Author Archives: Sean Holman

THE MERIT OF ASKING AGGRESSIVE QUESTIONS

CNN’S Jim Acosta confronts President Donald Trump. (Image by CNN)

Following the news that the Trump administration revoked Jim Acosta’s White House press pass, some journalists have criticized the CNN correspondent for his argumentative questioning of the president during a news conference earlier this month. But, as one of the most iconic moments in Canadian news media history demonstrates, such questioning can also be as revealing as it is controversial. And it may now be more important than ever.

Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride – who are faculty members with the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school – have been among Acosta’s most high-profile journalistic critics. In a commentary that described the CNN correspondent’s actions as not representing “the best of journalism,” McBride and Tompkins scolded him for making statements rather than asking questions during that news conference.1Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, “CNN’s Jim Acosta’s Actions to Trump Don’t Represent the Best of Journalism,” Poynter News, November 8, 2018, https://www.poynter.org/news/cnns-jim-acostas-actions-trump-dont-represent-best-journalism.

The two specific statements they cited were “Your campaign had an ad showing migrants climbing over walls” and “They are hundreds of miles away, that’s not an invasion.”2Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, “CNN’s Jim Acosta’s Actions to Trump Don’t Represent the Best of Journalism,” Poynter News, November 8, 2018, https://www.poynter.org/news/cnns-jim-acostas-actions-trump-dont-represent-best-journalism. McBride and Tompkins then concluded their commentary by advising journalists to “ask tough question, avoid making statements or arguing during a press event and report the news, don’t become the news.”3Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, “CNN’s Jim Acosta’s Actions to Trump Don’t Represent the Best of Journalism,” Poynter News, November 8, 2018, https://www.poynter.org/news/cnns-jim-acostas-actions-trump-dont-represent-best-journalism.

Leaving aside the fact that Trump’s own interruptions may have stopped Acosta from turning those statements into questions, McBride and Tompkins’ criticism is reminiscent of what happened when Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reporter Tim Ralfe took a similar approach with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau during the country’s October Crisis of 1970.

That crisis began when members of the Front de Libération du Québec independence movement kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, the later of whom was eventually murdered. The federal government called in troops to protect federal officials and diplomats in Ottawa. And it was against this backdrop that Ralfe, along with CTV reporter Peter Reilly, confronted Trudeau.

According to the Vancouver Sun, Trudeau’s interview with the two reporters happened “after he had ducked out a side exit of the (House of) Commons to avoid the great crush of newsmen” gathered there.4Wayne MacDonald, “PM Vows No Limit in Terror Fight: ‘Week-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Flayed,” Sun (Vancouver), October 14, 1970.

Ralfe began with a somewhat haphazard question: “Sir, what is it with all these men with guns around here?” But his interview also included statements such as “I’m worried about living in a town that’s full of people with guns running around in it” and argumentative questions such as “Doesn’t it worry you having a town that you’ve got to have to resort to this kind of thing?”

He even told Trudeau he wanted to “live in a society that is free and democratic, which means that you don’t have people running around with guns in it. And one of the things I have to give up for that choice is the fact people like you may be kidnapped” – with a seeming emphasis on the word you.

Then, after all of Ralfe’s poking and prodding about whether he was turning Canada into a police state with his response to the FLQ, Trudeau finally said this: “Yeah, well, there’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it’s more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of…”

An apparently indignant Ralfe interrupted and asked, “At any cost? At any cost? How far would you go into that? How far would you extend that?” To which Trudeau replied, “Well, just watch me.”

Ottawa Citizen television columnist Frank Penn reported “the bulk of this lively and illuminating interview apparently wound up on the CBC newsroom floor.”5Frank Penn, “CBC Blows Big One,” Ottawa Citizen, October 15, 1970. But newspapers across the country picked up those pieces and put them on their front pages underneath headlines such as “Weak-Kneed Bleeding Hearts Hit”6Arthur Blakely, “‘Weak-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Hit: An Angry Trudeau is Interviewed,” Gazette (Montreal), October 14, 1970 and “PM Vows No Limit in Terrorist Fight.”7Wayne MacDonald, “PM Vows No Limit in Terror Fight: ‘Week-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Flayed,” Sun (Vancouver), October 14, 1970. Many even published a full transcript of the confrontation. CTV also aired the interview in its entirety.8Scott Macrae, “Eight Lost Minutes: Why?” Vancouver Sun, March 19, 1976.

