Category Archives: Democracy


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

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

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?


• 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.


• 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.”


• “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.


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.


• 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!”


• 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.


• 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.”

• 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.



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

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

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.


• “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.”


• 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.


• “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.


Guess what these reporters weren't asking about last week (Photograph by Damien Gillis)

Guess what some of these reporters weren’t asking about last week. (Photograph by Damien Gillis)

DO YOURSELF A FAVOUR Greater access to government records is in the self-interest of journalists. But, in British Columbia, that self-interest resulted in few, if any, stories about a recent opposition proposal to reform the province’s freedom of information law.

Like its federal cousin, that law is in urgent need of reform, with reporters finding it evermore difficult to obtain government records and, by extension, hold politicians and public institutions to account.

So it should have been welcome news last week when the BC NDP introduced a bill that would require government to do everything from documents its decisions to routinely disclose executive calendars.

As an example of why those reforms are needed, Doug Routley – the MLA responsible for that legislation – told me one of his colleagues recently filed a request for information about government consultations to improve Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears.

But that request turned up no records, something Routley said, “crashes the border of ridiculousness.”

Despite that ridiculousness, as I’ve written before, there’s almost no chance of his bill becoming law since the BC Liberals control the legislature.

And, even if the New Democrats were to wrest away that control in 2017 and pass similar legislation, its likely their government would eventually become just as secretive as the one they replaced.

Such is the nature of Canadian politics.

Still, there’s value in journalists covering the opposition’s proposed reforms because such stories help inform the public about the flaws in British Columbia’s freedom of information system.

But a search of the Canadian Newsstand database and Google News turns up no stories about those reforms.

By comparison, when federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced a much weaker freedom of information initiative, he nabbed at least five stories about that proposal – including an editorial from the Globe and Mail endorsing it.

Asked about that apparent lack of coverage Routley deadpanned, “How nice of you to point that out,” theorizing reporters might not have had time last week to cover his bill.

VIRTUALLY MEETING In practice and in law, Canadian politicians and their staffers often appear to want to hide their communications from the public.

Indeed, in a tweet earlier this month, Scott Reid – who served as Prime Minister Paul Martin’s communications director – stated, “Everyone at every level of government, in every party uses private email,” reflecting a natural desire to “discuss stuff bluntly.”

But the councillors of a small Ontario cottage country town may be trying to restrain that desire.

Under provincial law, council meetings must, except under limited circumstances, be open to the public.

And now Leeds and the Thousand Islands has passed a bylaw stating those meetings “may include email exchanges” that are “addressed to all members of council” and “contain factual information germane to the business of the Municipality.”

In an interview, Mayor Joe Baptista said that, as a result, “all of our township emails and anything to do with township business that we are discussing” will be “compiled and made available to the public prior to council meeting.”

That news was first reported by the Gananoque Reporter.

Baptista said the details of how that compilation happens are still being worked out.

But he said he wants to see it “as automated as possible because I don’t want it to become an administration nightmare. And, from our perspective, if your corresponding with staff regarding council issues or if your corresponding amongst each other you don’t get to choose” which emails become public.

Baptista said the hasn’t heard of any other municipalities doing the same thing, although a number of mayors have already phoned asking about the bylaw.

“In some ways we’re the guinea pigs,” he added. “We’re going to learn, we’re going to put this into play and we’re going to see how it works.”


• CBC News reports that, according to internal records, senior staff were “mystified” by Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s “dire warning” about why government’s can release electronic versions of certain kinds of data in response to access requests.

• A Canadian Press access to information request for a briefing note about a proposed marketing agency for raspberries yielded nothing more than an almost completely censored page.

• The Toronto Star’s Alex Boutilier tweets that, in response to a freedom of information filed with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, he received a “copy of the releasable material” – an empty envelope.

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that he just got back an access to information request response “about how to deal with surges in access requests. But their advice is (surprise) blanked out.”

• The Tyee reports on a dearth of information about what half of Canada’s temporary foreign workers actually do.

• The Huffington Post reports on an “ongoing tug-of-war between realtors and customers who want to be able to access in-depth real estate data online, and the country’s industry associations, who want to maintain their monopoly on that data.”

• “The Canadian Forces has retreated in its attempt to put a cloak of secrecy over its response to concerns raised by a special commission looking into the suicide of an Afghan veteran,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.


• “Amazing.” That was the reaction from James McLeod, a political reporter with the Telegram, when Newfoundland and Labrador’s finance department returned the $5 application fee he had paid to file an access request. The province’s government recently announced it would be implementing the recommendations of an independent review of its freedom of information legislation, which include eliminating that fee.

• The Tyee reports that, thanks to a ruling by an adjudicator working for British Columbia’s information commissioner, the public may soon get a chance to see the BC Lions’ contract to play at BC Place Stadium.

According to InfoTel News, a survey of journalists by British Columbia’s Interior Health Authority found just 36.2 percent of respondent were satisfied with using spokespeople for comment, while just 40 percent would accept a written statement rather than wait for a live interview.

• The Chronicle Herald reports Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has resisted calls by that province’s freedom of information and protection of privacy review officer to increase the independence of her post. And now the newspaper has learned McNeil’s government is considering merging her office with that of the province’s ombudsman.

• The Montreal Gazette reports a new position at Quebec’s health establishments – which combines the roles of a human resources, legal affairs and communications director – could put transparency at risk. That’s because, according to a spokesperson for one Montreal hospital, “public-relations staff often struggle to get information out to the public over the objections of the legal affairs department.”

• The Toronto Star reports, “A privacy analyst at Trillium Health Centre is being investigated by Ontario’s privacy commissioner and his own hospital over allegations he tried to block a probe by the provincial watchdog into a privacy breach.”


