TWENTY YEARS OF OPENNESS? “Canada’s freedom of information laws are like transplanted organs. Grafted onto our public institutions decades ago, they have been constantly at risk of rejection, with the body politic doing comparatively little to ensure their acceptance. And perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in Alberta.”
Those are the opening lines of a speech I’ll be giving Right to Know Week Forums being organized by Alberta’s information commissioner Jill Clayton.
To hear more, I encourage you to attend one of those forums, which will take place on Sept. 29 in Calgary and Oct. 1 in Edmonton.
The forums mark the 20th anniversary of Alberta’s access law.
Clayton will also be speaking, along with her staff who will give a presentation on the importance of the Magna Carta as the “foundation for access to information and the public’s right to know.“
In addition, in Edmonton, the city’s corporate and department initiatives director Wendy Gnenz will talk about her community’s Open City Initiative.
RUBIN-ESQUE Ken Rubin is one of Canada’s first and foremost access advocates and practitioners.
That’s why his upcoming mini-memoir in Ottawa Magazine is well worth the read for anyone concerned about government secrecy in this country.
In it, Rubin recounts how his fights against real estate development and for consumer protection in the seventies eventually resulted in him become a leading voice for greater freedom of information.
Here’s a taste:
Helping citizens of Centretown obtain data about its area improvement plan did not prevent my own downtown block north of Gloucester Street from falling prey to demolitions, high-rises, and parking lots. Indeed, despite my door-to-door research and activist efforts, the changing tide meant that my wife, Debbie, and I were evicted in December of 1972. I was down but not out — in fact, that battle emboldened me to become the determined investigator I am today.
The memoir is being published in the magazine’s October edition.
A FAST ONE In an interview with the Toronto Star last year, Treasury Board President Tony Clement admitted the Access to Information Act needs to be reviewed — with his government having failed to deliver on its 2006 promise to reform that law. But not everyone in the Conservative cabinet seems to think such reform is necessary.
Speaking to the Abbotsford News’s Tyler Olsen, International Trade Minister Ed Fast said, “I’m not sure the [access to information] system is in need of repair.”
A 2014 survey found Canadians 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.
SUFFERING IN SILENCE Last week, I reported on how an op-ed by Medicine Hat News reporter Collin Gallant appears to have been one of only two stories published covering the launch of a national campaign to fix Canada’s broken Access to Information Act.*
Asked about why he didn’t think there was more coverage, Gallant told me, “I think people just get sort of worn down. And I think we’re sort of at the point, sadly, that they’re not going to be able to get a live quote or the information they are looking for in a story.”
As a result, “Journalists and younger journalists just feel like they are running into a situation where they are wasting their breath complaining about FOIP because it’s just so ingrained.”
* = Disclosure: I’m vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, one of the 22 civil society group supporting the campaign to reform our broken access system. I also organized the meeting where those reforms were drafted.
• The Ottawa Citizen reports, “There will be more strategic leaks by the Canadian Forces/DND to journalists who are deemed ‘friendly’ to the military,” while those who are “trouble-makers” will be the subject of “phone calls to media bosses, letters to the editor, etc.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Tyee reports, “Anyone who wants to know how many temporary foreign workers have come to Canada in the first half of 2015 will have to pay to find out, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.” But the online magazine notes, “The request for payment comes more than a year after Employment and Social Development Canada, a separate department, promised it would publicly post such data each quarter in a press release detailing changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• Green Leader Elizabeth May calls for greater transparency in Canadian politics by endorsing four reforms to the Access to Information Act advocated for by a coalition of 22 civil society groups. May is the only leader so far to have made that endorsement.
• According to the Ottawa Citizen, “Tom Mulcair pledged Tuesday that an NDP government would lift the lid of secrecy around the federal budgetary process — providing Canadians much more information about how government spends their money.”
• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that Finance Canada has audited its access to information system “without talking to any requesters & (surprise) gives itself high marks!”
• Freelance journalist Shanifa Nasser tweets that the 30 day time limit to respond to access to information requests “has lost all meaning.” That tweet comes after Nasser filed a request on July 22 that was forgotten about until Aug. 19 when the government requested a 150-day extension.
• “As International Right to Know Day on Sept. 28 approaches, it is worth reflecting on the state of access to information across Canada,” writes the Centre for Law and Democracy’s Toby Mendel, noting that our country ranks a “very poor 59th place globally from among 102 countries with right to information laws.”
• The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin writes, “The Conservatives have taken a lot of heat over information suppression. But it has had little effect. There are few signs of change. Their attitude is ‘stay the course.’ If you say too much you are dangerous; if you know too much you are a threat.”
• The Kelowna Capital News’s Kevin Parnell writes that if you ask Conservative MPs about gagging federal government researchers “you will hear denials. They don’t muzzle scientists and aren’t trying to control the flow of information. They would never! But how do we trust what a politician says when the track record of truth versus lies is a joke.”
• The Centre for Law and Democracy is hosting a panel discussion in Halifax celebrating International Right to Know Day. Panelists include Newfoundland and Labrador’s deputy premier Steve Kent, whose government recently reformed that province’s records access law.
• The Yellowknifer’s Shane Magee tweets that the Northwest Territories “remains one of four jurisdictions in Canada where municipalities aren’t covered by access to info legislation…That’s despite more than a decade of calls by information commish to update the law.” (hat tip: Karissa Donkin)
• “David Fraser, a lawyer with McInnes Cooper, will be representing Bullying Canada when the charity takes the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to court later in the fall over responses to two right to information requests,” reports the Daily Gleaner. “The first file relates to how [New Brunswick] spent its $700,000 anti-bullying budget, while the second file pertains to the work of the Positive Learning Environments committee. In both cases, Bullying Canada co-founder Rob Frenette said he received heavily redacted responses to his requests.”
• Ontario’s information commissioner Brian Beamish marked Right to Know Week in Sault Ste. Marie, delivering a speech that also talked about “important issues surrounding health privacy.”
• British Columbia’s information commissioner encourages citizens to participate in the review of their province’s access law as part of Right to Know Week.
• “The Vision Vancouver majority on council may be violating the province’s open meeting laws by conducting caucus meetings before their regularly-scheduled council sessions,” according to a veteran lawyer quoted by the Vancouver Sun. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)
• The Telegraph-Journal reports New Brunswick’s “faculty associations are taking St. Thomas University’s administration to court over its refusal to disclose the amounts of three employee severance packages.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
Thanks Sean and sock it to them in the “new” Alberta!
In my family,by the way, my way of speaking and acting is sometimes referred to as a “rubinism”. Could be the fact that I am one of the three triplets who had unique communication… sort of …skills!
Here’s the message I sent out today to FOInet:
Hi Toby and FOI, Excellent celebration idea(s) for International right to Know Day as countering the slow and redacted space much FOI/RTI occupies. The more free flowing internet and dialogue being undertaken today represents real freedom of information and gains!
And it just so happens that I can join in this celebration by sharing with you an attached just published article of mine that hopefully shows that anyone can spend 50 years (or more or less) fighting for FOI/RTI. As the article says on International Right to Know Day, my battle cry that could be yours too includes the antidote remedy , “Squash Secrecy”!
Cheers and happy Right to Know Day!
Ken Rubin kenrubin.ca