Category Archives: Democracy

THE FIRST TEMPTATION OF TRUDEAU

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising a "fair and open government." But that openness could a lot like what a NDP MP proposed half-a-century ago. (Graphic by Liberal Party of Canada)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising a “fair and open government.” But that openness could a lot like what a NDP MP proposed half-a-century ago. (Graphic by Liberal Party of Canada)

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is serious about making government information “open by default,” he’ll have to deal with the same arguments that helped scuttle Canada’s first right-to-know bill a half-century ago.

Prior to the recent election, Trudeau unsuccessfully tried to demonstrate his commitment to that principle by introducing a private member’s bill entitled the Transparency Act.

That bill, which was defeated on second reading, would have made it somewhat easier to ask for government records and get more of them.

But it wouldn’t have closed the some of the biggest loopholes in the Access to Information Act, which let the government keep its most informative and important records secret.

That made Trudeau’s commitment to “raise the bar on openness and transparency in government” questionable.

Nevertheless, the prime minister repeated that commitment following last week’s swearing-in ceremony.

So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt I didn’t during the campaign and assume his post-election effort to make information “open by default” will actually do just that.

Such an effort would have to allow the public to access all sorts of records that are usually under lock and key, including, for example, advice and recommendations developed for the government, as well as accounts of deliberations involving government officials.

In some ways, such a law wouldn’t be dissimilar to the one former Vancouver Sun columnist and NDP MP Barry Mather proposed in April 1965 – two months after United States Senator Edward Long introduced the bill that would lead to that country’s Freedom of Information Act.

Mather’s legislation would have required government to make any information or records “concerning its doing available to any person at his request in reasonable manner and time,” with the Exchequer Court of Canada (the predecessor to the Federal Court of Canada) adjudicating that access.

In the words of the Globe and Mail, exceptions would have been made for “matters of national security, matters exempted by statute from disclosure, trade secrets, commercial information obtained from private persons and subjects of private interest ‘to the degree that the right to personal privacy excludes the public interest.'”

But that’s a short shadow compared to the long darkness of the Access to Information Act, which includes 75 separate exemptions and exclusions.

The Globe and Mail wrote favourably about Mather’s bill, stating it would do much to open the government’s “many closed doors and keep the public informed about what is, after all, its own business.” As a result, the newspaper advised the ruling Liberals to put their “blessing” on the bill and “ensure its passage.”

The Liberals didn’t heed that advice. And, when the bill made it to second reading three years later, after being re-introduced by Mather, two of the party’s MPs, Yves Forest and Colin Gibson, seemed to explain why.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Forest, the then-parliamentary secretary to the president of the privy council, said that bill did not “give enough important to the generally accepted principle” of administrative secrecy. According to Forest, that principle allows:

…complete freedom of expression and also of communication between the members of the administration at various levels, and particularly from lower to senior officials. In my opinion, the contrary could reduce the efficiency of our whole administrative system as we know it.

In other words, Gibson said, “if official files are opened to the public scrutiny too much administration caution will result, which will seriously inhibit the effective functioning of civil servants. No one likes to work with someone leaning over his shoulder reading what he is writing.”

So it’s not surprising that the Access to Information Act, which was introduced by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1980, appears to have been drafted to guard against what Gibson called “eavesdropping and spying,” helping legally fortify the anachronistic notion that political decision-making must happen in private.

But what is surprising is how much purchase that notion still has in Canada.

In response to the Transparency Act’s proposal to make records in ministerial offices subject to access requests, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former communications director Andrew MacDougall argued that change would cause politicians and their staffers to “pull their punches” when discussing and debating public policy:

Think of all the internecine battles that are part and parcel of any office. Think of the snide comments about your colleagues often said in frustration. Now picture it on a front page. Think that would change your behaviour — or drive it further underground? Would that make your company perform better, or worse?

Nor is MacDougall the only one making such arguments. For example, two years ago, the Globe and Mail opposed proposals from two information commissioners that would have required government officials to document their decision-making.

The reason: “Cabinet ministers and their closest advisers should be free to talk about the reasons for a decision without making a paper or electronic memorandum. Their motives and purposes are best scrutinized in parliamentary debate, question periods and legislative committees.”

In principle, that may seem reasonable to many Canadians. But, in practice, it means that government officials only have to disclose what they want to disclose to us about their decision-making – a behaviour that’s too often tolerated and accommodated by the Access to Information Act.

Such secrecy was politically beneficial to Harper, as it surely could be to his successor Trudeau. So it remains to be seen whether Trudeau will resist the temptation to cultivate rather than uproot that secrecy.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Toronto Star has paraphrased newly-appointed Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains as saying that government “scientists are free to speak to the media about their work.”

• “Tens of thousands of records amassed during various stages of the settlement process with the survivors of Indian residential schools” have begun being released to the public, according to the Global and Mail. The newspaper reports those documents will shed “further light on a long and often brutal attempt by the government at forced assimilation.”

• The Toronto Star reports, “Restoring the long-form census will be among the first acts of the new Liberal government.”

• Writing in the Hill Times, long-time right-to-know advocate Ken Rubin writes that Trudeau must act quickly to introduce transparency legislation “as majority governments become more defensive and secretive over time.”

• The Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt makes three modest suggestions to improve the federal government’s relationship with the media: “let ministers speak,” give a “daily media briefing” and don’t “go over the heads of reporters with coverage complaints and straight to their bosses or head offices.”

• In an op-ed published in the Toronto Star, William Kowalski — a member of PEN Canada’s Canadian Issues Committee — writes that, “If freedom of expression in Canada were a medical patient, it would be dangerously close to needing life support. With Canada’s new government assuming its place, now is the time to make good on the promise of an open, more transparent relationship between the government of Canada and its citizens.”

• Global News’s Rebecca Lindell tweets that the Correctional Service of Canada has asked for a three year extension to an access request relating to fentanyl deaths. (hat tip: Jordan Press)

• The Green Party of Canada has refused to say how much money it was paying MP Bruce Hyer to be its deputy leader, claiming it’s private information.

• The raw data from Newspapers Canada’s 2015 freedom of information audit is now available.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Globe and Mail reports British Columbia’s former information commissioner David Loukidelis will be paid $50,000 to tell the provincial government how to implement the recommendations in a “stinging report that said officials — including those in the premier’s office — routinely deleted information.”

According to 24 hours Vancouver, NDP MLA Carole James has alleged provincial government lawyers attempted to “impede” the release of that report, which was penned by the province’s current information commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

• Loukidelis is scheduled to complete his work before Dec. 15. But CKNW reports the family of a Highway of Tears victim worries that means his advise may “get lost in the days leading up to Christmas.” Emails about the Highway of Tears were among those deleted by the government.

• The Vancouver Courier’s Geoff Olson writes that “contravening Freedom of Information laws isn’t a glitch in the provincial government’s doings, it’s a feature.”

• Speaking of which, B.C. MLA Vicki Huntington’s reports that when freedom of information requests were filed on the decision to replace the Massey Tunnel with a bridge, each of them received a “no records reply.”

• In response, according to the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, “Transportation Minister Todd Stone confirmed the sought-after business plan and cost-benefit analysis for the Massey replacement remains a work in progress. Due for release soon, he assured me.”

• Nevertheless, according to the Times Colonist, it’s both “ludicrous” and “insulting” to It’s ludicrous to say that no records exist of a project that will cost an estimated $3 billion. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News reports, “The backlog for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to review applications is currently two years. That means if a government department refuses a request for information, it will be two years before the appeal is even heard.”

• The Alberta government has, according to Global News, expanded its sunshine list to disclosure the salaries for “all employees of public sector bodies, including Alberta Health Services and post-secondary institution.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “The City of Saint John has taken an important step toward greater transparency and accountability by launching an open data portal,” according to the Telegraph-Journal.

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

Author’s note: Publication of this column was delayed due to illness.

THE HIGH PRICE OF SECRECY

British Columbians are spending millions to make sure they can't find out what their elected officials are doing.

British Columbians are spending millions to make sure they can’t find out what their elected officials are doing. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The British Columbia government’s continued efforts to prevent the public from seeing its paperwork is costing millions of dollars each year.

The public is supposed to be able to access that paperwork using the province’s freedom of information law, allowing them to make “informed judgments about government policy” in the words of former New Democrat attorney general Colin Gablemann.

But the 53 exceptions or loopholes in that law, which Gablemann introduced 23 years ago, can make it extremely easy for the government to keep the public uninformed or misinformed.

For example, one of those loopholes allows the government to refuse access to any advice or recommendations about those policies. And another makes most of what happens in cabinet inaccessible, even though that’s where many policy decisions are made.

As a result, the government doesn’t just need bureaucrats to find records requested under its freedom of information law. It needs bureaucrats to apply those loopholes. It needs, in other words, censors.

According to the ministry where those bureaucrats work, the price of all that finding and censoring in fiscal 2014/15 averaged $2,358 per request, for a total cost of $19.7 million. That means the most prolific requesters can easily run up bills totalling $100,000 or more in their pursuit of government records and, often accountability.

I certainly must have when I was covering provincial politics and filing over a hundred requests each year. After all, thanks to the muzzling of the bureaucracy, those requests (even with their limitations) are one of the few means reporters have of finding out what the government doesn’t want you to find out.

That’s also why freelancer Bob Mackin, who has written for publications such as The Tyee, Business in Vancouver and the Vancouver Courier, filed 1,913 freedom of information requests in the almost five years between Jan. 1, 2009 and Sept. 22, 2014.

Those requests, which made up 40 percent of the total filed by the media during that time period, resulted in big stories, small stories and often times no story at all – the later being a common experience for reporters using freedom of information laws.

Among Mackin’s biggest stories were those that revealed the government:

• feared a riot if the Vancouver Canucks lost game seven of the Stanley Cup finals;

• considered privatizing its liquor stores;

• used 2010 Winter Olympic advertisements to promote Premier Gordon Campbell; and

• wanted to invest in a Victoria condominium development with “unresolved” financial issues.

