Category Archives: Democracy


The title information commissioner doesn't make many headlines. (Photograph by

The title information commissioner doesn’t make many headlines. (Photograph by

PRIVACY GETS BIGGER BILLING THAN FOI In Canada’s provinces and territories, a single official is responsible for protecting the public’s information rights, as well as their privacy rights. But even when those officials are talking about information rights, some headline writers only refer to them as “privacy commissioners” or “privacy watchdogs.”

According to my count, there have been at least 84 such headlines published between 2003 and the present. For example, on August 15, the Globe and Mail reported British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner would be looking into whether the provincial government should have told the public about the state of the Mount Polley Mine prior to the collapse of its tailings pond. But even though that story has little to do with privacy rights, it appeared in print under the headline “Privacy watchdog launches mine probe.”

By comparison, I only found 40 headlines between 2003 and the present that referred to those watchdogs using a title that was about their information rights protecting responsibilities. And that makes me wonder what impact this difference is having on how the public views privacy versus access issues.*

LEGAL BILLS ABOVE FOI LAW? British Columbia’s justice minister doesn’t think the public should have a right to know what lawyers working for the government are making. During an interview on the public affairs show Voice of BC, the minister, Suzanne Anton, was asked by BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek if her administration would stop blocking the release of that kind of information. Her response: “When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.” The following is a complete transcript of that segment, which include show host Vaughn Palmer.

Gogolek: Minister, we’ve been hearing a rising number of complaints from FOI requesters who are trying to get information on how much lawyers or law firms are charging the government and the usual excuse is that somehow either handing over invoices or sometimes even just the total amount billed would violate solicitor-client privilege. Will you commit your government to stop blocking the release of this kind of information?

Anton: When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.

Palmer: What about total billings by a law firm for a prominent case like the BCTF case? Is the public entitled to know what the government has spent fighting the teachers’ union in court all these years?

Anton: I think it’s a complicated question because there’s government lawyers – it’s mainly government lawyers on that case. As a matter of fact, there’s one outside counsel right now. These are not things that are generally released.

Palmer: Well, I think the public’s entitled to know something like that don’t you?

Anton: I think it’s a very interesting case and we will see where it gets to. But in terms of the bills we have policy in legal services that we follow.

THE CLOSED DOOR CLUB Why do so many Canadian politicians appear to feel so comfortable making decisions out of the public eye?

In a letter published in the North Shore News earlier this month, retiring North Vancouver district councillor Alan Nixon suggested this rationale: “I, along with many others, believe effective and efficient administration and stewardship of the taxpayers’ best interest is more important than whether the meeting gets held in-camera or in the council chamber.”

Nixon was responding to an earlier column by former councillor Trevor Carolan, who criticized how much of the district’s public business has been happening in private.

According to Carolan, in 2013, “a total of 22 regular council meetings equalled 49 hours of open business; 47 closed meetings resulted in 81 hours of closed door sessions.

But Nixon has wrote, “The meetings that have been ‘secret’ or ‘in-camera’ have been fully justified under the rules which we operate, namely the Local Government Act and the Community Charter.”

THE POWER OF THE PSA The Inter American Press Association has passed a resolution calling on governments in the Americans to tell citizens about their information rights — something our own federal access watchdog can’t do. As I earlier reported, Canada’s first information commissioner wrote about the need to raise public awareness about those rights back in 1984. But, 30 years later, the current commissioner Suzanne Legault still doesn’t have that authority.

THE TRUTH AS A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE If religion is the opiate of the masses, is freedom of information their stimulant? That’s what Josh Gordon, state political editor for the Australian newspaper The Age, has suggested in his latest column. Writing about an attempt to withhold records about ambulance response time for people having heart attacks, Gordon states that information in the State of Victoria ‘is all too often treated as a dangerous drug, to be carefully meted out in controlled doses. Get the dose wrong and it might provoke an outbreak of ‘unnecessary debate.’ God forbid.”