• CBC News paraphrases Harout Chitilian, the vice-president of Montreal’s executive committee, as saying, “Montreal is looking to change the rules and regulations in order to release more of the city’s data.” But “In some cases, that could mean changing laws and taking away privacy safeguards.”

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


Should the public really be able to look inside this metaphorical envelope? (Photograph by

Should the public really be able to look inside this metaphorical envelope? (Photograph by

Is using private email standard operating procedure for those working in government?

Why is British Columbia’s government removing penalties for document destruction?

And how come journalists in Vancouver weren’t allowed to broadcast pictures of the room where a telephone town hall was being run?

Those are just some of the many questions raised by stories about freedom of information that made headlines and twitter posts in Canada last week.

My column, which usually accompanies this news roundup, has been delayed due to teaching commitments. It’ll return next week.


Scott Reid, who served as a senior advisor and communications director to Prime Minister Paul Martin, tweets this observation about how public officials communicate: “Everyone at every level of government, in every party uses private email. It’s SOP. Reflects nat desire to discuss stuff bluntly.” (hat tip: Merv Adey)

• CBC News reports, “Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s dire warning about why the government can’t release certain electronic data under access to information requests seems to have left his senior staff mystified, newly disclosed documents show.”

• “A New Democrat MP is asking the federal information watchdog to investigate a former Conservative ministerial staffer’s systematic deletion of emails,” according to the Canadian Press.

• The Canadian Press reports, “The Federal Court of Appeal has sent a stern message to government institutions: you can’t just make up any old deadline for responding to requests under the Access to Information Act.” (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• Everyone “has called for more transparency” in the Canadian Judicial Council’s proceedings. But, according to Canadian Lawyer magazine, “no one can agree on what that means, especially as the CJC clings to extreme confidentiality at the early stages of investigations.”

• The Military Police Complaints Commission “has gone to court to challenge the secrecy of Canada’s Defence Department and its refusal to make public its response to the investigation into a solider’s suicide,” according to the Toronto Star.

• University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist writes that “the privacy commissioner of Canada set out to audit the RCMP in the hope of uncovering the details behind” warrentless requests for telecom subscriber information. “What it encountered instead was inaccurate data and an effort to downplay” the commissioner’s public reporting of those problems.

• “The bad news for any Canadian politician inspired by Hillary Clinton to set up a do-it-yourself email system is that it could potentially involve the Mounties, handcuffs, and a two-year sojourn in the slammer,” according to the Canadian Press.

• National Post’s John Ivison writes that Canada’s parliamentary system is “stacked against any meaningful review of spending, at least until the Public Accounts of Canada are tabled, 200 days after the fiscal year they cover.

• The Winnipeg Free Press’s Mary Agnes Welch makes an argument against bureaucratese, writing, “If we citizens don’t demand clear, simple, precise language from our elected officials, then it’s our own fault if they continue to snow us with words designed to thwart our right to know.”

• The Lobby Monitor’s Alyssa O’Dell had this reaction after filing a few freedom of information requests with the European Union via email: “15 day response deadline. Madness?!” Canada’s own Access to Information Law gives the federal government 30 days to respond. (hat tip: Jeremy Nuttall)

• The Globe and Mail has become the first Canadian media organization to use Secure Drop, a “channel for anonymous and encrypted Internet communications that can link potential sources withy investigative journalists.”

• The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has published its first report on “Internet-related issues of access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy, and the ethical dimensions of the Information Society.” (hat tip: Kirsten Smith)

• Ottawa-based investigative researcher Ken Rubin writes that users of Canada’s Access to Information Act have “come up against the brutal limitations of what is provided [under that legislation] and what is not.”


• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association reports that British Columbia’s government has introduced a law that will remove existing penalties for destroying government records.

• CBC News reports, “Major changes are coming to access to information laws in Newfoundland and Labrador following the much-anticipated release Tuesday morning of a report prepared by an independent commission.”

• The Toronto Star reports, “A provincial panel has recommended sweeping changes to controversial legislation that allows Ontario hospitals to investigate critical incidents of patient harm and death in secret.”

• Northwest Territories MLAs have passed a motion to “investigate the implementation of a lobbyist registry that would be publicly accessible online,” according to the Northern Journal.


According to the StarPhoenix, a report into a Saskatoon city hall leak reveals “bizarre levels of secrecy that hint at how much our municipal government is shielding from citizens.”

• Global News reports a public telephone town hall on Vancouver’s upcoming transit plebiscite was “not as public as some would like. The number to dial in was not immediately available and while journalists were allowed to record an audio feed of the proceedings, they were not allowed to broadcast pictures of the room.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets that a spokesperson was copied on freedom of information request correspondence he received from the City of Vancouver. But, in an email, the spokesperson – Marcella Munro, who works with the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation – stated, “I have nothing to do with FOIs and I have no idea why it was sent to me. As far as I know it was a mistake by the office in Vancouver.”

• The Globe and Mail paraphrases Chris Bejnar, the co-chair of a Brampton, Ont. watchdog group, as saying “he has been disturbed by lack of openness he’s seen between city staff and the public. When filing freedom of information requests to find out the square footage of a building in the downtown redevelopment plan, or how the city had calculated the cost per square foot, he was rebuffed by staff and eventually got the information only after complaining to the province’s privacy commissioner.”