According to a freedom of information request filed by a private individual and sent to me by Mackin, the government claims the reporter’s requests costed $3.85 million to respond to.

But that price, which was calculated by just dividing the cost of all requests responded to between Jan. 1, 2009 and Sept. 22, 2014 with the total number Mackin filed, was likely unnecessary.

By closing some of the bigger loopholes in its records access law, the government wouldn’t need so many censors to read and then blank-out information before it’s released to individuals such as Mackin. And by releasing more records without requiring costly access requests, the government could further reduce its expenses.

In fact, releasing more records without requests is something British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham and her predecessors have repeatedly recommended.

For example, in a 2013 investigation report, Denham advised government to routinely publish 18 different kinds of information, ranging from government calendars, contracts and audits to public opinion polls, statistical surveys and economic forecasts.

But, despite an initial limited and now utterly discredited initiative to make her government more open, Premier Christy Clark hasn’t heeded that advice.

And, as a result, British Columbians are continuing to pay to keep themselves in the dark.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Calgary Herald reports the Supreme Court of Canada will “hear a case that Alberta’s access czar says could impact her office’s ability to provide effective oversight when organizations refuse to release records requested under the province’s freedom of information law.” (hat tip: Charles Rusnell)

• The Guelph Mercury’s editorial board writes, “We hope the incoming [federal Liberal] regime demonstrates a will to enhance transparency.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Toronto Star’s public editor Kathy English hopes incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau’s “call for ‘sunny ways’ does indeed shine much-needed light on Canada’s government.”

• Writing in the Hill Times, long-time freedom of information advocate Ken Rubin states Trudeau must “act quickly to introduce transparency legislation as majority governments become more defensive and secretive over time. So far though, Trudeau has announced as his first legislative priorities a law to give income ‘relief’ to middle class earners and an amended anti-terror Bill C-51.”

• In an op-ed published in the Chronicle-Herald, University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jone and freelancer Emily Kitagawa states there is “reason for skepticism” about the federal Liberals promise to reform the Access to Information Act.

• The Winnipeg Free Press’s editorial board writes it won’t be surprised if the federal Liberals fail to live up to their lofty promise to be open and accountable. “It is, after all, just part of tradition in this country.”

• Science journalist Margaret Munro writes that even a “modest improvement” in the federal government’s communication with the media will be welcome. “But a return to more open government will require not only new policy, but also a new mindset in the bureaucracy the Conservatives have left behind.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman writes, “It is crucial that this trend of limiting media access be reversed. Journalists at the very least act as a proxy for citizens; we have access – or should – to those in power. In order to hold governments to account, reporters require access to those governments. This is how journalists can expose bad behaviour – systemic or individual (the senate scandal, Rob Ford) – and effect change. When journalists are cut off, society suffers.”

• “Restoring the mandatory long-form census in time for the 2016 survey is doable,” according to two former chief statisticians of Statistics Canada who spoke to the Globe and Mail.

• Two people working on Kennedy Stewart’s campaign asked Global BC reporter Catherine Urquhart and her cameraman to leave the NDP MP’s office on election night, reports Burnaby Now.

• CBC News reports air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukas is “calling on the Transportation Safety Board to release more information about a Porter Airlines flight that made an emergency landing in Sydney [N.S.] earlier this week.”

• The Calgary Herald’s Darcy Henton tweets that Alberta’s environment ministry wants $1,423 for records about what options it considered before deciding to repair the Kananaskis Country Golf Course. (hat tip: Erika Stark)

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• Last month, British Columbia’s information commissioner released a investigation report that found staff in Premier Christy Clark’s government “delete emails response to access to information requests,” “wilfully or negligently” failed to produce records responsive to those requests and failed to “keep any sent emails, irrespective of the topic.” In response, Clark has ordered her cabinet minister and all political staff to save their email.

• Following the release of that report, columnists and editorial boards were critical of what BC NDP Opposition leader John Horgan called a culture of deception, deceit and “delete, delete, delete” in the Clark administration. Among them were the Vancouver Sun, the Times Colonist, the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, the Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason, the National Post’s Brian Hutchison, the Province’s Michael Smyth, The Tyee’s Paul Willcocks, the North Shore NewsKamloops This Week, the Peace Arch News and the Cowichan Valley Citizen’s Andrea Rondeau.

• In an open letter to Clark, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs writes that it is “shocked, alarmed and deeply offended” that records about the Highway of Tears were among those deleted by the Clark administration.

• The Times Colonist reports the head of the province’s public service also “apparently never kept any records related to the firing of eight drug researchers during the two-year period when the provincial government was under heavy fire for its handling of the case.”

• In the wake of these revelations, the Georgia Straight reports the BC NDP is “collecting a growing body of evidence that proves a Liberal government practice of deleting emails was ‘systemic’ and explicitly for the purpose of preventing the release of information to the public.”

• The Times Colonist’s Les Leyne reports British Columbia’s information commissioner is swamped with complaints about the handling of access requests by the province’s government.

• In an interview with CKNW’s Jon McComb, the minister responsible for introducing British Columbia’s freedom of information law Colin Gabelmann speaks about the history of that legislation.

• Newfoundland and Labrador’s information commissioner has ordered that province’s government to release records about how much an external consultant charges for information technology work.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• CBC News reports a retired New Brunswick high school teacher is “fighting what he calls ‘ridiculous’ secrecy at one of the province’s school districts for failing to disclose information over the naming of a new school in Woodstock.”

• The Ubyssey reports that lack of answer around University of British Columbia president Arvid Gupta’s resignation has resulted in a “deluge” of freedom of information requests at the post-secondary institution.

• “How much the District of Muskoka [Ont.] is setting aside for capital projects could become shrouded in secrecy to prevent skewed bids from contractor,” according to the Bracebridge Examiner.

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

Author’s note: Publication of this column was cancelled last week due to illness.

THE WEEK CANADIAN JOURNALISM WAS BETRAYED

The National Post's front page endorsement of Conservatives Leader Stephen Harper could have troubling consequences for its employees, as well as its bottom line. (Graphic by National Post)

The National Post’s front page endorsement of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper could have troubling consequences for its employees, as well as its bottom line. (Graphic by National Post)

By endorsing the Conservatives for another term in government, some of Canada’s biggest dailies have betrayed both democracy and themselves.

Last week, papers owned by Postmedia Network Inc., the country’s largest English-language daily newspaper publisher, ran editorials with headlines such as “Conservatives are the most prudent choice,” “Let’s keep Harper’s steady hand on the helm” and “No change is best.”

Those papers were joined by the Globe and Mail, which endorsed the Tories but not Stephen Harper – seemingly and improbably suggesting his party colleagues weren’t, at the very least, responsible for enabling their leader’s baser decisions.

In the main, the pith of those newspapers’ contestable argument is that, according the Vancouver Sun, “The Harper government has kept a steady hand on the economic rudder” and, as such, is “best able to maintain a stable and healthy economy.”

Yet at least some of those editorials also affirmed the Conservative’s slide into crypto-despotism.

For example, the Montreal Gazette wrote that the party has “demonstrated high-handed disrespect for Parliament and the democratic process on occasion.” Meanwhile, the Ottawa Citizen was even more fulsome, stating Harper has:

…picked political fights with major pillars of our democratic system – Elections Canada, the judiciary, officers of parliament – for no obvious reason apart from the fact that they appear to stand in his way. Under his watch there were unreasonably high levels of moral and even criminal corruption among some of those closest to him. He has indulged his MPs in their quest to make a mockery of Question Period.

That means, in their endorsements, those papers weren’t just choosing between left and right. They were choosing between democracy and stability. And, in the end, they choose what they see as stability.

In a strange way, it was a very Canadian decision.

Our nation was born in the lukewarm cauldron of colonial deference rather than revolution, with its founding document declaiming the importance of peace, order and good governance.

That secular trinity of stability – which contrasts sharply with the American commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – is exemplified by our secretive, winner-take-all, Father Knows Best political system and is part of our often unacknowledged political values.

For example, in 2014, 24 percent of Canadian surveyed by AmericasBarometer said it would be justifiable for the prime minister to govern without Parliament if the country was facing very difficult times.

Among the other countries polled in the western hemisphere, only respondents in Haiti, Peru and Paraguay were more supportive of such a coup.

Similarly, just 45 percent of Canadians approve of people participating in legal demonstrations – 10 percentage points lower than respondents in the United States.

Nevertheless, it was still jarring to see newspapers favour a party that has shown such disdain and disregard for democracy because, in its absence, journalism is put in peril.

Without the twin freedoms of expression and information associated with that political system, the power of reporters to challenge the decisions and actions of those they cover is crippled.

Those freedoms have always been less than absolute in Canada – sometimes to serve the public interest and too often to serve the private interests of the powerful.

But the Conservatives, like the Liberals when they were in government, have further attenuated them, something the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders decried in a statement released late last week.

That attenuation deepens Canada’s democratic deficit, and possibly the financial deficits of its already flagging newspapers.

After all, who will pay to read those publications if the journalists who write for them become more and more frustrated in their ability to report on what the government doesn’t want the public to know about?

Yet neither Postmedia nor the Globe and Mail seem to have recognized that four more years of the Conservatives might be bad news for them – regardless of what it would mean for the rest of Canada.

It would be easy to blame the owners and managers of those newspapers for this lack of foresight. But, with a few notable exceptions, too many reporters in this election were just as negligent in covering issues such as government secrecy and accountability.

That collective failure brings into relief the question of how much responsibility journalists and their employers feel they have to protect the freedoms they exercise on behalf of the public. And during this campaign, in newsrooms across the country, the answer, tragically, appears to have been very little.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones’s latest annual freedom of information audit has been released by Newspapers Canada. That audit “ tells the story not only of Newfoundland and Labrador’s success and Ottawa’s failure, but also of foot-dragging by police forces, and widespread resistance at all levels of government to releasing computer data in formats useful in the digital age.”

• Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has released a report card grading the four major political parties for their stances on critical free expression issues.

