Monthly Archives: September 2018

“THIS IS NOT WHAT MY LETTERS ASKED FOR”

A 1976 request for information about government toxicology testing went as well as you’d think it would. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Right to Know Week, which began on Sunday, is supposed to be an opportunity to “raise awareness about people’s right to access government information while promoting freedom of information as essential to both democracy and good governance.” In practice, it’s often an opportunity for members of the freedom of information community to discuss the limitations of that right in Canada.

However, it’s important to remember that those limitations are as persistent as they are frustrating. Consider, for example, the experience of freelance writer Joan Liska back in 1976. In a letter sent to Vera Gellman, chief of the development division of the federal government’s product safety branch, Liska complained about the “shabby treatment” she had received in her requests for information about the “test protocols used for potentially hazardous substances.” Specifically, the freelancer stated:

“I have been requesting copies of the test protocols used by toxicologists working in relation to the Hazardous Products Act and Regulations for MONTHS already. But my requests have gone completely ignored. The replies always the same – namely, a brief letter remarking on the legislation and enclosing the legislation.

I have now at least 12 copies of the legislation and regulations. However, this is NOT what my letters asked for. In each letter, I specifically requested the toxicology tests, the ‘Acute, sub-acute and chronic’ animal studies, used in relation to the legislation. The legislation itself does not even mention the ‘acute, sub-acute and chronic’ tests, let alone the battery of other toxicology tests involved.

Please do not send me the legislation or regulations again. I want the test protocols for toxicity which manufacturers are required to perform – the ‘safety tests’ – before manufacturers can release a product in relation to the Hazardous Products Act & Regulations, on the consumer market…It is a disgrace that a Canadian citizen should thus be refused information on the safety tests conducted by her Government. One’s suspicion is escalated by this secrecy.”1Joan Liska to Vera Gellman, August 19, 1976.

I’m sure almost anyone who is the business of routinely seeking information from the government has wanted to write a letter like this. I know I have. The question is what will it take to put an end to this kind of obstructionism?

References   [ + ]

1. Joan Liska to Vera Gellman, August 19, 1976.

EQUALITY OF INFORMATION

Public institutions often don’t distribute information equally. Freedom of information laws were supposed to change that. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Freedom of information laws aren’t just a legal mechanism that allows us to obtain internal records from government bodies. It’s also an instrument of social and political equality. At least, that’s how the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia Branch saw it in the late seventies, prior to the introduction of the federal Access to Information Act. In a brief prepared for the branch, its select committee on freedom of information observed:

“Presently, Canadians do not have a legal right to information possessed by government. Government releases information if and when it decides to. There appears to be an unwritten rule that an applicant for information must establish a satisfactory (in the government’s opinion) ‘need to know’ the information. The more prestigious or powerful the applicant, the stronger the presumption of its prima facie case of a ‘need to know.”1Select Committee on Freedom of Information, Report to the Provincial Council of the British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association (Vancouver, BC: British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, 1977).

Sadly, the prestigious and powerful in Canada still often seem to have more access to information than those who are not. When I was an investigative journalist in British Columbia, I was always struck by how much more willing government officials were to share information with lobbyists than they were with reporters – including what was discussed during caucus and even cabinet meetings. This, despite the fact lobbyists represent private interests while reporters are supposed to represent the public interest. And maybe that’s a point those of us who are freedom of information advocates should be making more often than we do?

References   [ + ]

1. Select Committee on Freedom of Information, Report to the Provincial Council of the British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association (Vancouver, BC: British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, 1977).

CLIMATE CHANGE QUESTIONS UNASKED IN CANADA

California governor Jerry Brown signs a bill setting a 100 percent clean electricity goal for the state. (Photograph courtesy of the Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.)

As a journalism professor, I teach my first and second year students that one of the easiest means of breaking news is to find a problem a foreign government is acting on and then ask what their own government is or isn’t doing about the same problem.

In newsrooms, this would be called localizing a story.

That’s why I’m disappointed that most of Canada’s mainstream news media don’t seem to have used recent climate change announcements by United Nations secretary-general António Guterres and California governor Jerry Brown to hold our own governments to account on that issue.

On September 10, Guterres warned, “If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us” – news that was worthy enough to be teased on the front page of the New York Times, below the fold.

The United Nations secretary-general’s climate change warning was important enough to make the front page of the New York Times. (Image courtesy of the New York Times)

That warning comes after a summer of scorching world temperatures, a heat wave that caused dozens of deaths in Quebec and devastating wildfires in British Columbia – all of which have been attributed to climate change. 

On the same day Guterres made his statement, Brown signed a bill and issued an executive order that commits the state to achieving carbon neutrality and 100 percent clean electricity by 2045 – something Vox described as “history’s most ambitious climate target,” although there are others who question whether the California governor is doing enough for the environment.

Both announcements were made just prior to the beginning of the Global Climate Action Summit, which took place in San Francisco.

But, when I searched Canadian Newsstream – a database that includes 582 news outlets – this morning,1I used the following terms: (California AND “climate change”), (“United Nations” AND “climate change”), “Antonio Guterres” and “Jerry Brown.” the coverage of that news in the Canadian  English-language mainstream news media appears to have been sparse. According to that database:

  • the Canadian Press broadcast an audio story reporting on Guterres’s warning;
  • the Prince George Citizen published an Associated Press story about that warning;
  • the Hamilton Spectator published an Associated Press story which mentioned that warning; and
  • the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal published an Associated Press story about Brown’s climate change targets.

In addition, a Google search shows the National Post carried Associated Press stories about Brown and Guterres’s announcements.

Castanet.net, CTV, the Prince George Citizen, SooToday.com and the Toronto Star also carried the same Associated Press story about Brown’s announcement.