• Gerard Daly, a board member for New Brunswick’s Regional Services Commission 11 “wants the organization to be more transparent and forthcoming with public information.” The Daily Gleaner paraphrases Daly as saying “a good example of information not being made available centres around a hike that occurred in the rate of the tipping fee – the price paid when delivering refuse to the landfill site. Daly said RSC 11 staff recommended the fee be increased by $10 but, at the end of the day, it was raised by $1.50. No one on the board was prepared to approve it, he said. But none of the circumstances that led to the matter being voted down was ever made public.”

• The Telegraph-Journal reports Saint John councillors have “unanimously approved” the city’s first open data policy. During that process, they “also gave a green light to a pilot project that will see city staff start to post data online related to six key categories: public safety, energy and utilities, recreation, financial information, municipal planning and economic development.”

• CBC News reports Greater Sudbury, Ont. “has joined a growing number of governments to launch an open data program…The first release in Sudbury is three data sets on the city transit system, including the real-time movements of buses.”

• City councillors in both Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, B.C. are “looking for engaged citizens to help jump start a conversation on making municipal government more accessible and transparent.”

• The Sachem reports Haldimand County, Ont. has “opened an online Open Data Repository” that will provide “residents and those beyond our borders with the opportunity to view maps and other geographic data.”

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


Are Canadian journalists having a Howard Beale moment? (Photograph by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Are Canadian journalists having a Howard Beale moment? (Photograph by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

“I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

That was how some journalists seemed to respond last week to an open letter I wrote about how government communications staff are helping to kill democracy.

But, if we want to save it, we’re going to need to do more than just throw open our windows, stick our heads out and yell about the non-answers we often get from those spin doctors.

In that letter, which was published in J-Source, The Tyee, DeSmog Canada and the Yukon News, I wrote about how those non-answers are 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.”

Those words were shared on Facebook and retweeted hundreds of times, with one reporter in the Yukon stating, “I think it’s fair to say the frustration levels of journalists in this country are rising.”

That frustration has been well-earned.

Compared to the United States, Canadian governments release fewer public records that reporters can use to find stories that don’t come from a news release or news event.

Our governments also confound access to the records they don’t release by having weak freedom of information laws.

And many public bodies have policies that restrict or prohibit their employees from speaking with reporters.

That means communications departments (the spin factories and propaganda shops of government) can be one of the only sources journalists have for timely information.

Opacity is winning the war against transparency. And if Canadian journalists want to turn the tide, they must do more in the fight against that secrecy – something some American news outlets expressly allow their reporters to do.

For example, in a recent statement to Politico, a New York Times spokesperson stated the newspaper is “not neutral on the issue of press freedom. We have vigorously opposed actions that inhibit legitimate reporting.”

Meanwhile, National Public Radio’s ethics handbook, which prohibits political activities, makes an exception for “issues directly related to our journalistic mission (e.g. First Amendment rights, the Freedom of Information Act, a federal ‘shield law’).”*

Here in Canada, I simply recommended in my open letter that journalists should let our audiences know when spin doctors don’t respond to our questions, provide non-answers or interfere with attempts to interview public officials.

Perhaps journalists should even include that protocol in the emails we send to government spokespeople, letting them know that we also won’t be using their non-answers for the sake of false balance?

In some way ways, that would be similar to David Carr‘s approach to reporting. Speaking to National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, the late New York Times media critic explained:

If it’s going to be a hard story, one of the things I always say is, ‘This is going to be a really serious story and I’m asking very serious questions and it behoves you to think it through and really work on answering and defending yourself…And if they don’t engage, I just tell them, ‘Well you know what, you better put the nut cup on because this isn’t going to be pleasant for anyone.’

If we did the same thing with government communications staff and their tactics, they won’t surprised when a reporter such as the Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick thinks about writing a sentence such as this: “A [Canadian Border Services Agency] spokesperson repeatedly ignored questions and read unrelated bullet points written by an anonymous spin doctor.”

And that way, maybe we won’t hear those unrelated bullet points at all.

Postscript: Last week, CBC Daybreak South succeeded in getting Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for British Columbia’s spin doctors, to address complaints about the state of government communications (including my open letter).

Provincial flacks “initially declined” to respond to those complaints. But Wilkinson made an appearance on Daybreak South after the program tried contacting “each and every MLA” in its listening area about that issue.

You can listen to the interview for yourself on Soundcloud. But suffice it say Wilkinson, somewhat appropriately, appeared to have his own talking points for that conversation. So, just as appropriately, I’ve filed freedom of information requests to obtain them.


• The Canadian Press reports a new government policy requires all possible breaches of cabinet confidentiality – “however slight” – to be “immediately reported to the Prime Minister’s Office or officials in the Privy Council Office, the government’s bureaucratic nerve centre.”

• In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette said he wants a “coercive baseball bat” that will force government departments to provide him with economic and legislative data “on a timely and free basis.”

• CBC News reports, “A former top adviser to then-Employment Minister Jason Kenney has had his knuckles rapped by the federal ethics watchdog for accepting gala tickets from companies and interest groups registered to lobby his own department.” During that investigation, Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson also found the adviser, Michael Bonner, “could not provide me with any emails related to my examination because he had deleted them, as his usual practice was to delete emails every two weeks. He added that deleted emails of ministerial staff remain on the server for about four weeks, but are then lost forever as they are not ‘archived.'” (hat tip: Mike de Souza)

• Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaign Keith Stewart has two suggestions for the bureaucrats running the system that allows Canadians to file access to information requests online. First: “Why not let us set up accounts so we don’t have to re-enter all my deets each time?” Second: “It’d be awesome if the receipt for the $5 fee included the text of our ATIP request.”