• A coalition of 22 civil society groups concerned about the disrepair of Canada’s Access to Information Act has distributed a statement noting “the NDP and Liberal parties have included commitments in their platforms to improve the Act. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party did not see fit to even mention access to information in its platform.”

• CBC News’s Neil Macdonald argues that the federal government is simply prosecuting embarrassment by calling in the RCMP to investigate leaks at Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

• “Four years after he first asked Health Canada for all the information it had on a popular morning sickness drug, Toronto doctor Nav Persaud finally has the documents,” reports the Toronto Star. “But he cannot tell his patients or any other Canadians what’s in them” because of a confidentiality agreement he had to sign with the federal regulator.

• “Thousands of pages of correspondence and briefing notes on the federal government’s anti-terror Bill C-51 are so secret the government won’t disclose its reasons for censoring them,” according to Global News.

• “Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau scolded some of his own supporters Thursday after a journalist’s question on the resignation of his campaign co-chair elicited groans,” reports the Huffington Post.

• “Transport Canada is not releasing the results of its last two inspections of the Ambassador Bridge,” reports CBC News. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News takes a look at the back-and-forth debate over cameras in the courts. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• “Despite several high-profile privacy breaches and controversies over the destruction of government documents, MLAs studying changes to B.C.’s Freedom of Information legislation have had to cancel public meetings due to lack of interest in the topic,” reports the Vancouver Sun.

• IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis argues that cancellation may have had less to do with a lack of interest and more to do with the fact those meetings were announced during a federal election campaign, on the Friday before the Thanksgiving Day long weekend.

• The Telegraph-Journal opines that the New Brunswick government’s “treatment of a series of independent legislative officers shows a disturbing pattern — a growing cavalier attitude toward these important watchdog roles.” That treatment includes ignoring the province’s information commissioner.

• The Times-Transcript’s Norbert Cunningham writes that the Atcon fiasco demonstrates “why taxpayers should demand far more acountability from provincial governments, They all provide grants, subsidies, and loans in efforts to spur economic development. Have we ever seen a full accounting of outcomes? We hear positive announcements and expectations. Politicians boast when recipients prosper, but run for cover if they fail. We get an overall accounting of spending and losses, but few details.”

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

FEW CELEBRATE ALBERTA ACCESS LAW ANNIVERSARY

Reporters were among those who failed to observe 20 years of freedom of information in Alberta. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Reporters were among those who failed to observe 20 years of freedom of information in Alberta. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

It was the 20th anniversary of Alberta’s freedom of information law last week. But there were few Albertans who observed that anniversary, even among reporters who should be – but too often aren’t – using that law in the public interest.

Alberta tabled its records access legislation in 1994, 14 years after the same thing happened in Canada’s Parliament and 29 years after the American Freedom of Information Act was introduced in the United States Senate.

That made the province the second to last jurisdiction on the continent to give its citizens a legal means of requesting unreleased government records. Yet Alberta replicated and reinforced the flaws in Canada’s other access laws.

Like those other laws, the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act restricts or denies access to records that would reveal internal discussions, debates or divisions over government decisions.

Moreover, the regulations accompanying that legislation made Alberta the most expensive province to file freedom of information requests, turning something that should be a right into a privilege.

It also allows public bodies to refuse access to the meeting minutes and agendas of their governing councils. And it was later amended to deny access to ministerial briefing notes and binders.

Indeed, according to Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, Albert’s access law features an “enormous amount of wiggle room for recalcitrant public officials who would seek to avoid disclosure of embarrassing information”

That explains why the Edmonton Journal’s Linda Goyette once described that law as being an “oxymoron in action,” with her colleague Graham Thompson joking that FOIP stands for “Fuck Off, It’s Private.”

It also explains why Alberta, along with New Brunswick and the federal government, has been ranked as having the worst freedom of information law in the country.

And it explains why Newspapers Canada recently awarded the province failing grades in the timeliness and completeness of the records it releases.

Nevertheless, Alberta’s access law has still helped journalists tell stories the government would have otherwise suppressed, the very definition of news, according to 19th century British newspaper baron Alfred Harmsworth.

For example, in 2013, the Edmonton Journal’s Karen Kleiss and the Calgary Herald’s Darcy Henton used freedom of information requests to prove the ministry of human services had “dramatically under-reported the number of child welfare deaths over the past decade, undermining public accountability and thwarting efforts at prevention and reform.”

Then, a year later, CBC News’s Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell used freedom of information requests to help uncover the “personal and political use of public resources” by former premier Allison Redford.

The 20th anniversary of Alberta’s access law coming into force, which took place this past Thursday, was a chance to comment on those successes, as well as the legislation’s failings.

The province’s information commissioner Jill Clayton even organized Right to Know Week forums in Calgary and Edmonton where that could happen.

Yet it was the bureaucrats responsible for processing the province’s freedom of information requests who seemed to make up the majority of the audience.

For example, in Edmonton, a show of hands revealed there were just three members of the public in attendance, as well as four reporters: frequent freedom of information request filers Rusnell and Russell, as well as the Globe and Mail’s Justin Giovannetti and the BBC’s Matt Danzico.

That’s both maddening and saddening when you consider the Edmonton Journal’s downtown headquarters is just a 13-minute walk away from the Federal Building, where that forum took place.*

Nor, according to the Canadian Newsstand and Google News, did the Journal, or any other newspaper in the province, print a word about the anniversary of Alberta’s freedom of information law.

Yet, that might not be surprising when you consider how little reporters use that legislation.

For example, in fiscal 2012/13, the media is estimated to have been responsible for just 110 access requests to provincial government ministries.

That represents 4.6 percent of the total or 2.8 requests per 100,000 people in this province.

By comparison, the media filed 29.9 requests per 100,000 people in British Columbia – over ten times more.

Alberta’s $25 freedom of information application fee, as well as the time-and-cash-strapped condition of its news outlets, may be part of the reason for those numbers.

But if it were the whole reason, wouldn’t you expect more op-eds and editorials demanding the repair of the province’s broken access system?

Wouldn’t you have expected reporters to write and talk about that disrepair during the recent Alberta election, where one of the most important issues was government accountability?

After all, it was in their private interest, as well as the public interest, to have done so.

Of course, Alberta’s reporters aren’t alone in being an inconstant friend to freedom of information.

According to Canadian Newsstand and Google News, the only newspapers to mention Canada’s Right to Know Week were the Chronicle Herald, the Coast, the Provost News, the Telegram and the Winnipeg Sun.

The Provost News and the Chronicle-Herald, along with the Medicine Hat News, were also the only newspapers to write about an effort by 22 civil society groups to convince political party leaders to commit to four key reforms to the federal Access to Information Act.*

My colleagues may look askance at me for writing this column. Such is the sensitivity of too many reporters in this country.

But this country, compared with the United States, has precious few resources for reporters who want to be more than heralds for the privileged and the powerful.

Freedom of information laws, however flawed they are, are one of those resources.

But unless reporters use and advocate for that legislation, those flaws will continue to deepen until the laws themselves fracture, leaving nothing left to celebrate.

* = Disclosure: I was an invited speaker at the Right to Know Week forums in Calgary and Edmonton. I’m also 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 organized the meeting where those reforms were drafted.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Coast, Halifax’s alternative newspapers, says it best: “Canada really sucks at access to information.” (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• Vice News reports on a leaked email showing “Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs is miffed its employees are leaking classified internal documents to the media and wants them to stop.”

• Freelancer Bob Mackin reports lawyer Amelia Salehabadi Fouques, a director on the board of the Canadian Soccer Association, believes the organization needs to take drastic action to make it a leader in transparency.

• The National Observer reports, “A potentially explosive parliamentary investigation into the Harper government’s so-called ‘muzzling’ of government scientists shows no signs of being released before the federal election on Oct.19, despite Canada’s Information Commissioner digging into it for more than two and a half years.”

According to the Canadian Press, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, while visiting Nunavut, announced, “A New Democrat government would create a new parliamentary office to provide solid scientific advice and analysis to politicians, and would encourage scientists to speak their minds.”

• The Edmonton Journal reports a group of University of Alberta scientists have joined the Canadian Association of University Teachers in calling for a “new direction in science police and an end to [the] muzzling of federal scientists.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• New Brunswick’s public safety department is refusing to give the Telegraph-Journal details about the deaths of the 11 people who died in provincial custody since 2004. A department spokesperson told the newspaper in July that those details were being kept secret “out of respect for the deceased and the families.” But the government is now promising to review that policy.

• The Telegraph-Journal’s Karissa Donkin filed a freedom of information request for records related to her fight to obtain New Brunswick’s daycare inspection reports. The response was less than illuminating.

• The Chronicle Herald reports Nova Scotia’s chief information access and privacy officer believes the province’s freedom of information legislation “serves members of the public quite well.” But columnist Paul Schneidereit reports on the repeated complaints about that legislation, as well as the government’s refusal to keep a commitment to fix the law.

• “The Ontario government funnelled at least $2.1-million in taxpayers’ money over the past two years to Liberal-connected consultants and advertising agencies,” reports the Globe and Mail. “The funds came from the caucus services budget, a pool of money subject to minimal disclosure rules.”

• “The Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations is taking St. Thomas University to court over the universities refusal to release details of severance agreements of three administrators between 2012 and 2013,” according to the Aquinian.

• The Winnipeg Sun reports Saskatchewan Finance Minister Greg Dewar has announced “the public will now have greater access to information related to government contract [sic] with the creation of a database that includes monthly summaries of purchase orders and outline agreements worth $10,000 or more. Details will include the name of the vendor, the purpose of the contract, the value, the duration of the contract, and significant contract amendments.”

• Newfoundland and Labrador has released a draft open government plan. That plan promises to “streamline and enhance the access to information process,” as well as “expand the amount of publicly available government information.”

• Public servant Bonnie Nelson has been awarded the 2015 Robert C. Clark Award which “recognizes a significant contribution to advancing access to information in Alberta.” According to the office of Alberta’s information commissioner, Nelson “successfully implementing the first routine disclosure program for Alberta Environment, which helped pave the way for other open data initiatives in the province.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Former Vancouver Non-Partisan Association council candidate Mike Klassen encourages whoever becomes the city’s new manager to make it a “model of openness and ask staff how you can exceed standards for access to information.”