Later, Ralfe, who died of heart attack in 2000, would reveal his CBC superiors thought he had been rude to Trudeau and that he was worried he would be fired. “We know you’re under pressure and you’re tired, but you shouldn’t have treated the prime minister that way,” he recalled his bosses saying.9Scott Macrae, “Eight Lost Minutes: Why?” Vancouver Sun, March 19, 1976. In fact, Peter Trueman, who was the executive producer for CBC’s National News in October 1970, admitted, “My first reaction was to fire off a telex to Ottawa giving Ralfe shit for disputing the PM,” something Trueman later regretted.10Scott Macrae, “Eight Lost Minutes: Why?” Vancouver Sun, March 19, 1976.

However, Ralfe’s supposed rudeness, as well as his argumentative questioning and statements, forced the prime minister to reveal himself in a way that more restrained questioning hadn’t. As a result, Trudeau’s just-watch-me-phrase has come to symbolize, in the words of the Canadian Press, the prime minister’s “transition from flower-power leader to Machiavellian overlord,”11The Canadian Press, “Just Watch Me,” Daily News (Nanaimo), September 30, 2000. with a YouTube clip of the exchange having been viewed more than 400,000 times.

It’s far too early to tell whether Acosta’s confrontation with Trump will be remembered the same way. However, the president’s response to the CNN correspondent has been similarly revealing. Not only did the Trump administration revoke Acosta’s press credentials (which a court ruling as temporarily restored),12Michael M. Grynbaum and Emily Baumgaertner, “CNN’s Jim Acosta Returns to the White House After Judge’s Ruling,” New York Times, November 16, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/16/business/media/cnn-acosta-trump.html. but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders shared a video that appears to have been doctored so Acosta appears to behave aggressively toward an intern who attempted to take a microphone away from him.13The Associated Press, “Expert: Acosta Video Distributed by White House Was Doctored,” New York Times, November 18, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/11/08/arts/ap-us-trump-media.html.

Such revelations are important because many elected and unelected officials seem increasingly willing to refuse to answer reporters’ questions or lie when answering them. And if Acosta’s actions end up revealing a truth to the public that would not have otherwise been revealed, just like Ralfe he will have done his ultimate job as a journalist – even if some think he should have been less argumentative.

References   [ + ]

1, 2, 3. Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, “CNN’s Jim Acosta’s Actions to Trump Don’t Represent the Best of Journalism,” Poynter News, November 8, 2018, https://www.poynter.org/news/cnns-jim-acostas-actions-trump-dont-represent-best-journalism.
4, 7. Wayne MacDonald, “PM Vows No Limit in Terror Fight: ‘Week-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Flayed,” Sun (Vancouver), October 14, 1970.
5. Frank Penn, “CBC Blows Big One,” Ottawa Citizen, October 15, 1970.
6. Arthur Blakely, “‘Weak-Kneed Bleeding Hearts’ Hit: An Angry Trudeau is Interviewed,” Gazette (Montreal), October 14, 1970
8, 9, 10. Scott Macrae, “Eight Lost Minutes: Why?” Vancouver Sun, March 19, 1976.
11. The Canadian Press, “Just Watch Me,” Daily News (Nanaimo), September 30, 2000.
12. Michael M. Grynbaum and Emily Baumgaertner, “CNN’s Jim Acosta Returns to the White House After Judge’s Ruling,” New York Times, November 16, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/16/business/media/cnn-acosta-trump.html.
13. The Associated Press, “Expert: Acosta Video Distributed by White House Was Doctored,” New York Times, November 18, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/11/08/arts/ap-us-trump-media.html.