• The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin writes that even though Stephen Harper “may well hold some sort of record for prime ministerial secrecy and attempts to stifle access,” many of his predecessors have also “held the fourth estate in low regard.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Harper isn’t known for “being terribly accessible to journalists,” reports the Huffington Post. Nevertheless, he sat down for an interview with Costco Connection, the “lifestyle magazine for Costco members” – something that “raised some eyebrows on Twitter.”

• Vice Canada reports the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has denied an access request for the amount of money it paid to cellphone and Internet providers to informally obtain customers’ personal information. Such informal requests were deemed unconstitutional following a June 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling. (hat tip: CJ Ciaramella)

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that a recent access to information requests yielded 15 pages from the Privy Council Office. But the only page that wasn’t exempted was the one with the Government of Canada’s logo.


• The Toronto Star reports Ontario still lacks a “standard notification system” to alert journalists when court-ordered publication bans are being considered.

• The Vancouver Sun reports, “Poultry marketing boards are refusing to release biosecurity audits of farms after the avian flu outbreak in the Fraser Valley citing, in part, the potential for farmers to be targeted by animal rights activists.”

• The BC NDP has introduced a Whistleblowers Protection Act that would safeguard “people reporting government mismanagement, negligence or wrong-doing. It also calls for more routine public disclosure of government operations.” As an opposition private member’s bill, the Act has almost no chance of passing the province’s legislature.

• CBC News reports New Brunswick’s access commissioner Anne Bertrand has launched one of two investigations into “controversial trips to Larry’s Gulch, the government-owned fishing lodge…The controversy started when a newspaper editor accepted a free trip to Larry’s Gulch in 2013 with Daniel Allain, the chief executive officer of NB Liquor.” Bertrand is looking into whether documents related to that trip were “deliberately altered before being released.”

• “Ontario’s independent budget watchdog is finally being unleashed – 21 months after the New Democrats forced the Liberals to create the post,” according to the Toronto Star.

• In response to a freedom of information request by freelancer Bob Mackin, the British Columbia government writes there were no briefing notes or issue notes prepared for the province’s transportation minister when he announced the delay of a major transit project.


• The City of Winnipeg’s administration is refusing to “make public any of the reports” that justify the need to “expropriate 20 acres of land it sold to a developer four years ago,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press.

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

* = I am indebted to an article by The Atlantic’s David Graham which cites NPR’s impartiality policy, as well as the New York Times spokesperson’s quote. All the credit for finding that article goes to my department’s librarian Margy MacMillan.


Government spin doctors control what information government does and doesn't release. (Graphic by

Spin doctors control what information government does and doesn’t release. (Graphic by

Dear government spin doctor

I am working on a story about how the job you’re doing is helping to kill Canada’s democracy.

I know that your role, as a so-called communications professional, is to put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

That means you often don’t respond the questions I ask, you help elected officials do the same thing and you won’t let me talk to those who actually have the answers.

While this may work out very well for you, it doesn’t work out so well for my audience who, by the way, are taxpayers, voters and citizens.

So your refusal to provide me with information 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 just doesn’t seem very democratic to me. Does it seem democratic to you?

I understand you’re just doing your job.

I did that job before myself before I became a journalist, working as a communications officer for the British Columbia government.

So I don’t think you’re a bad person.

But you should know a few things about me.

My job isn’t to help you put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

My job is to tell the truth.

And, because that’s my job, you should know a few other things about how I’m going to report this story.

First, if you don’t respond to my questions, I’m going to let my audience know that.

Second, if you respond to my questions with non-answers, I’m going to let my audience know that too.

Third, I’m not going to put those non-answers in my story for the sake of false balance.

That’s because me asking questions about what the government is doing wrong isn’t an opportunity for you to simply tell the public about what government is doing right.

You have a big advertising budget for that.

Instead, it’s an opportunity to explain to the public why the government is or isn’t doing that thing I asked you about.

And, finally, if you refuse, ignore or interfere with my requests to interview public officials, my audience will also find out about that.

This may sound like hardball at best and blackmail at worst. But it’s actually the last and only defense I have against you and your colleagues.

Public relations professionals outnumber journalists more than four to one in this country – and for good reason.

It pays to promote and protect the powerful but it doesn’t pay to hold them to account.

My hope is that more journalists will also start routinely telling their audiences about the strategies and tactics you use to frustrate the public’s right to know.

If that happens then the public might start caring about the damage that’s doing to our democracy.

And, maybe, just maybe you might start rethinking what you are doing.

After all, there was a time when journalists could actually talk to public officials without having someone like you always watching over their shoulder and telling them exactly what to say.

I know it’s a long shot.

But it’s the only shot I can take against the tyranny of your talking points.


Sean Holman, Journalist


• Maclean’s magazine reports the Department of National Defence is withholding information from the Parliamentary Budget Officer about Operation IMPAC – Canada’s mission in Iraq – on the grounds of cabinet confidentiality. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The National Post reports a Federal Court judge has ruled “media fighting for access to Omar Khadr have failed to show a prison-interview ban was politically motivated and violated their constitutional rights.”


• CBC News reports, “Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has personally ordered that documents from all general freedom of information requests be publicly posted, despite serious concerns from the civil servants responsible for implementing the new policy. Critics say the plan – if implemented – represents a major policy change that will seriously undermine the ability of opposition parties and the media to hold the government accountable.”

• “The province is not tracking how many inmates are overdosing in jails across Ontario,” according to the Hamilton Spectator.

• The Vancouver Sun reports, “Soon-to-be mandatory ‘independent’ review boards for tailings dams at B.C. mines may not be answerable to government or open to scrutiny by the public.” The boards were recommended by a government-appointed panel that was struck following the breach of a tailings pond at the Mount Polley Mine.