• The City of Winnipeg has announced “public information released by the City through Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) applications, along with additional proactively disclosed civic government documents, will be published online and accessible to everyone.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• “Coun. Richard Carpenter is filing a complaint of an improper closed meeting against the City of Brantford for a budget task force meeting,” reports the Brant News.

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

PAY PER VIEWING GOVERNMENT RECORDS

The New Brunswick government's records access law recommendations will do little to help information seekers in that province. (Graphic by Province of New Brunswick)

The New Brunswick government’s records access law recommendations will do little to help information seekers in that province. (Graphic by Province of New Brunswick)

COST BENEFIT? New Brunswick may soon demonstrate how little excuse Canada’s governments need to take away our information rights — especially when compared with how much is needed for those rights to be upheld.

Right now, the province is the only place in the country where access requests are free, having eliminated them in 2011.

But a recent government review of its Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, stated public bodies had asked for the “re-instatement of a fee regime, not for full-cost recovery, but as a way to share some of the cost between themselves and the applicant.”

In response, the government recommended the request be evaluated, even though the reports acknowledges the province continues to have “the lowest number of RTI requests per capita.”

Indeed, in 2013-14, government departments received just 581 requests at an estimated cost of $680,000 or an average of $1,170 per request.

That means, even if the province introduced a $25 filing fee — matching Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut for the highest amount in Canada — that watchdog tax would only bring in $14,525 for those departments.

And if it introduced separate processing fees to help cover the cost of locating, reviewing and copying records, many journalists, activists and their employers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay them.

But none of that, including arguments from reporters that “imposing fees is undemocratic,” seems to have swayed the New Brunswick government.

Nor did the government seem worried about the involvement of communications officers in processing access requests, the amount of censorship allowed by its right to information law and the commissioner’s inability to review claims of solicitor-client privilege in preventing the release of records — all complaints mentioned in its review that aren’t planned on being addressed.

Indeed, taken as a whole, the review’s recommendations would likely do little to help that right and much more to harm it, despite a 2012 report from the Centre for Law and Democracy rating New Brunswick’s access legislation as already being among the worst in the country.

Yet what more can we expect in a country where almost every other government has delayed fixing their own broken freedom of information laws while exploiting that disrepair for their own benefit?

YOU CAN’T FIGHT CITY HALL If New Brunswick does re-instate a watchdog tax, its municipalities will be partially to blame.

The province’s cities, towns and villages have long had a conflictual relationship with its right to information law.

The government made them subject to that law just three years ago — something they tried to delay.

The reason for that attempted delay: concerns about the cost of requests, as well as the amount of staffing and training required to respond to them.

Those concerns continued even after that effort failed.

There were reports some municipalities would need to hire expensive lawyers to cope with the province’s records access law.

Local politicians also worried their constituents might be afraid to come to them with their complaints if a request might disclose their identity.

And those same politicians had their own complaints about the price tag of this new transparency.

In 2013, the Daily Gleaner paraphrased a Fredericton councillor as saying the city spent more than $100,000 in staff time responding to access requests over the past year, with one taking over 100 hours to process.

Then, two years later, the same newspaper reported a request filed with New Maryland required the reading of 2,000 pages of information and consultation with the village’s law firm.

“If this went on on a monthly basis it would drain us,” Mayor Judy Wilson-Shee told the Daily Gleaner. “It’s very time consuming and we are not compensated in any way.”

Such financial complaints resulted in local government association resolutions asking for a right to information cost-recovery system — something the province is now considering.

Yet, according to the government, New Brunswick’s three largest cities dealt with just 227 filings in the two years after Sept. 2012, with all but one other community having gotten less than a dozen over that same period.

THE MOST UNWANTED RIGHT IN ALBERTA? That’s the title of the speech I’ll be giving in Calgary and Edmonton at Right to Know Week forums being organized by the Alberta’s information commissioner Jill Clayton. Those forums will take place on Sept. 29 and Oct. 1 respectively, providing an opportunity to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the province’s freedom of information legislation. So if you’re in either city on those dates, I’d love to see you there.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Writing in Maclean’s magazine, former Power & Politics host Evan Solomon opines that “Hillary Clinton’s use of her personal email for state work could well derail her campaign.” But in Canada, where public officials routinely use similar tactics to hide their communications from freedom of informations requests, “it’s still the dirty secret of government.” (hat tip: Dale Bass)

• “Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has made more than two dozen secret cabinet decisions, hiding any trace of them from Parliament and Canadians,” reports iPolitics.

• Maclean’s magazine filed an access request for “how many Syrian and Iraqi refugees have arrived in Canada since January, how many are privately sponsored, and how many came with government assistance.” But that request was denied because it concerned “material available for purchase by the public.” The magazine was also informed the cost of producing a customized report from Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s database would be “$100 for the first 10 minutes or less of access…plus $30 for each additional minute or less of access. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Province reports a protracted federal access request for records about the strangling death of Jeremy Michael Phillips by his cellmate at the Mountain Institution in Agassiz in 2010 “provided little access and not much information.”

• The Canadian Press reports, “The federal department in charge of the monthly universal child care benefit is refusing to say how many families who had yet to sign up for the benefit opted to do so after a nationwide push earlier this year.” According to the wire service, “The decision to not release the numbers appears to be linked to a practice during election campaigns where federal departments decline to put out information lest they be considered to be acting in for or against the electoral interests of any party.”

• A promised federal government database on missing indigenous women is late and the costs for it have doubled, according to CBC News. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• In a column opining on the importance of democratic values — and the fact a “couple of key ones are mostly talk” in Canada — The Ottawa Citizen’s Shannon Gormley writes, “There’s a distant but distinct possibility, as I’ve argued before, that media outlets unfairly excluded from asking questions could theoretically start a charter challenge to protect the public’s right to know.”

• Embassy News managing editor Carl Meyer tweets that he filed an access request for any reports related to “technical and operational assistance” provided by the Communications Security Establishment Canada to “law enforcement and security agencies.” But the intelligence service has denied that request in its entirety because the disclosure of those reports would be harmful to the country’s national defence.

• The Toronto Star’s Alex Boutilier tweets that Canada’s top bureaucrat and cabinet secretaries met on Jan. 21 but “you can’t know a single thing about it.”

•  CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that the federal government has blacked out the results of 17 polls on oil that were requested under the Access to Information Act.

• Beeby also tweets that a seven-page Q&A document prepared for Finance Minister Joe Oliver on voluntary contributions to the Canada Pension Plan was also blacked out.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Daily Gleaner editorializes against increasing fees for information requests in New Brunswick, writing that “all levels of government should focus on the process itself. For starters, how they can make it more efficient. Whether it’s checking out groceries or paying bills at a terminal instead of through a person, people are being asked more and more to do some tasks themselves. Governments need to find out how much of the information people want can be placed online and have them find it.”

• The Daily Gleaner isn’t alone in its opposition to increasing information request fees. CBC News reports the province’s information commissioner has questioned the logic of that proposal, along with a recommendation to give bureaucrats the power to disregard frivolous or vexatious request.

• Former Times & Transcript editorial page editor Norbert Cunningham advances his own recommendations for freedom of information reform in New Brunswick. Among them: have government explicitly acknowledge one of the fundamental tenants of democracy theory — “with few exceptions, the public has a right to know what its government is doing on its behalf. Create and practice a culture of openness among politicians and bureaucracy. This must be the default approach. Compared to the United States, Canada has a political and bureaucratic culture of secrecy, often the default position for no good reason.”

• “The co-founder of a national anti-bullying charity says he’s disappointed with the response he’s received to an information request filed in relation to the work of a [New Brunswick] ministerial committee he was supposed to be part of,” reports the Bugle-Observer. “After five months of waiting, Rob Frenette of Bullying Canada said he received a response to a Right to Information request he made on April 20, seeking notes, emails, memos, briefing notes, letters and reports related to the work of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Positive Learning and Working Environments.” But “most documents drafted by the committee were withheld, as they fell under the umbrella of opinions, advice, proposals, and recommendations developed for the department or the minister.”

• The Centre for Law and Democracy has called the Quebec’s government proposed records access reforms “only a start.” As a result, it has prepared a submission outlining the “further changes it believes are necessary to bring [the province’s] right to information law more fully into line with international standards in this area.”

• Former British Columbia attorney general Geoff Plant, who introduced the province’s first lobbying legislation in 2001, writes in the Globe and Mail that the law is “increasingly being undermined by a misdirected focus on trivial violations of filing requirements.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Federal Court has ruled against the Peace Valley Landowner Association’s request for a judicial review of the government’s approval of the Site C dam in British Columbia. The Alaska Highway News reports the court found that decision was “justified — even though the government chose not to reveal its reasoning behind the decision to the courts.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “The Ottawa Police Service is going to great lengths to keep secret a publicly funded consultants’ report into a controversial officer transfer policy that the force scrapped months ago after backlash from its own officers,” reports the Ottawa Citizen.

• The Georgia Straight reports the B.C. Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the police complaint commissioner’s refusal to “disclose documents regarding his oversight of a Vancouver police officer’s fatal shooting of animator Paul Boyd.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Macleod Gazette reports a Fort Macleod, Alta man will “have to file an official request to find out how much the Town of Fort Macleod paid its former chief administrative officer when David Connauton was fired.”

• The Toronto Community Housing Corporation has “opted to meet in privacy Thursday for their first meeting since the end of July,” reports the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy. That decision was made despite an interim report from the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Housing that recommended the corporation’s staff need to be “respectful and courteous” to tenants, as well as listen to and communicate with them.

• Prince George, B.C.’s city council will be discussing “implementing a new process to release information from incamera [sic] sessions.” According to the northern community’s daily newspaper, “One method would be to have staff develop a policy like Vancouver or Nanaimo, who have developed policies around proactively releasing info online on a quarterly or semi-annual basis. Council could use another method where individual staff reports would identify what information in said reports was subject to closed meeting criteria and how or if it could be released. Or the city could keep the status quo, with releasing information on a case-by-case basis.”