INTELLECTUALS SLAM SECRECY

Pierre Trudeau was among seven Quebec intellectuals who railed against “despotic secrecy.” (Image by Canadian Forum)

May 13, 1964 – The Canadian Forum and Cité Libre concurrently published a manifesto entitled “An Appeal for Realism in Politics,” with an advanced but abridged version being printed by the Toronto Daily Star.1Albert Breton et al., “7 Quebec Moderates Offer Anti-Separatism Blueprint,” Toronto Daily Star, May 13, 1964 The manifesto was written by a “group of young French Canadian intellectuals,” opposed to “the present state of affairs in Canada generally, and in our province in particular.”2Albert Breton et al., “An Appeal for Realism in Politics,” Canadian Forum, May, 1964.

Among their concerns were political leaders who “fall back on propaganda loaded with emotional slogans” rather than “explaining in plain terms the problem they face or the policies they propose.”3Albert Breton et al., “An Appeal for Realism in Politics,” Canadian Forum, May, 1964. According to the intellectuals, such propaganda was a problem because “democratic progress requires the ready availability of true and complete information. In this way people can objectively evaluate their Government’s policies. To act otherwise is to give way to despotic secrecy.”4Albert Breton et al., “An Appeal for Realism in Politics,” Canadian Forum, May, 1964.

Future prime minister Pierre Trudeau was among the manifesto’s seven authors. However, following the publication of that manifesto, those words would sometimes be solely attributed to Trudeau,5T. Murray Rankin, Freedom of Information in Canada: Will the Doors Stay Shut? A Research Study Prepared for the Canadian Bar Association (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Bar Association, 1977), 1. being used to support freedom of information and oppose his government’s secrecy.6Arthur Blakely, “PC’s Bill Seeks Freedom of Information – And May Have Support in High Places,” Gazette (Montreal), August 22, 1970. In recent years, that quote has also given the impression the late prime minister was perhaps more committed to transparency than he may have actually been.7Beverley McLachlin, “Access to Information and Protection of Privacy in Canadian Democracy” (Address, Ottawa, ON, May 5, 2009).

This post is part of a series of articles documenting major events in the history of freedom of information in Canada. To see the complete version of that developing timeline, click here.

References   [ + ]

1. Albert Breton et al., “7 Quebec Moderates Offer Anti-Separatism Blueprint,” Toronto Daily Star, May 13, 1964
2, 3, 4. Albert Breton et al., “An Appeal for Realism in Politics,” Canadian Forum, May, 1964.
5. T. Murray Rankin, Freedom of Information in Canada: Will the Doors Stay Shut? A Research Study Prepared for the Canadian Bar Association (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Bar Association, 1977), 1.
6. Arthur Blakely, “PC’s Bill Seeks Freedom of Information – And May Have Support in High Places,” Gazette (Montreal), August 22, 1970.
7. Beverley McLachlin, “Access to Information and Protection of Privacy in Canadian Democracy” (Address, Ottawa, ON, May 5, 2009).

TWIN FREEDOMS SPEECH

Speaking to the Canadian Bar Association, Justice Minister John Turner advocated for privacy and freedom of information. (Image by Government of Canada)

September 2, 1969 – Having advocated for freedom of information in an interview with the Globe and Mail, Justice Minister John Turner would elaborate on that concept in a speech  to the Canadian Bar Association.1John Turner, “Twin Freedoms: The Right to Know and the Right to Privacy” (address, Annual Meeting of the Canadian Bar Association, Ottawa, ON, September 2, 1969). The coverage of that speech focused on the minister’s announcement that the government would introduce legislation prohibiting wiretapping and electronic surveillance techniques, something he won plaudits for among pundits. For example, in an editorial, the Brandon Sun wrote that that legislation “could be among the most important accomplishments of the Trudeau government, a major step toward the just society.”2Editorial, “This Could Be the Just Society,” Brandon Sun, September 4, 1969.