• The Telegram hopes a committee reviewing Newfoundland and Labrador’s controversial right to know law will recommend a “much needed laissez-faire approach to the release of information.” That committee, led by former premier Clyde Wells, “has missed a couple of promised deadlines. At last check, it was supposed to release its report by the end of January.”

• Kinder Morgan Inc., the company that is looking to expand a pipeline that carries crude oil to the West coast, “has engaged in a protracted fight with the province of British Columbia in an effort to keep its oil spill response plans a secret.” But, according to DeSmog Canada, Kinder Morgan has “willingly disclosed” such plans “south of the border for portions of the pipeline that extend to Washington State.”

• The Globe and Mail reports, “B.C.’s Ministry of Health is withholding the results of scientific research on how oil and gas operations in the province’s northeast communities are affecting human health.” Independent MLA Vicki Huntington’s freedom of information request for that research was denied because its release could be harmful to the financial interests of a public body.

• CBC News reports Saskatchewan’s information commissioner has ruled a 15-page proposal to create a premier’s library in that province can stay secret because it would disclose a cabinet confidence.

• Saksatchewan NDP MLA Warren McCall has told the Regina Leader-Post that the creation of lobbyists registry in that province as proceeding “slower than molasses, uphill, in February.”

• Manitoba’s “Opposition Progressive Conservatives say they’re getting the runaround in finding how much taxpayers have paid to put up at-risk youth in hotels,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News reports DemocracyWatch founder Duff Conacher’s concerns that “New Brunswick’s right to information law is weak and the fines for breaking the laws are so low, they are meaningless”


• Winnipeg’s interim chief administrative officer has resigned after the mayor claimed he had lost confidence in the bureaucrat. But, according to the Winnipeg Free Press’s Dan Lett, no further details have been provided because the resignation is a personnel matter – a “trump card” that is “played way too often in situations in which government doesn’t want people to know what happened.”

• 24 hours Vancouver’s Kathyrn Marshall writes that White Rock, B.C.’s city council has “voted to scrap question period. Just like that, White Rock has obliterated a hallmark of liberal democracy. White Rock residents will no longer have the opportunity to pose public questions to their elected representatives following council meetings.”

• In October, TransLink – Vancouver’s regional transportation authority – began “re-examining current [freedom of information] practices and exploring options for easing the burden on staff.” That review, which was expected to take three months, was announced in a memo signed by the authority’s then-chief executive officer Ian Jarvis and obtained by freelance journalist Bob Mackin.

• The Vancouver Courier reports, “When the provincial government set the rules for the non-binding plebiscite on a sales tax hike for TransLink expansion, it didn’t include any campaign fundraising or reporting regulations.”

• “Toronto police met the mandated [freedom of information] response deadline of 30 days in 52 per cent of requests last year,” according to the Toronto Star. “That’s nearly a 30 per cent drop from 2005 – when 80 per cent of FOI requests were completed within the 30-day timeframe – and down almost 15 per cent from 2013, which saw a compliance rate of 65 per cent.”

• Alberta’s information commissioner has ruled Cold Lake, Alta. was right to release records that disclosed unit prices and hourly wage rates for the companies responsible for a highway twinning project. According to the Cold Lake Sun, a third party had argued that disclosure was harmful to business interests.


Liberal MP Ted Hsu's bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census had no real chance of passing. Too bad not every news outlet let their audience know that. (Photograph by Ted Hsu)

Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s private member’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census had no real chance of passing. Too bad not every news outlet let their audience know that. (Photograph by Ted Hsu)

Small, tiny and slim: these are all words that describe the chances of an opposition private member’s bill actually becoming law. Yet, when reporting on those bills, news outlets don’t always tell their audiences that, potentially giving a mistaken impression of how much democracy we have in Canada.

The government sponsors most of the bills that become law. But parliamentarians can also propose their own bills without government backing. These so-called private member’s bills could be a powerful means of dealing with issues the government doesn’t want to deal with.

I say “could” because few of them ever become law.

For example, according to the Parliament of Canada’s LEGISInfo research tool, 3,224 private member’s bills have been introduced or re-instated in the House of Commons between Jan. 17, 1994 and Friday last week. But, by my reckoning, only 69 or 2.1 percent of them bills received royal assent.

If that sounds bad, just wait because it gets even worse.

Opposition MPs sponsored just 21 of the bills that received royal assent, with over half of them concerned with issues of little controversy – such as renaming constituencies or creating commemorative days.

In part, that’s because parliamentary rules make it difficult to debate and vote on such legislation.

But, thanks to rigid party discipline, MPs rarely against their own party anyway. And, thanks to rigid partisanship, governing parties rarely vote for legislation introduced by their competitors. Which is why so few opposition private member’s bills get passed when a governing party holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Nevertheless, not all of the reporting on private member’s bills lets Canadians in on that open secret and some even inadvertently cover it up.

For example, according to the Canadian Newsstand database, newspapers and the Canadian Press wire service have published at least 25 articles covering Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s proposal to restore the mandatory long-form census.

Thirteen of those articles dutifully reported that there was, in the words of a Globe and Mail editorial, “almost no chances it would pass.” But others didn’t mention that possibility or led readers to believe there was a chance it would pass.

One major daily published an editorial describing Hsu’s bill as a “golden opportunity” that the Tories should “jump on” to make amends for eliminating the long-form census. Meanwhile, another ran an op-ed lamenting the loss of “granular data on jobs and wages” that came with that survey but stating, “Not all is lost” thanks to Hsu bill.

Of course, that bill went on to be defeated earlier this month by a vote of 147 to 126, with all but one Conservative MP opposing Hsu’s bill.

But much more is at stake here than getting Canadians hopes up before dashing them.