• The Prince George Citizen’s Neil Godbout writes that the city’s councillors are “taking some encouraging steps towards increased transparency.” But Godbout also writes that demands for “unrestricted access to what is being shared at in-camera to what is being shared at in-camera meetings held by government and public sector officials” are “often unrealistic and unfair.”

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

A TRANSITORY PROBLEM?

How many of these files will be saved and how many will be deleted? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

How many of these files will be saved and how many will be deleted? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Freedom of information should give the people the power to know what decisions their governments are making, as well as how and why those decisions are being made. But Canada’s records access laws often curtail the public’s right to those hows and whys – a restriction that has been broadened in British Columbia, thanks to the use and alleged abuse of the province’s document destruction legislation.

The absence of that access is often difficult to appreciate amidst the volume of information routinely released to the public. For example, so far this year, the federal government has published 4,447 news releases and at least 708 other records.

But that’s usually information the government has chosen to make public – stuff it wants us to know about.

By contrast, freedom of information laws should allow access to information government doesn’t want us to know about.

Yet those laws, as they’ve been written in this country, often keep government policy advice secret – with the same privilege being afforded to cabinet and caucus meeting records. It’s these records that could best help Canadians understand the decisions made by their elected representatives.

To make British Columbia’s records access law even more impotent, provincial employees also delete information they define as “transitory” but others might not.

Consider this: on Feb. 26, cabinet minister Andrew Wilkinson appeared on a radio show to respond to criticisms that government communications officers have been frustrating media access to public servants.

A day later, I filed a freedom of information request for:

Any and all records, emails and communications materials Q&As, briefing notes, etc. connected to Andrew Wilkinson’s February 26, 2015 appearance on CBC Kelowna and preparations for that appearance…

In response, I received just nine pages of information which included media clippings, a four-page issue note and an email requesting the preparation of that document.

The note also included a list of public servants from several ministries who had spoken to the reporters in the past. So right then and there, I knew Wilkinson’s staff would had to have been in communication with those ministries to assemble that list.

The issue note would also have gone through an often extensive approval process before it was finalized. Those approvals, along with the communications to other ministries, may have included information that wasn’t in the issue note, helping further explain the whys and hows of its making.

Rodney Porter, the communications director for Wilkinson’s ministry, assured me that’s not the case. But I can’t make that determination for myself because the approvals, as well as any communications with other ministries, were deleted.

“As you know yourself, there would have been back-and-forth like, ‘What are you looking for? Why are you looking for this?’ And then, at the end of the day, what we keep is the final. Everyone’s happy with it. Send it to the minister’s office and that’s what you got.”

Everything else was wiped because, according to Porter, there was “no need” for that back-and-forth to “be kept as permanent records.”

Indeed, under the Document Disposal Act, government employees are allowed to delete transitory records but the definition of what constitutes such a record can seem ambiguous.

On one hand, for example, employees are advised they can trash “drafts and revisions that are not needed to document decisions and associated approvals,” as well as “routine correspondence about drafts and decisions.”

On the other hand, they are advised they have to save “drafts or revisions with information about a decision or associated approvals that is unavailable elsewhere (e.g., directions to change a proposal and recommend a different course of action).”

They are also advised to save “useful information that helps explain the history of a relationship, decision or project” – as well as “any transitory records that are relevant to a FOIPPA request.”

However, the interpretation of that advice is left with the employees themselves, which is more than a little like letting a half-starved fox guard a henhouse of well-fed chickens – especially given last week’s passage of legislation that eliminates penalties for improperly destroying documents.

And, if Tim Duncan – a former executive assistant to the province’s transportation minister – is to be believed, the government’s political staff have been abusing that liberty.

Speaking with the Times Colonist last week, Duncan said the “big joke” around the legislature was, “Well, everything’s transitory for us. So, we keep nothing.”

Moreover, when Duncan expressed concern about such practices to a superior, he was allegedly told, “It’s like in the [TV show] West Wing. You do whatever it takes to win.”

But secrecy, as the late United States senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote, is actually for losers.

It means our governments believe their decision-making is so suspect that it can’t withstand opposition, press or public scrutiny.

That’s the way our freedom of information laws were written.

That’s the way they’ve been repeatedly abused.

And that’s why the public right’s to know continues to be more honoured in the breach than the observance.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Times Colonist’s Jack Knox asks, “How goofy has the control-freak chokehold on the flow of information become in Ottawa? So goofy that placing a simple meeting notice in a community newspaper became a months-long process requiring the stamp of approval of the prime minister’s office.”

• The Globe and Mail reports, “The Canadian government is refusing to make public the assessments it conducts to determine whether Ottawa’s $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia is compatible with foreign policy or poses a risk to the civilian population in a country notorious for human-rights abuses.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Criticism of the government’s decision to retroactively deny access to long gun registry records continues, with the Law Times calling it an “outrage” and the Chronicle-Herald describing it as an “Orwellian attempt to change history.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• According to the Canadian Press, Treasury Board President Tony Clement has dismissed those criticisms saying, “You know, now we’re getting into angels dancing on the head of a pin, which lawyers are very good at and Ms. [Suzanne] Legault is a lawyer.” Legault is Canada’s information commissioner.

• “The federal government is using students and temp workers to bolster overwhelmed access to information offices,” according to the Toronto Star.

• CBC News’s Charles Rusnell tweets the University of Alberta’s upcoming access and privacy conference has “zip for FOIP/ATIP users.”

• OHS Canada quotes Rob Creasser, spokesperson for the Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada, as saying, “We have RCMP members that, literally, are too afraid to tell the Canadian public about their workplace.” Creasser told the magazine criticizing the RCMP is a “career-ending move.”

• Commenting on the muzzling of government scientists, the Chilliwack Progress’s Margaret Evans writes, “Without sound, peer-reviewed science, evidence-based policy decisions for the benefit of Canadians can’t be made. Canadians have a right to know what that science is.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• Tim Duncan, a former executive assistant to British Columbia’s transportation minister Todd Stone, has alleged, “Abuse of the Freedom of Information process is widespread and most likely systemic within the [Christy Clark] government.” That allegation, which was included in a letter sent to the province’s information commissioner, has been covered by the Canadian Press, CKNW, the National Post, the Times Colonist and the Vancouver Sun, among other. It was also the subject of commentary by CBC News’s Jason Proctor, the Georgia Straight’s Charlie Smith, the Times Colonist’s Les Leyne and the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, as well as the North Shore News.

• According to a poll conducted by Insights West Marketing Research Inc., just 15 percent of British Columbians think the province’s governing party has done a good job handling the issue of government accountability. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)

• The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons reports the Alberta body that reviews police-involved shootings has investigated nearly a dozen deaths in five months but won’t be releasing the names of any of the victims.

• Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has told reporters she is “concerned” about that policy, having “asked officials within the public service to put together a briefing for us on the issue and bring it back to us.”

• The Edmonton Journal reports Notely has also “asked for a full review of rules that dictate how high-ranking government officials document their work, and how the resulting records are stored and accessed by regular Albertans…She started the most recent review after Alberta access-to-information and public interest commissioners launched a joint investigation into allegations of illegal shredding in the dying days of the Tory dynasty.”

• Speaking of those allegations, the Canadian Press reports Notley believes that shredding may have been justified. The wire service quotes her as saying, “It’s important to understand that there are a lot of circumstances in which shredding is entirely appropriate and, in fact, failing to shred, in and of itself, can breach the legislation.”

• The Canadian Press reports, “The Manitoba government has spent public money conducting opinion polls and focus groups on its Steady Growth, Good Jobs advertising campaign, but the results are being kept secret under the province’s freedom of information law.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Winnipeg Free Press reports Manitoba Opposition Leader Brian Pallister has “accused Premier Greg Selinger of hiding behind the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act” in refusing to disclose severance payments made to former NDP staff members.

• CBC News reports, “The Manitoba government appears to have financial forecasts that outline when the province might return to a fully balanced budget as required by provincial law, but it is not making them public.”

• Ontario’s information commissioner is calling on the provincial government to “immediately” implement the recommendation of the Open Government Engagement Team’s Open By Default report.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Freelancer Bob Mackin reports the media relations department for Vancouver’s regional transportation authority told him to file freedom of information requests to get a response to “easy-to-answer” questions about its “consultants and the values of their contracts.” Mackin also discloses records showing a communications consultant telling an authority staffer not to return his messages.

• The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy writes, “I attended last Thursday evening’s [Toronto Community Housing] building investment, finance and audit committee hoping to get a copy of TCHC’s 2014 audited financial statement.” But Levy’s hopes were dashed.

• The Winnipeg Free Press reports, “Winnipeg city hall is moving ahead with plans to establish a lobbyists registry. Council unanimously supported a plan to instruct the administration to prepare a report outlining the required legislative amendments that would need to be made to the City of Winnipeg Charter Act.”

• The Frontenac Gazette reports Frontenac County, Ont. councillors and staff seem to have a lot of questions about the province’s new public sector accountability and transparency legislation. The newspaper quotes chief administrative officer Kelly Pender as saying, “Records management is now mandatory. I’m not sure what that means but you’ll have to keep records of emails.”

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

Author’s note: Publication of this column was delayed due to illness. Its regular publication will resume next week.

HARPER TRIES TO TAMPER WITH THE PAST

The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association takes a satirical shot at the Harper government. (Graphic by BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association takes a satirical shot at the Harper government. (Graphic by BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

Last week, much ink continued to be spilled about the Harper administration’s plan to retroactively deny access to long gun registry records and its muzzling of federal scientists. But those were just two of many freedom of information stories that made headlines and twitter posts in Canada.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• In response to federal government legislation that would retroactively deny access to long gun registry records, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has released a satirical Back to the Future movie poster criticizing Stephen Harper for creating the “greatest Parliamentary time machine ever built.” The RCMP had earlier deleted many of those records, despite a pending request for them. The government’s proposed law would make that deletion legal.