But, in the same speech, Turner also acknowledged “there is a tendency in government to refuse information to its citizens under the guise of privacy which is disguised as the public interest. Government secrecy is sometimes legitimated as the state’s right to privacy, but it may well be a denial of the public’s right to know. If individual privacy is a foundation of democracy, the citizen’s right to know is fundamental to any participatory democracy. The public cannot be expected to dialogue meaningfully – still less decide – if it is refused the very information which would make such a dialogue and decision-making possible.”3John Turner, “Twin Freedoms: The Right to Know and the Right to Privacy” (address, Annual Meeting of the Canadian Bar Association, Ottawa, ON, September 2, 1969).

This post is part of a series of articles documenting major events in the history of freedom of information in Canada. To see the complete version of that developing timeline, click here.

References   [ + ]

1, 3. John Turner, “Twin Freedoms: The Right to Know and the Right to Privacy” (address, Annual Meeting of the Canadian Bar Association, Ottawa, ON, September 2, 1969).
2. Editorial, “This Could Be the Just Society,” Brandon Sun, September 4, 1969.

TURNER PUSHES FOR FOI LAW

John Turner announcing his candidacy for the Liberal Party of Canada. (Photograph courtesy of Duncan Cameron, Library and Archives Canada)

July 15, 1969 – John Turner is now perhaps best known for his relationship with Princess Margaret and, as prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, losing the 1984 election to Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney. But, in 1969, he was the Grits’ golden boy and making a name for himself as the federal government’s justice minister. One way he did that was by advocating for freedom of information.

In an interview about wiretapping with a Globe and Mail reporter, Turner said, “I do not think you can have a right-to-privacy statute without at the same time having a freedom of information statute. In other words, I think it ought to be incumbent upon the state to publish more information about what goes on at both the provincial and federal levels. I would like to see freedom of information dealt with at the same time as right to privacy, as companion pieces of legislation.”1William Morris, “Views on a New Law to Protect Privacy: Wiretapping and Bail,” Globe and Mail, July 15, 1969.

The newspaper supported that proposal in an editorial, writing that it was a “very importance concept for the Justice Minister to espouse” because “Canadian governments have been notoriously secretive about information that ought to be in the public domain.”2Editorial, “Minister with a Philosophy,” Globe and Mail, July 15, 1969. Nor would it be the last time Turner spoke out against secrecy.

This post is part of a series of articles documenting major events in the history of freedom of information in Canada. To see the complete version of that developing timeline, click here.

References   [ + ]

1. William Morris, “Views on a New Law to Protect Privacy: Wiretapping and Bail,” Globe and Mail, July 15, 1969.
2. Editorial, “Minister with a Philosophy,” Globe and Mail, July 15, 1969.

STUDY PUSHES FOR INFO RIGHT

An illustration from the Task Force on Government Information’s final report, To Know and Be Known. (Graphic by Government of Canada)

November 4, 1969 – When the Task Force on Government Information released its final report, much of the coverage focused on its proposal to establish a “central government agency of information resources and technical services.”1Canada, Task Force on Government Information, To Know and Be Know, vol. 1 (Ottawa, ON: Task Force on Government Information, 1969), 55. That agency, which the task force dubbed “Information Canada,” was variously described in the news media as a “supermouth,”2Editorial, “First-Rate Expose – But Next?” Globe and Mail, November 6, 1969. “a huge, computerized and streamlined public relations agency,”3Arthur Blakely, “Trudeau Approves Information Plan,” Gazette (Montreal), November 6, 1969. and an indication that “the year ’1984’ appears to be closer than most Canadians appreciate.”4Editorial, “New Bureaucracy is Not Needed,” Edmonton Journal, November 6, 1969.

However,  the task force was also an unlikely early advocate of freedom of information, recommending that “the right of Canadians to full, objective and timely information and the obligation of the States to provide such information” might be “comprehended within a new constitution in the context of freedom of expression.”5Canada, Task Force on Government Information, To Know and Be Know, vol. 1 (Ottawa, ON: Task Force on Government Information, 1969), 56.