However, I could find no mainstream stories in Canadian Newsstream that localized those developments. Nor could I find any such stories on Google.

As Canadian journalists, I think we must do better than this.

Our role is to provide the public with the information they need to make the rationale, empathetic decisions that are supposed to be the foundation of democratic governance.

That’s why the questions we ask and don’t ask matter.

And if we aren’t asking the questions we should about climate change, the existential threat of our time, we’re contributing to that problem.

References   [ + ]

1. I used the following terms: (California AND “climate change”), (“United Nations” AND “climate change”), “Antonio Guterres” and “Jerry Brown.”

DEATH BY STUDY

Progressive Conservative MP Gerald Baldwin was also frustrated by the federal government’s tendency to study rather than act on freedom of information. (Photograph courtesy of Gerald Baldwin)

Despite their campaign promise to make government open by default, the federal Liberals have yet to introduce major reforms to the Access to Information Act that would reduce the amount of information officials are allowed to withhold from the public. Instead, the government has announced it will be conducting yet another review of that legislation,1“Commitment 7: Access to Information,” Open Government Team, updated August 14, 2018, https://docs.google.com/document/d/18K2llOOI1GgyBxcRYAsVnlnVN6Y4cIsXuiZml65EcNc/edit. even though it has already been extensively reviewed.

But such delays have been a longstanding frustration for right to know advocates in Canada, dating back to before the Access to Information Act was passed in 1982. For example, when the government released its green paper on freedom of information in 1978, Progressive Conservative MP Gerald Baldwin – who has been described as the “father and grandfather”2“Gerald W. Baldwin, O.C., Q.C., LL.D.,” Governor General of Canada, updated March 26, 2018, http://archive.gg.ca/honours/search-recherche/honours-desc.asp?lang=e&TypeID=orc&id=70. of that law – wrote:

“The issue has been examined and studied to death. There was the 1969 Task Force on Government Information which made a wide examination and a very good report, part of which was ignored by the government. There was a report by Mr. Donald Wall. There was the study preceding the 1973 guidelines for the House of Commons by the government dealing with production of papers. Then, the government has had a small task force which produced the green paper and which has been involved in careful study for many months of the whole issue, not only in Canada, but in other countries. Then, there are the studies, the briefs and the evidence produced for the standing joint committee and which persuaded them to bring in the report mentioned above and finally, there have been made briefs and recommendations and resolutions of organizations sent to the government. The government knows what it needs to know about this subject. The House and the media know about it and, up until the presentation of the green paper, the only issue was whether or not the government was prepared to act. It now appears quite definitely they will not.”3Gerald Baldwin, Response to the Green Paper on Freedom of Information (Ottawa, ON: printed by the author, 1978?), 7-8.

It would take two more years, and a defeat at the polls, before the Liberals took such action. So the question is whether today’s Liberals will follow the same pattern.

References   [ + ]

1. “Commitment 7: Access to Information,” Open Government Team, updated August 14, 2018, https://docs.google.com/document/d/18K2llOOI1GgyBxcRYAsVnlnVN6Y4cIsXuiZml65EcNc/edit.
2. “Gerald W. Baldwin, O.C., Q.C., LL.D.,” Governor General of Canada, updated March 26, 2018, http://archive.gg.ca/honours/search-recherche/honours-desc.asp?lang=e&TypeID=orc&id=70.
3. Gerald Baldwin, Response to the Green Paper on Freedom of Information (Ottawa, ON: printed by the author, 1978?), 7-8.

CLASSIFYING INFO HAS “NOTHING TO DO WITH THE PUBLIC”

In 1976, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his House Leader Mitchell Sharp were accused of being instinctive suppressors of information. (Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Between 1965 and 1980, the federal Liberals did their upmost to defend their government from those who attacked its secrecy. Some officials claimed their government was more open than it actually was, while others tried to justify its closed door meetings and locked filing cabinets. But one of the most absurd defences of that secrecy was mounted by President of the Privy Council and Government House Leader Mitchell Sharp during an appearance on CTV’s Question Period. Responding to a question posed by panellist and Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn, Sharp said:

“The reason that documents in the public service are marked ‘secret,’ ‘confidential,’ ‘restricted’ is for internal purposes, not for public purposes. A document that is secret may at some time be published. The reason for it being marked secret is so that it only circulates within a very, very small circle within the government, or even top secret documents that circulate within an even smaller – for example, I receive on my desk ‘secret,’ ‘top secret – to be opened by addressee only.’ Now the reason for that is so that even my secretary doesn’t know what is in it. There’s nothing to do with the public.”1Bruce Phillips et al., Interview with Mitchell Sharp, Question Period, Ottawa, ON: CJOH-TV, July 18, 1976.

But Charles Lynch, chief of Southam News Services and another program panellist, called Sharp out for that doublespeak:

“Of course it has to do with the public. I suggest that it brings an attitude of suppression into your mind. I regard you as an instinctive suppressor of information. But still more do I regard [Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau as one. He is so obsessive about it. He loves secret dealings and he despises disclosure. The cabinet secrecy is a sacred thing with him and this is the problem…”2Bruce Phillips et al., Interview with Mitchell Sharp, Question Period, Ottawa, ON: CJOH-TV, July 18, 1976.

Four years later, the Liberals would introduce the Access to Information Act, a seeming concession to the country’s right to know advocates. But, today, cabinet secrecy seems even more sacred than it was back then. And can you imagine any journalist today calling a cabinet minister an “instinctive suppressor of information” to their face? All of which makes me wonder just how much of a concession that legislation actually was.

References   [ + ]

1, 2. Bruce Phillips et al., Interview with Mitchell Sharp, Question Period, Ottawa, ON: CJOH-TV, July 18, 1976.