• The Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey takes a similar sarcastic approaching in commenting on the proposal.

• Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Free Press writes, “As usual, the Tories will be counting on their belief Canadians are more interested in pocket-book issues than matters of democracy and due process.”

• And, for its part, the Toronto Star states, “The Conservatives have just declared open season on rewriting history, by saying ‘Presto! Your right to lawful access never really existed!’ That can only embolden future governments to retroactively rewrite laws to erase their own wrongdoing. Playing by the new Tory rules the Liberals could have absolved themselves of wrongdoing in the sponsorship scandal. Or a government could absolve itself of electoral fraud.”

• However, according to the Canadian Press, legal and parliamentary experts say there’s “nothing to stop the Harper government” from doing such rewriting – even as Ontario Provincial Police investigate the RCMP’s deletion of long gun registry records. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The Rebel’s Brian Lilley criticizes the media’s “selected outrage” over the government’s move to amend its records access law. Liley notes such outrage wasn’t present when the CBC was “flouting” that legislation nor when the Ontario government exempted information about abortion from being requested in that province.

• Recently retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist Steve Campana has told CBC News the “muzzling of federal government scientists is worse than anyone can imagine.” According to Campana, “We have very strict directives of what we can say and the approval steps we have to go through, and very often that approval seems to be withheld for totally arbitrary reasons.”

• Canada’s three largest unions organized demonstrations last week protesting the muzzling of government scientists. Evidence for Democracy has put together a roundup of the resulting coverage and commentary. The unions are also looking to add language their collective agreements that would allow those scientists to publicly discuss their findings.

• “Stephen Harper skipped out on answering opposition questions in the House of Commons more often in 2015 than in any other year he has been prime minister,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. “Harper has attended only 35 per cent of the daily question periods in 2015, his lowest rate for any year since 2006, a Citizen analysis found.”

• “Canada Post is refusing to disclose any information related to complaints about mail delivery last year or the end of door-to-door home delivery,” according to the Toronto Star.

• The Globe and Mail reports that, even though many diplomatic missions produce annual reports evaluating the state of human rights for most countries, no such records appear to exist for the Saudi Arabia. That omission is notable because Canada recently signed a $15-billion arms deal with the Middle Eastern country. (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• “The federal Public Works department kept documents secret about an Ottawa building where concerns have been raised about employees being exposed to asbestos,” reports the Ottawa Citizen’s Jordan Press. Press later added on Twitter that the department “took issue” with that story.

• Suspended Senator Mike Duffy’s defence lawyers, Donald Bayne and Peter Doody, “want a copy of an internal report from 2013 on the Senate’s rules for figuring out whether senators actually live in the provinces they represent. They also want minutes from a closed-door meeting discussing what it found,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. But the “Senate is refusing to honour a subpoena asking for all that stuff” because, according to a court filing, it would imperil the institutions’s “freedom of speech, exclusive cognizance and control over debates and proceedings, control by the Houses of Parliament over their internal affairs, and disciplinary authority over its members.”

• The Ryerson Journalism Research Centre recaps some of the discussions that took place at the recent Flying Blind conference in Toronto, which examined the increasing lack of transparency in Canada.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• CBC News asked the Yukon government for a “list of people, job titles and salaries, where salaries were more than $100,000” – information that is routinely released in many other Canadian jurisdictions. But, according to the broadcaster, “the Public Service Commission would not release specific salaries, names or even titles with specific salaries.” The president of the union representing those employees says such as sunshine list would be a “complete invasion of privacy,” while the province’s acting deputy minister of finance says it could pose a “real security risk” to civil servants. (hat tip: John Thompson)

• The Times Colonist’s Les Leyne reports that, thanks to a six-month backlog of complaints waiting to be investigated, British Columbia’s information commissioner will be exercising her legal discretion to turn down cases. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia is expressing concern about recent amendments to Nova Scotia’s Fisheries and Coastal Resources Act. The amendments make “information on the health of farmed fish even less available by exempting veterinary records from the ambit of Nova Scotia’s access to information laws.”

• “Premier Kathleen Wynne insists she and her aides are not trying to suppress a controversial new behind-the-scenes documentary about her,” reports the Toronto Star. “As first disclosed by the Star, TVOntario has cancelled plans to broadcast Premier: The Unscripted Kathleen Wynne after the film’s director quit in protest.”

*• The Calgary Herald criticizes the Alberta government for taking almost three years (and counting) to release the expenses of Calgary Health Region chief executive Jack Davis.

• The Telegraph-Journal reports New Brunswick’s education and early childhood development departments “won’t disclose any details about a daycare that had a worker on staff last year who failed a criminal and social background check” for legal and privacy reasons.

• Commenting on the alleged improper shredding of documents by Alberta government ministries, the Mountaineer’s Bernadine Visotto writes that such actions reflect the outgoing Tory government’s “way of doing things.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Sudbury, Ont.’s Bob Daigle has “scored a major victory in a long-standing battle with city hall.” The Sudbury Star reports the province’s division court has ruled in favour of his five-year-old request for the “salaries, leaves of absence, severance, vacation, pension benefits and other benefits” of senior city employees.

• Brampton, Ont. councillors “voted unanimously on a motion Wednesday to have all closed municipal meetings electronically recorded and kept on file,” reports the Brampton Guardian.

• Grey County, Ont. is “joining many of its major municipal peers across the country by creating opportunities for anyone to dive into government-created data through an Open Data portal,” reports the Meaford Express.

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

COULD JOURNALISTS UNITED DEFEAT GOVERNMENT PR?

What will it take to break the control of public relations over government information? (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

What will it take to break the control of public relations over government information? (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

SIGN, SIGN, EVERYWHERE A SIGN? There could be something happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

That’s what I’m thinking after the publication of yet another column excoriating the obstructionism of government communications officials.

Including my own open letter addressed to those officials, it’s the third such column written this year, winning plaudits from fellow reporters.

So to put all that activity in perspective, I’ve Storified those columns and some of the reaction to them – a collection that suggests Canadian spin doctors may be finally pushing their information control efforts too far.

You can check it out here.

ACCESS COMMITTEE PROCRASTINATES ON STUDYING REFORM The House of Commons committee responsible for Canada’s records access law won’t be studying recommendations to fix that legislation before the upcoming election.

Information commissioner Suzanne Legault made those recommendations in a report released at the end of March.

Earlier this month, NDP MP Charlie Angus, a committee member, proposed inviting Legault to “inform us on what she found in her report and her recommendations.”

Speaking in support of that proposal, fellow NDP MP Charmaine Borg stated, “I think it is important that we have the opportunity to ask questions about these recommendations to determine what we, as parliamentarians, can do. I think it would be good to leave a legacy for the next Parliament.”

But the committee – which has a Conservative majority – unsurprisingly voted down the motion, cutting off an opportunity to discuss how secretive the Canadian government has become.

NEWSPAPER DOESN’T FOLLOW PAPER TRAIL RECOMMENDATION Last month, the Globe and Mail joined with the Toronto Star in endorsing Legault’s report. But it’s worth remembering the newspaper’s editorial board also been somewhat equivocal in its support for one of the principle reforms in that report.

Legault has recommended new rules that would force federal officials to document their decision-making. After all, if that doesn’t happen, there will be no records for the public to request under the Access to Information Act.

Yet, when a similar recommendation was made by information commissioners in British Columbia and Ontario, the Globe and Mail wrote, “While officials should certainly create written records of actual decisions, cabinet ministers and their closest advisers should be free to talk about the reasons for a decision without making a paper or electronic memorandum. Their motives and purposes are best scrutinized in parliamentary debate, question periods and legislative committees.”

In other words, the paper seems to believe the public doesn’t need to know exactly how and why government decisions are made, so long as they can ask questions about that process – which, by the way, the government routinely refuses to answer. And whatever could be wrong with that?

ALLIED FORCES? Of course, the Globe and Mail isn’t alone in its equivocal support for freedom of information. As I’ve written before, the Canadian news media have sometimes appeared to be inconstant allies of this cause.

Indeed, in the 1979 book Administrative Secrecy in Developed Countries, Carleton University political science professor Donald C. Rowat offered this explanation as to why that might be:

To reporters and the news media, the lack of a general right of access to administrative documents is not directly apparent as a serious problem because their concern is with immediate news of a policy nature, and because of the huge flow of publications and information released by the federal and provincial government…

Moreover, ministers issue many news releases and may hold press conferences. They or senior officials are often willing to grant interviews in which they give background information and views which are not for quotation or attribution. All this creates the impression that there is a free flow of administrative information. Reporters tend to forget that they do not have access to the original information and documents, and that the Government releases to them only what it chooses to release.

But I wonder whether increased obfuscation by the government public relations professionals who prepare those releases are now reminding reporters about that lack of access?

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Information commissioner Suzanne Legault said last week the government is setting a “perilous precedent” by retroactively changing the law to deny access to long gun registry records. On Apr. 5, 2012, government legislation ordering the destruction of those records came into force. But, before that happened, someone filed an access request for them. That meant those records couldn’t legally be destroyed until after the request was completed – something Legault reminded the government of. But the RCMP went ahead and deleted much of the electronic information it had, subsequently providing the requester with partial access to that data. A complaint was filed and the commissioner advised government charges could be laid against the RCMP under the Access to Information Act – something the government’s legal change would rule out.

• If you need a primer on that controversial change, the Canadian Press’s Bruce Cheadle has assembled a timeline of all the key dates leading up to it. Cheadle also had the story about the reason for that change before anyone else did.

• The National Post, the Montreal Gazette and the Telegram have all written editorials condemning the government’s plan to retroactively deny access to long gun registry records. And the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has penned a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper conveying the same message.