In addition, according to columnist Anthony Westell, one of the most “provocative ideas” to percolate in its private sessions was the establishment of an “ombudsman to safeguard public access to facts the government might prefer to keep private. As originally discussed, the official would have been dignified with the title of Information Commissioner and given something of the same independent relationship to government as that enjoyed by the auditor-general.”6Anthony Westell, “So Much for that Watchdog,” Edmonton Journal, November 13, 1969. However, Westell wrote that the idea “was diluted somewhere in the process of discussion, decision and revision leading to the final report of the task force.”7Anthony Westell, “So Much for that Watchdog,” Edmonton Journal, November 13, 1969.

This post is part of a series of articles documenting major events in the history of freedom of information in Canada. To see the complete version of that developing timeline, click here.

References   [ + ]

1. Canada, Task Force on Government Information, To Know and Be Know, vol. 1 (Ottawa, ON: Task Force on Government Information, 1969), 55.
2. Editorial, “First-Rate Expose – But Next?” Globe and Mail, November 6, 1969.
3. Arthur Blakely, “Trudeau Approves Information Plan,” Gazette (Montreal), November 6, 1969.
4. Editorial, “New Bureaucracy is Not Needed,” Edmonton Journal, November 6, 1969.
5. Canada, Task Force on Government Information, To Know and Be Know, vol. 1 (Ottawa, ON: Task Force on Government Information, 1969), 56.
6, 7. Anthony Westell, “So Much for that Watchdog,” Edmonton Journal, November 13, 1969.

FEDS LAUNCH INFO STUDY

An illustration from the Task Force on Government Information’s final report, To Know and Be Known. (Graphic by Government of Canada)

August 30, 1968 – Amidst concerns about his government’s secrecy,1Anthony Westell, “The New Game in Ottawa is – I’ve Got a Secret,” Globe and Mail, July 11, 1968. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced the appointment of the Task Force on Government Information. Trudeau said the task force would make recommendations to “promote greater efficiency in the diffusion”2Editorial, “One Countervailing Force,” Globe and Mail, August 31, 1968. of that information. It was chaired by d’Iberville Fortier, a long-time friend of Trudeau and former chief information officer for the Department of External Affairs.3The Canadian Press, “Trudeau Names 5 to Undertake Study,” Toronto Daily Star, August 30, 1968. It’s other two members were former journalists Bernard Ostry and Thomas Ford.4The Canadian Press, “Trudeau Names 5 to Undertake Study,” Toronto Daily Star, August 30, 1968. Ironically, news about the task force’s appointment was the Trudeau government’s first major leak.5Editorial, “One Countervailing Force,” Globe and Mail, August 31, 1968. Prime Minister Lester Pearson had launched a similar study headed by former La Presse news editor Jean David, who had been a president of the Young Liberal Association of Canada.6“Jean David,” Gazette, January 2, 1968. However, that study ended when David died in a car accident.7Special to the Ottawa Citizen, “Man Dead in Five-Car Road Crash,” Ottawa Citizen, December 30, 1967.

This post is part of a series of articles documenting major events in the history of freedom of information in Canada. To see the complete version of that developing timeline, click here.

References   [ + ]

1. Anthony Westell, “The New Game in Ottawa is – I’ve Got a Secret,” Globe and Mail, July 11, 1968.
2, 5. Editorial, “One Countervailing Force,” Globe and Mail, August 31, 1968.
3, 4. The Canadian Press, “Trudeau Names 5 to Undertake Study,” Toronto Daily Star, August 30, 1968.
6. “Jean David,” Gazette, January 2, 1968.
7. Special to the Ottawa Citizen, “Man Dead in Five-Car Road Crash,” Ottawa Citizen, December 30, 1967.