Most MPs, especially those who belong to an opposition party, don’t have much say in making our laws. As a result, those who voted for them (in other words, Canadians) don’t have much say either, making democracy between elections a bit of a sham.

That has everything to do with our system of government and nothing to do with our sitting prime minister, who is just exercising the power afforded to him under that system.

One way reporters can help Canadians better understand that is by simply remembering to add an extra line in their coverage of opposition private member’s bills.

It could even be something like this: “A snowball has a greater chance in Hell than this legislation does of becoming law.”

Well, maybe not quite that. But you get the idea.


•, a Website that will fact-check the 2015 federal election, has succeeded in crowdfunding the $5,000 it needs to launch. The Website’s team includes RainCity Housing and Support Society community support worker Jacob Schroeder, Democracy Watch coordinator Tyler Sommers and Ryerson University senior research associate Dana Wagner.

• CBC News reports, “U.S. legislation requires American universities and colleges to be open about the number of sexual assaults on their campuses, warn students when they could be at risk and provide adequate security and prevention measures.” But no such legislation exists in Canada. (hat tip: Bruce Gillespie)

• The Toronto Star reports a lawyer for the media is arguing that “barring journalists from interviewing Omar Khadr, a federal prison is violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that he’s received 84 blank pages from the Department of Finance in response to a request for the cost of the government’s expanded child fitness tax credit. The reason for that redaction: it’s a cabinet confidence.

• Beeby tweets the Canada Revenue Agency is now responding to access requests with “password-protected CDs. But password failed – one more [freedom of information] obstacle.”

• CTV News’s Jon Woodward tweets that Health Canada “claims a new record for latest ATIP provided to me! Two years, 6 months, 25 days. Way older than my daughter.”

• Journalist David Akin tweets that it’s ironic that the federal government has announced $143,288 in funding for Self-Counsel Press Ltd. – which recently published an access to information guidebook.

• Planned Parenthood Ottawa president Lauren Dobson-Hughes tweets this interaction with an access to information officer: “Your ATI is 1,000 days late. Can we just drop it? If you don’t reply in five days, we’ll take that as a yes.”


• The British Columbia government has introduced legislation that will see government records digitized and stored in an electronic archive. But the BC NDP and information commissioner Elizabeth Denham are concerned the bill doesn’t legally require government to document key actions and decisions.

• The Toronto Star reports a court-ordered publication ban is preventing the media from naming a 45-year-old mother who was sentenced to 20-months in jail for pressing a hot iron against the arms of her 10-year-old son.

• The Tyee reports British Columbia’s former lobbyists registrar is now lobbying that province’s government on behalf of a company that publishes school yearbooks.

According to the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatchewan government has amended its freedom of information legislation to allow the release of “personal information included in a report stemming from a Municipalities Act inspection or inquiry.”


• “The three hospitals caught up in the Rob Ford privacy breach saga boast they are ‘transparent and accountable.'” But, according to the Toronto Star, those hospitals are “refusing to disclose how many staff members snooped into his records or how they were disciplined.”

• The Georgia Straight reports on nuggets from the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games’s archives – much of which is still under lock and key.

• Kitchener, Ont. Coun. Frank Etherington writes that fellow politicians “across Waterloo Region are in the process of abandoning voter accountability, government transparency and the public’s unquestionable right to know how $8 million of taxpayers cash will be spent.”

• “The secret documents behind a secret deal to build an NHL-size arena in Markham will stay secret – even though the project was defeated by council more than a year ago,” according to the Toronto Star.

• The Vaughan Citizen has renewed its call for the Ontario city to introduce a lobbyist registry.

• Maple Ridge, B.C.’s council has voted to increase the number of meetings it broadcasts on the Internet and disclose all of the contracts the city has entered into, according to the Maple Ridge Times.

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 Family Day. Its regular publication schedule will resume next week.


Freedom of information advocates didn't get many presents from Canada's governments over the holiday season. (Photograph by

imeshose who care about Canadians’ right to know didn’t get many presents from the government over the holiday season. (Photograph by

HOLIDAY HANGOVER The winter break is over and so is this column’s hiatus. That means I’ve assembled a lengthy collection of all the freedom of information news you may have missed over the holidays. From now on, I’ll also be dividing that roundup into federal, provincial and local news. Look for further commentary next week. Enjoy!


• In an interview with the Toronto Star, Treasury Board President Tony Clement — who is responsible for administering the country’s Access to Information Act — acknowledged there’s a need to review that legislation. But he said his government has “run out of time” to do that in a “meaningful” way. This, despite the fact his party promised in 2006 to simply “implement the Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act.” (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• Clement also told the Canadian Press that some data can’t be released to the public in an electronic format because the government doesn’t want to “create a file that can be in some way manipulated and altered, and thereby creating a situation of false information.” But the Treasury Board Secretariat was unable to provide Maclean’s magazine with any examples of such manipulation taking place. Clement’s comments come as Canada’s information commissioner investigates “multiple cases where it appears that government departments aren’t releasing data in easy-to-read formats, even though the law requires it.”

• “The Canada Revenue Agency has destroyed all text message records of its employees and has disabled logging of these messages in the future,” according to the Toronto Star. (hat tip: Michael Karanicolas)

• “Three months after voting to undertake air strikes in Iraq, the federal government still hasn’t given a cost estimate for the mission to the Parliamentary Budget Officer,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.

• In an op-ed published in the Leader-Post, University of Saskatchewan history professor emeritus Bill Waiser writes, “The past few years have not been kind to [Canada’s] archives — through no fault of their own — and unless the situation improves, Canada’s understanding of its past will be decidedly poorer.”