• The Toronto Star reports that, since the Conservatives took office, eight government watchdogs and three senior bureaucrats have been “stifled or impugned” as a result of being forthright. The most recent addition to that list is outspoken correctional investigator of Canada Howard Sapers. (hat tip: Murray Langdon)

• The National Post paraphrases former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh as saying there is still time to “reinstate the long form census for 2016 – but that decision must be made by June, ahead of the federal election in the fall. Otherwise we lose two censuses in a row, with consequently greater harm to Canada’s statistical foundations.”

• Commenting on the government’s apparent lack of interest in evidence-based decision-making, Scientists for the Right to Know president Margrit Eichler writes, “It seems that our government likes to fly blind. The problem is, we are all sitting in the same plane. Once instruments have been as thoroughly destroyed as they have been by this government, it is not a simple matter to re-install them. And the crash will affect us all.”

• The Toronto Star’s public editor Kathy English praises the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s sixth annual report, writing that it is “packed full of such eloquent, thoughtful articles and essays that speak loudly and clearly to the many threats to freedom of expression and the right to information — and why we should care.”

• The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has posted the top takeaways and talking points from its full-day conference on the problems plaguing our access to information system.

• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association had its annual general meeting last week. The meeting featured a talk by civil libertarian Carmen Cheung on the federal government’s anti-terrorism legislation.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark thinks the province’s freedom of information law is in need of reform. He tells the Calgary Herald, “Provisions intended to provide a shield to protect people’s privacy, are being used as a sword by governments and powerful individuals to prevent the release of information to which Albertans are entitled.” Clark was reacting to news that “the expenses of a former chief executive of the Calgary Health Region remain shrouded in secrecy nearly three years after media outlets and opposition parties requested their release.”

• CBC News reports Alberta’s information commissioner and public interest commissioner have announced a joint investigation into the allegedly improper destruction of documents by the province’s outgoing Progressive Conservative government. Following that announcement, at the request of premier-designate Rachel Notley, the deputy minister of executive council ordered Alberta’s ministries to stop any shredding. (hat tip: Keith Stewart)

• The Calgary Herald writes that Alberta’s new government should act on provincial information commissioner Jill Clayton’s recommendation to put in place a law that “compels public bodies to ‘document their decisions, actions, advice, recommendations and deliberations’ and ‘ensure that all records are covered in records retention and disposition schedules.’ If her advice is heeded, it will be much less likely that public records are imperilled as politicians change seats and the reins of power are handed over to a new crew.”

• The Vancouver Courier’s Geoff Olson writes that “journalists, activists and engaged citizens” still have no way to access the 33,000 boxes of British Columbia historic government documents that, until recently, were simply being stored in four warehouses. “This has been more than a major case of Vaulzheimer’s,” states Olson. “It’s been classification by default. In July, B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham expressed shock that the situation had gone on unaddressed for 10 years.”

• The Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer reports that BC NDP MLA Adrian Dix questioned why government lawyers said last year that records related to controversial firings at the province’s health ministry couldn’t be released because the matter was under police investigation. The reason: in early 2015, the government advised the wrongly-dismissed employees that the ministry wasn’t seeking such an investigation and “leaving the impression that the matter had been dropped some time earlier.” (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The Toronto Star reports that Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services spent three years fighting the release of information about when DNA was collected and tested in connection with the sexual assaults and killings committed by air force colonel Russell Williams. Those dates raise questions about whether faster testing could have saved the life of one of Williams’s victims.

• A CBC-Michener-Deacon investigation has revealed De Beers Canada paid just $226 in royalties on diamonds mined from the province’s only diamond mine. But that royalty information has previously been a “closely guarded secret” – something that has “baffled many experts consulted by the CBC, including accountants, and auditors.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Winnipeg Free Press reports that when it asked for details of a new five-year contract between Manitoba’s chiropractors and the provincial Health Department, “a cabinet spokeswoman advised a reporter to file a freedom-of-information request. When the newspaper did, Manitoba Health refused to release any details of the contract. The Free Press then filed a complaint with the provincial ombudsman. A few days ago, with the ombudsman’s help, the government released many of the contract details. Missing, however, was any financial information, including the government’s per-visit contribution this year and in subsequent years.”

• The Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom and Ontario’s eight independent legislative officers have criticized the provincial government’s plan to significantly reduce their oversight powers over Hydro One.

• The New Brunswick government will “soon post nursing home and special care home inspections online” after a “lengthy push by the Telegraph-Journal to see the documents.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “One of the secret documents related to Markham’s failed NHL arena project has been made public,” reports the Toronto Star. “But it doesn’t show much, and a dozen other documents still remain secret.”

• The Penticton Herald reports Competition Bureau officials have denied the paper’s access to information request “seeking copies of complaints and reports from investigations into alleged [gas] price-fixing in the region over the past four years. What came back was a document that appears to show the existence of 75 pages, each of which was withheld under the Competition Act.”

• The Toronto Star reports the video footage captured by Toronto Police Service body cameras “will be subject to Freedom of Information legislation, meaning citizens can make a request to access a copy.” (hat tip: Allan Pollock)

• Vaughan, Ont. Mayor Maurizo Bevilacqua is “pushing ahead with his pledge to regulate lobbyists at city hall,” according to the city’s local newspaper. “But it appears he might face opposition from some of his council colleagues.”

• The Chronicle-Guide reports, “Documents related to the Town of Arnprior’s computer system may not have to be released to a private citizen after all. An Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of Ontario adjudicator has accepted a town request to reconsider the order.” Earlier, the newspaper reported the Ontario town has been withholding those documents for about 10 years.

• The News reports Maple Ridge, B.C.’s citizen’s representative committee is holding two public input nights where participants will be asked two questions: 1) Is the information that is currently available easy to find and easy to understand? In other words, is it useful? 2) Is there any information that is currently not available that should be?

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

COME SEE THE DICTATORSHIP INHERENT IN THE SYSTEM?

Help! Help! We're being repressed! (Photograph by Python (Monty) Pictures)

Help! Help! We’re being repressed! (Photograph by Python (Monty) Pictures)

Since coming to power, Stephen Harper’s administration has made headlines for undermining government opennesses and accountability, introducing divisive if not outright unpopular laws and ignoring or intimidating critics, including the fourth estate.

On such foundations, dictatorships are built, leading to concerns about the state of our democracy. But how much of that brickwork was actually laid by Harper and how much was there before he even became prime minister?

Two recent books on the Conservative leader appear to have somewhat different answers, with our country’s future dependant how citizens respond to that question.

In Party of One, author Michael Harris recounts a 1997 speech in which a younger Harper essentially described our system of government as a dictatorship run by the Prime Minister of Canada.

For Harris, that description was “inept,” ignoring the “opposition’s role in bringing out public information,” as well as the work of all-party committees in “holding the government to account.” Given such context, many readers might assume the speech was instead simply a foretelling of Harper’s approach to government – an approach Harris appears to frame as anomalous.

Harris didn’t respond to an email I sent requesting comment. But Mark Bourrie, the author of Kill The Messengers, confirmed he thinks the future prime minister’s description of our political system was simply truthful.

In that book*, which was released about three months after Party of One, Bourrie acknowledges the prime minister “harnessed the [political] system to suit his own agenda and personality” and has created a “new, undemocratic way of ruling Canada.”

Yet that system, as well as our society, is suited to being harnessed. After all, according to Bourrie, “Once we install a new regime, usually to punish the last bunch of rogues, most Canadians feel the country is in the hands of the winners until the next election.”

Our political system then turns that feeling into fact, with the biggest winners of them all being the country’s prime ministers who have often worked to fortify and expand their magisterial powers over both the citizenry and its representatives.

Indeed, I would go further and suggest the principal difference between Harper and many of his predecessors may be that he has simply been more likely to use the iron fist of his office and less likely to cover it with a velvet glove.

But it’s Harris’s somewhat decontextualized portrait of Harper – standing mostly alone rather than against a backdrop of societal deference and slow-drip authoritarianism – that understandably appears most often in the news.

After all, in politics as in sports, teams, players, politicians and parties are easier and more appealing to cover (and read about) than the rules of their respective games.

Think about it: just how many Canadians actually think a treatise on the perils of party discipline pairs well with their Cheerios and a cup of coffee at 7:00 in the morning?

The consequence is that citizens may believe that, if Harper is defeated, a Party of One will be replaced by a Government of the Many.

But the best we can probably hope for is a Government of the Few. And, in any case, the rules that have made it, in most cases, completely legal for Harper to do what he has done, will remain – something Canadians might not find out until his successors almost inevitably exploit them.

What’s really needed then isn’t an election but rather a national conversation about what we want from our political system rather than the politicians within it.

Otherwise, our democracy will continue to crumble and, in the process, burying what little say we will stay have in this country between elections.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• On Tuesday, information commissioner Suzanne Legault will table a special report entitled Striking the Right Balance for Transparency – Recommendations to Modernize the Access to Information Act. (hat tip: Dean Beeby and Kirsten Smith)

• Former federal government communications manager Christopher Neal writes that, when the Harper administration came to power,  “I was first baffled, then alarmed, and finally outraged at orders from ‘the centre’ (i.e., the Prime Minister’s Office, or PMO) on how to deal with media questions. Before Harper, most journalists’ queries were routinely referred to the appropriate government official, that is, someone with the expertise to address the topic raised, and an interview would be set up. This practice was outlined in the Government of Canada’s Communications Policy (effectively ignored under Harper), and was seen as a kind of self-evident obligation, consistent with life in a democratic society. This practice was now forbidden.”

• DeSmog Canada’s Carol Linnitt has obtained records showing the office of Canada’s environment minister scuttled her request for an interview with a federal government scientist. Linnitt had wanted to speak with the scientist, Philippe Thomas, about toxins in fur-bearing animals in the oilsands.

• In his submission to the standing committee on public safety and national security, freedom of information researcher Ken Rubin writes the government’s anti-terrorism bill would “extend government secrecy much further.” (hat tip: Canadian Association of Journalists Ottawa Chapter)

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that he’s finally received response from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development to an access to information request he filed on Nov. 2, 2012. “There are no full-page exemptions,” Rennie writes. “But [there are] plenty of section 19(1), 21(1)(a)(b) and 23 exemptions throughout.”