ROWAT PRESENTS SEMINAL FOI PAPER

Political scientist Donald Rowat questioned whether Canada’s tradition of administrative secrecy “conforms with the requirements of modern democracy.” (Image by Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science)

June 12, 1965 – Carleton University political science professor Donald Rowat presented his seminal paper on government secrecy in Canada at the annual meetings of the Canadian Political Science Association.1Ruth Worth, “Professor Urges End to Secrecy in Government,” Globe and Mail, 1968. In that paper, Rowat wrote, “Since the principle of secrecy in the British parliamentary system has been imbibed with our mother’s milk, so to speak, we find it hard to believe that a country can get along with it.”2Donald Rowat, “How Much Administrative Secrecy?” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 31, no. 4 (November 1965): 488. Yet both Sweden and the United States had. That is why Rowat commended and endorsed New Democrat MP Barry Mather’s freedom of information bill. 3Donald Rowat, “How Much Administrative Secrecy?” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 31, no. 4 (November 1965): 491. Rowat would be an inspiration for Mather.4Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates, 1st sess., vol. 1 (1968): 1167. And Progressive Conservative MP Gerald Baldwin, the “father and grandfather”5“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 the Access to Information Act, would describe him as “one of the real pioneers of open government.”6Gerald Baldwin, “Why Should We Tell You?” (unpublished manuscript, August 1, 1983).

This post is part of a series of articles documenting major events in the history of freedom of information in Canada. To see the complete version of that developing timeline, click here.

References   [ + ]

1. Ruth Worth, “Professor Urges End to Secrecy in Government,” Globe and Mail, 1968.
2. Donald Rowat, “How Much Administrative Secrecy?” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 31, no. 4 (November 1965): 488.
3. Donald Rowat, “How Much Administrative Secrecy?” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 31, no. 4 (November 1965): 491.
4. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates, 1st sess., vol. 1 (1968): 1167.
5. “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.
6. Gerald Baldwin, “Why Should We Tell You?” (unpublished manuscript, August 1, 1983).

ACCESS TO INFORMATION ACT TIMELINE

This page from the House of Commons Debates Official Report shows the introduction of Bill C-39, NDP MP Barry Mather’s proposed administrative disclosure law. (Image by Library of Parliament)

The history of the Access to Information Act, the law that allows Canadians to obtain internal government records that might otherwise remain secret, isn’t well-known. So, as part of my dissertation research, I’ll be building a detailed timeline of that history – both for my own reference, as well as for those who are interested in the legislation. I’m pleased to share with you my first entry:

April 8, 1965 – New Democrat Barry Mather, a former Vancouver Sun humour columnist, became the first MP to introduce a freedom of information bill in the House of Commons.1Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates, 26th Parl., 3d sess., vol. 1 (1965): 92. The bill didn’t make it to second reading. So we don’t know what Mather would have said about it in the House if it had. But the Canadian Press paraphrased him as saying it was based on similar legislation in the United States, which would become law the following year.2The Canadian Press, “MP Proposes Bill to Make Records Open,” Globe and Mail, April 14, 1965. “This bill is in aid of the public’s right to know in what manner a government is administering the public duties entrusted and delegated to it by the people,” he said. “The bill enacts the basic parliamentary rule that public affairs must be conducted publicly.”3The Canadian Press, “MP Proposes Bill to Make Records Open,” Globe and Mail, April 14, 1965. In an editorial, the Globe and Mail endorsed that legislation, calling on the government to “put its blessings on the bill and ensure its passage.”4Editorial, “It’s is the Public’s Business,” Globe and Mail, April 16, 1965. But it would be another 18 years before the Access to Information Act would come into force.

As the timeline develops, you’ll be able to see the complete version here.

References   [ + ]

1. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates, 26th Parl., 3d sess., vol. 1 (1965): 92.
2, 3. The Canadian Press, “MP Proposes Bill to Make Records Open,” Globe and Mail, April 14, 1965.
4. Editorial, “It’s is the Public’s Business,” Globe and Mail, April 16, 1965.

“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).