedom at the United Nations Association in Canada Calgary Branch’s annual general meeting.
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.