• Mike De Souza, who has been hired as an investigative resources correspondent for Reuters, shares with readers some of his “recent experiences with government efforts to either release or hide information.” Among those experiences: a spokesperson telling colleagues that one of De Souza’s questions was “undeserving of a response.”


• The appointment of Amrik Virk as British Columbia’s new technology, innovation and citizens’ services minister has not been a comfort to journalists in that province. The reason: the BC NDP had released leaked emails appearing to show that when Virk on Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s board of governors he knew more than he previously admitted about a plan to circumvent the province’s compensation disclosure guidelines. That means — in the words of to The Tyee’s Jeremy Nuttall — “a minister busted by leaked emails” is now going to be running the ministry responsible for freedom of information in British Columbia.

• “Hospitals can easily get around Ontario’s accountability legislation to hide executive expenses,” according to the Hamilton Spectator. The newspaper also reports “no outside agency monitors how hospital board and executive expenses are posted publicly online.”

• The British Columbia government has denied a freedom of information request by the Western News for information about how much a new jail is going to cost to taxpayers. The reason: the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services believes disclosing that information would harm the financial interests of the government and its business partners.

• “The B.C. Ambulance Service has refused to release data that would show whether it is taking longer to respond to 911 calls,” according to the Vancouver Sun. The reason: the agency responsible for that service is “concerned about ‘re-identification’ — that releasing the data may make it possible to identify individual patients, especially in smaller communities.”

• The Toronto Star reports the Ontario government has “no idea” how many complaints have been lodged against its Crown prosecutors or “how many have been disciplined for misconduct in recent years.”

• “Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin is demanding to know why the province’s police watchdog is keeping secret its findings from an investigation into an altercation involving an OPP officer that left an Orillia woman with a busted knee last year,” according to the Toronto Star.

• Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation wants to charge the Toronto Star $2,000 for information about the pass rates for drivers seeking a license to operate a tractor-trailer. The reason: a computer programmer would have to ‘write new code to extract the data from the ministry’s licensing and control system database.” But, according to the newspaper, “this appears to contradict earlier communication from the ministry, which told the Star in September that pass rates by driver examiner and DriveTest centre are tracked in monthly reports from Serco, the private company that administers driver exams in Ontario on behalf of the government.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Leader-Post reports Saskatchewan’s new information commissioner plans to continue pushing for the province’s municipal police to be subject to the province’s freedom of information laws.

• The Edmonton Sun reports Alberta’s information commissioner is getting the provincial government to “cough up legal records” relating to its “ongoing $10-billion lawsuit against big tobacco.”

• CBC News reports an Alberta legislative committee “comprised mostly of Tory MLAs voted to cut about $1 million from six independent offices.” Those offices include the province’s information and privacy commissioner.

• When Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty was in power the Ontario government “billed taxpayers $10,000 to pay the husband of a top party official to wipe computer hard drives in Mr. McGuinty’s office,” according to the National Post. Those deletions happened as the “Liberals battled to contain the fallout” from the billion-dollar cancellation of two gas-fired power plants. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The association representing Canada’s restaurant industry has written an open letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne asking her government to bring “accountability and transparency” to the province’s chicken prices. According to the association, “Waiting three years for chicken farmers to publish a simple and forthright price formula for a food staple many Ontario families put on their dinner table every night is simply not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable that the vested interest with the greatest stake in the price set for chicken, the producers themselves, should be in charge of the price-setting program.”

• The Burnaby News Leader reports that former British Columbia MLA Barry Jones, who pioneered the province’s freedom of information legislation, became interested in the issue while cleaning out the constituency office he had inherited from former legislator Eileen Dailly. That’s when he found a private members bill on FOI she had proposed. “I was about to throw it out and then started reading and got fascinated,” he told the newspaper.


• Manitoba’s ombudsman has found Winnipeg was technically within its rights to refuse a request by the Winnipeg Free Press for documents “revealing why city officials recommended buying and renovating the 56-year-old former Canada Post building instead of fixing the 48-year-old Public Safety Building.” But the ombudsman also said the city should revisit that decision.

• The St. Albert Gazette has been denied access to information about whether the Alberta city hands out radar tickets for drivers going less than 10 km/h over the speed limit. According to the newspaper, the city believes the disclosure of that information would be “harmful to law enforcement.”

• The Georgia Straight reports the Coalition of Progressive Electors, a Vancouver civic party, “accepted $12,500 in combined campaign contributions from a commercial real-estate company and left those amounts off the list of donations it released ahead of the November 15 election.” The coalition has since apologized for that lack of disclosure.

• The City of Oshawa is considering a staff recommendation to discontinue publication of a monthly report outlining payroll and vendor payments, according to the Oshawa Express. The newspaper also reports the city’s mayor frustrated a proposal to let the public know when Oshawa awards sole-sourced contracts.

• A Manning Foundation for Democratic Education report states “25% of Calgary City Council’s time is spent in secret and closed the public, up from 18.5% for the previous term.”

• Saskatoon residents will now know how their city councillors are voting. In the past, councillors needed to make a formal request for those votes to be written down. But now all of them will be recorded thanks to a motion made by local politician Randy Donauer.

• The Montreal Gazette reports the city is “on the hunt for an information-technology company that can help it create a new, searchable database of municipal contracts.”

• Kimberly Mayor Don McCormick hopes his new monthly brown bag lunches with the public will “eliminate the need for some of the Freedom of Information requests” his city has been dealing with, according to the city’s local newspaper.

• The Times & Transcript reports that, during a December 15 meeting, Moncton city councillors discussed an interim report on their efforts to “enhance democracy.” And, according to CBC News, information technology business owner Andrew MacKinnon made a presentation during the same meeting encouraging the city to open up its data.