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that he filed an access to information request for briefs prepared for the prime minister about the doubling of Canada’s child fitness tax credit. Five months later, the pages he received were “all blacked out as [cabinet] confidence!”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons reports on a “surreal practice by Alberta RCMP” that “seems to have come into effect, in earnest, this January.” According to the columnist, the Mounties are withholding the names of homicide victims to protect the privacy of their families. “When or if someone is eventually charged with a crime, the name of the victim will come out in court records. But the RCMP won’t release it, without the family’s permission.”

• The Consort Enterprise’s Dave Bruha writes that recently introduced amendments to Alberta’s Municipal Government Act seem “like a huge step backwards for a government trying to promote a new era of openness and accountability. The sketchy legislation, which was quickly given first and second reading last week, will essentially allow local municipal governments to hide public business from residents.”

• In response to a freedom of information request filed by freelancer Bob Mackin, the office of British Columbia’s premier reports it has no records of who was invited to attend the province’s recent throne speech.

• British Columbia’s Private Career Training Institutions Agency had earlier refused to disclose the identity of its legal counsel and payments made to that firm in response to a freedom of information request filed by Mackin. But the province’s information commissioner has ruled against that refusal.

• CTV News reports, “Legal advocates for a group of homeless people in B.C.’s Fraser Valley say they won’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to access police documents after a court ruling.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• The Daily Gleaner is backing a call by the leader of New Brunswick’s Green Party to have the government to release the terms of reference for a reference for a commission reviewing the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in that province.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• InfoTel News’s Marshall Jones is asking Okanagan and Kamloops, B.C. readers to “be [the] eyes and ears for your communities for your communities and share what you see or hear about police activities” on two Facebook pages he’s setup. The reason: InfoTel’s police scanner doesn’t pick up the RCMP’s digital radio transmissions. And the RCMP has been unwilling to fill that information gap by giving the more more information about what they are up to. (hat tip: Deborah Jones)

• The Journal reports Queen’s University has denied access to statistics on animal testing practices at the institution, “citing the safety of its staff and researchers as a major concern.” But the student newspaper points out other universities release similar information.

• The Province reports TransLink’s media office was “unable to make someone available” for a story about the Vancouver’s regional transportation authority’s long-delayed smart cards, even though the newspaper provided a four-day window to respond to that request.

• TransLink has turned down Mackin’s request to observe its upcoming board of directors meeting. Mackin notes the authority “has a $1.4 billion-a-year budget half of which is from taxation, but its board meets behind closed doors four times a year after allowing a short time for registered members of the public to ask questions.”

• Portage la Prairie, Man.’s council has introduced a new policy that will see a communications coordinator “act as the initial point of contact when media are looking to interview an elected official.” The city’s local newspaper reports that means the media “would only be able to contact elected officials during city hall office hours. Prior to this policy the media was unrestricted in its access to the mayor and council.”

• Journalist Trudy Beyak writes that British Columbia Mayor Henry Braun is setting a “dangerous precedent” by directing “the public to his private email on his Facebook page where he posts as a politician promoting the City of Abbotsford.”

• SooToday.com reports Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.’s search of a new chief administrative officer “began in blazing openness, but has now retreated squarely behind closed doors.”

• The Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan takes a dim view of a city council motion “that could cut the number of accountability officers in half – combining the auditor-general and Ombudsman into one job, and the Integrity Commissioner and lobbyist registrar into another.”

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

* = Disclosure: I provided Bourrie access to an online copy of my documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline, which is mentioned in his book. My name is also mentioned in the acknowledgements section of Kill the Messengers.

PRIVATE INTERESTS SEEK PUBLIC RECORDS

 

Guess who is filing more access requests than the media. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Guess who is filing more access requests than the media. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

FOI FOR ALL? Journalists may make the biggest headlines for using Canada’s access law. But, as is the case in the United States, federal government estimates suggest most of information requests don’t come from those reporters – potentially compromising our right to know.

Between fiscal 1997/98 and 2013/14, the number of requests received by the Canadian government went from 12,206 in fiscal 1997/98 to 59,947 in 2013/14 – a 391.1 percent increase.

But the media’s share of those requests has remained relatively the same.

On average, during that period, 42.2 percent of requests came from business, 11.9 percent came from the media, 8.8 percent came from organizations and 1.3 percent came from academia.

By comparison, in  2013/14, 38.6 percent came from business, 12.3 percent came the media, 4.8 percent came from organizations and 3.2 percent came from academia.

The American government doesn’t compile similar estimates.

But, in that country, a Coalition of Journalists for Open Government analysis of requests filed with 11 cabinet-level departments and six large agencies in Sept. 2005 found that media accounted for just six percent of the total.

At the time, the coalition suggested that was because “many reporters say it takes too longer to get information through FOIA to make it a meaningful tool for news gathering.”

In a recent feature published during Sunshine Week, McClatchy reporters Kevin G. Hall and Kevin Johnson warned a comparative lack of media requests means “information obtained under FOIA may reach the public in a raw, less contextual form…Or it may not reach the public at all, remaining in the hands of the private interests that sought it out.”

And, in Canada, pretty much the same thing can happen – unless our struggling media uses the government’s list of completed access requests to obtain their own copy.

FEELING USED The frustration of dealing with government communications staff has pushed one Vernon, B.C. reporter over the edge…into editorial commentary.

Earlier, I wrote an open letter about how the non-answers those staff give reporters is actually a refusal to “provide the public with information. And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.”

That letter was shared on social media by journalists across the country and resulted in coverage of the issue by CBC Vancouver, CBC Kelowna and, most recently, Halifax’s News 95.7.

Now, in a column entitled “Why I didn’t go to your government press event,” InfoTel News’s Charlotte Helston writes that its communications officials are not quoted in her stories because:

Either they didn’t call me back by deadline, they didn’t call at all, or they sent me a useless email statement that avoided every single one of my questions. I get better and more direct and courteous responses from organizations that don’t pay a designated entity to be available for media calls and to facilitate interviews (i.e. a communications officer).

The one exception to that rule is “when a press event is happening.” But Helston states, “Feeding government PR to the public is not what I signed on for. My job is to ask the tough questions about subjects you don’t buy cake and balloons for.”

The Vernon reporter didn’t respond to an interview request by deadline.

LATER BUT NOT NEVER Earlier, I reported on how British Columbia reporters didn’t pay much attention to a BC NDP proposal to fix the government’s broken freedom of information law – even though it would be in their self-interest to do so.

But Kamloops This Week’s Dale Bass and 24 hours Vancouver both picked up that story a few days later, with Bass cataloguing several reasons why the long shot legislation should be passed.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• “Treasury Board guidelines give bureaucrats free rein to wipe any non-work-related instant messages from their government-issued mobile devices,” the Canadian Press reports. “They are supposed to hold on to texts or PINs that mention government business for record-keeping purposes.” But, according to records obtained via an access to information requests, newer generation BlackBerry devices don’t allow users to forward PIN-to-PIN messages to email accounts for later archiving, leading to suggestions to abandon the use of that communication method altogether.

• A spokeswoman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement has told the Toronto Star that the minister “believes the Canada Revenue Agency should not have deleted any instant messages if they were related to government business.”

• University of Winnipeg criminal justice professor Kevin Walby is in the middle of finalizing an edited volume entitled Access to Information and Social Justice in Canada. Walby, who worked on the volume with Jamie Brownlee, expects it will be published by ARP Books at the end of October.

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets a photograph of the Bank of Canada’s recent communications guide which advises new directors to “be transparent – up to a point.”

• CBC News reports consumer advocate Gábor Lukács has launched a constitutional challenge against the Canadian Transportation Agency, claiming that the regulator’s “failure to disclose evidence received while reviewing passenger complaints is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ open court principle.”

• The Politics of Evidence Working Group has launched a campaign that provides Canadians with letters asking “federal scientists and Ministers about the results of the government’s environmental monitoring and scientific research programs.” The group aims to send out over 1,000 letters by March 27.

• On March 25, Toronto-based think tank Samara will release a “report card that grades key areas of Canada’s democracy.” That report card will include public opinion data that “captures citizens’ perceptions of politics, as well as their political knowledge and behaviour.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• According to the Montreal Gazette, the Quebec government has released a 191-page discussion document that could lead to a potential reform of the province’s freedom of information system. That system is “known for being slow, secretive and over-protective of government.”

• “The commission of inquiry into Quebec’s construction industry received precise allegations of illicit political donations to former premier Pauline Marois’s husband,” reports the Globe and Mail. However, it “never brought them to the public’s attention, according to newly released documents.” (hat tip: Bruce Gillespie)

• CBC News reports the Newfoundland and Labrador government plans to pass new access to information legislation by June 1. That legislation will implement “90 recommendations contained in a comprehensive report presented earlier this month by an independent review committee.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Vancouver Sun reports the “issue of using personal emails for government business” hasn’t just be controversial for presumed Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton. It’s also “proven problematic for some B.C. MLAs, cabinet ministers and staff in Premier Christy Clark’s office.”

• The Toronto Sun reports it has obtained records showing Pan Am Games officials were “expecting some difficult questions” on the “lavish spending” revealed in “5,000 pages of expense documents” that were released to the media.

OpenNWT founder David Wasyclw writes that the Northwest Territories government “can, and should, take immediate action” on a proposal to create a lobbyist registry.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “The City of Hamilton is refusing to release the surveillance video that shows Councillor Lloyd Ferguson shoving independent journalist Joey Coleman to CHCH news.” The station “requested a copy of the tape under the Freedom of Information Act. Officials cite the ongoing police investigation as the reason for refusing to release the tape.”

• CFAX 1070’s Ian Jessop reports that, earlier this year, he sent in “sent in a number of freedom of information requests to the Municipality of Saanich regarding the spyware put on Richard Atwell’s computer the day after he was sworn-in as mayor.” That spyware monitored keystrokes and captured what was on Atwell’s screen. But the British Columbia municipality has claimed it has no documentation responsive to those requests. (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

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