• Summerside is looking to form an open government committee and a transparency committee. The Prince Edward Island city’s local newspaper reports the later committee will “study, review and make recommendations to council on ways to achieve more openness, accountability and transparency, and will consist of the city’s chief administrative officer, two councillors and two members of the public.”

• Maple Ridge is establishing a citizen’s committee on open government to develop recommendations for how the British Columbia city “can be more responsive and transparent to residents and other stakeholders.” According to the Maple Ridge News, “Once it starts to work, it will have a three-month time limit to bring recommendations.”

• The Flamborough Review reports Hamilton “staff and politicians will begin the interviewing process” for the Ontario city’s first combined lobbyist registrar and integrity commissioner “starting next February or March.”

• In a letter published in the Stoney Creek News, a Hamilton resident writes that the city’s freedom of information request process “required me to download and fill out a paper form, write a cheque to the city for $5, put a stamp on an envelope and mail it all to city hall. Much time and effort could be saved if this Freedom of Information transaction could have taken place online, like other electronic services available to residents, like dog tags.”

• In a letter published in the Hamilton Spectator, retired civic employee Shekar Chandrasekhar writes, “One can not get blood from a stone. Likewise, obtaining information from police services is next to impossible even though it is completely funded by the citizens of Hamilton.”

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



An example of a typical government filing cabinet under the Tory's second open government plan. (Photograph by

An example of a typical government filing cabinet under the Tories’ second open government action plan. (Photograph by

A LITTLE REFORM DOESN’T GO A LONG WAY The Harper administration’s second open government action plan was rightly pilloried last week for not including any plans to fix the country’s long broken Access to Information Act. But it’s important to remember that, even though the Liberals and the NDP both introduced private members bills to amend that act, the Grit’s proposal has significant limitations.

For example, that proposal states “exceptions to the right of access should be rare.” But it does very little to change the exemptions and exclusions in the Act that let government frustrate access requests and keep their most sensitive records out of the public eye.

On that score, the NDP’s bill, which was defeated on second reading, was considerably more reformist. It would have allowed for greater access to records about advice and recommendations developed by or for the government, as well as its positions and plans. Accounts of consultations and deliberations involving the government would have also become more accessible and so would some cabinet records.

So while the Conservatives deserve a drubbing for continuing to run a backroom state, the Liberals don’t look like they would throw open the curtains of government if they won power.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE SOME NUMBERS COULD MAKE Thanks to party discipline, caucus secrecy and cabinet confidentiality, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between our legislators — and hold them to account. After all, those representatives are usually only allowed to speak out on behalf of their constituents and their own conscience during closed door meetings. Outside those meetings, they’re expected to toe the party line.

But what would happen if our legislators were required to publish an annual report that included statistics measuring their performance on everything from their voting behaviour to how much government money they were bringing into their constituency?

The United Kingdom’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority suggested something similar last year. And now British Conservative MP Jesse Norman has given his constituents an example of what such a report might look like, showing everything from how many public constituency events he’s attended to how many questions he’s asked in the House of Commons.

Just think how much more helpful that information would be if it was independently audited and British voters were able to compare his statistics to those of other MPs. Moreover, there’s nothing that would stop Canadian legislators from doing the same thing — except a desire to maintain the anonymity that both protects and disempowers them.

PUBLIC SERVANTS OR PARTY EMPLOYEES? Former government scientist Michael Rennie has admirably spoken out against the policies that prevent his ex-colleagues from talking about their research. But, in doing so, he appeared to speak in favour of a common assumption that I believe may have contributed to the creation of those policies.

In an op-ed published in the Ottawa Citizen, Rennie wrote that when he was working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, he would refer media requests for comment to the department’s communications officers. But “these requests were typically met with silence.”

That’s one of the reasons why he wants to see changes to the “current communications policies and practices are doing little to facilitate open scientific dialogue in the federal public service.”

Nevertheless, Rennie stated, “It’s reasonable to expect that a public servant would not be publicly critical of their employer, or the policies they represent.”

Yet what happens when a government scientist’s research implicitly criticizes their employer or such policies? Should lips be sealed about that work or should it be shared?

And why do some Canadians seem to assume those public servants are working for whatever party is in power rather than the people?

After all, if we took the later perspective, then there arguably wouldn’t be anything wrong with them being critical of public policies that weren’t in the public interest.

In fact, it would be irresponsible of them not to.

STAR PUMPS COMMISSIONER’S PRIVACY ROLE Earlier, I reported on how journalists routinely describe Canada’s information and privacy commissioners as “privacy watchdogs” or “privacy commissioners” even when those officials are dealing with right to know issues.

The latest example comes to us from the Toronto Star, which reported last week that “Investigators from the provincial privacy commissioner’s office have interviewed staff at the Toronto school board after allegations surfaced that trustees interfered and tampered with a document requested by the Star under the freedom of information act.”

Yet that investigation has nothing to do with commissioner’s privacy protection role and everything to do with his responsibility to uphold the public’s information access rights.


• In a column for the Huffington Post, Dawson College history professor Frederic Bastien contrasts the federal Conservative’s championing of Canada’s past with their refusal to make archival information available to historians. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Vancouver Sun files freedom of information requests with 21 local municipalities and finds a “lack of transparency at city halls in the region.” (hat tip: Mike Hager)

• The Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick uses his own dealings with the Canadian Border Services Agency as an example of how federal agencies “routinely hide information from the public.”

• The Tyee is ignoring a government demand to stop publishing “personal information” contained in internal health ministry emails that were leaked to the online magazine. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

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