• American authorities told American journalists the name of Parliament Hill shooter Michael Joseph Zehaf-Bibeau long before Canadian authorities released the same information. According to Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell, that may be an example of the “difference in fundamental philosophies about democracy” between the two countries. (hat tip: David Mayhood)

• A request by Prince Edward Island’s information commissioner for more government money prompts Holland College journalism instructor Rick MacLean to write, “There are many ways to hide things. Underfunding those who hold you to account is one.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Calgary Herald reports a care home provider is trying to block the release of records that would tell the public how much money it makes from its contract with the Alberta government. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Embassy’s Carl Meyer covers his frustrating experience filing access requests for information about Canada’s relationship with Vietnam.

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

* = I searched the Canadian Newsstand database for headlines that included the words “privacy commissioner,” “privacy watchdog,” “privacy ombudsman,” “privacy ombudsperson,” “privacy officer” and “privacy review officer” above stories that included the words “freedom of information” or FOI. I also searched the same database for headlines that included the words “information commissioner,” “info commissioner,” “information watchdog,” “info watchdog,” “FOI commissioner,” “FOI watchdog,” “information ombudsman,” “info ombudsman,” “info formation ombudsperson,” “information ombudsperson,” “information review officer,” “info review officer,” “information officer” and “info officer.” But I excluded from that later search stories that included the names of federal access commissioners Suzanne Legault, John Reid or Robert Marleau.


Scientists aren't the only ones being muzzled by the government. (Photograph by

The ability of government scientists to speak out has been under a media microscope. But what about all the other bureaucrats who are being muzzled? (Photograph by

THE SELECTIVE SOUND OF SILENCE? When it comes to the silencing of federal employees, government scientists seem to be most popular kids on the block.

According to Canadian Newsstand, phrases about the muzzling of those scientists have appeared in newspapers and wire services included in that database at least 280 times since the 2002 election.

But other government workers are also gagged, equally compromising Canadians right to know.

Nevertheless, similar phrases about their silencing have appeared appeared just 63 times over the same period.*

MORE POWER FOR THE FEW The federal government’s proposed new copyright law amendment could further fortify the power political parties have in comparison to other civil society groups.

Unlike charities and non-profits, those parties can engaged in unrestricted political activities and issue a tax receipt when Canadians donate to them.

The Tory’s proposed copyright law amendment could increase that advantage by allowing parties to use news content for their advertising without permission.

But, given the fact that a 2006 study estimated just one to two percent of Canadians belong to a political party on a year-to-year basis, one wonders whether all that power is deserved.

WHEN THE PRIVATE SHOULD BE PUBLIC Canada’s freedom of information law doesn’t allow the public access to disciplinary records about public servants. But that’s not always the case in the United States.

In an editorial complaining about Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act — which allows for a similar kind of shielding  — the Daily Press writes, “Other states require disclosure of this information.”

“Consider Montana, where the Supreme Court said, ‘The public has a clear and unambiguous right to know the information involved in the internal investigation of a public employee for any alleged violation of any policy, law or rule.’”

As such, the paper is urging those reviewing the Virginia’s sunshine law “to pay special attention to the personnel exemption that effectively enables” bad behaviour on the part of public officials.

Perhaps Canadians should be arguing the same thing?

* = I searched Canadian Newsstand for the phrases “gagging,” “gagged” “muzzling,” “muzzled,” “silencing” and “silenced” next to the words scientists, bureaucrats, public servants, civil servants, government employees and government workers. I limited the search to stories that included the words Harper or federal government. I then removed stories about other governments, as well as bestseller lists mentioning Chris Turner’s book The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada.

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


The potential sale of Sun Media's English-language newspapers will be a big blow to media competition and quality. (Graphic by Quebecor Media Inc.)

The potential sale of Sun Media’s English-language newspapers will be a big blow to media competition and quality. (Graphic by Quebecor Media Inc.)

Quebecor Media Inc.’s potential sale of its 175 English-language dailies may be good news for buyer Postmedia Network Canada Corp. But, in interviews yesterday with CBC’s Calgary Eyeopener, CBC’s As It Happens, CBC News Calgary, CTV Calgary and DeSmog Canada, I argued it will likely be a bad news for Canadians.

Here’s the pith of my argument: first, if the $316 million sale is approved by the Competition Bureau, one company will be able to dictate editorial direction to almost every major urban daily in country. Even if that power isn’t used, the possibility of abuse is enough to give pause to anyone concerned about democracy and debate in Canada.

Second, despite Postmedia president and chief executive officer Paul Godfrey’s assurances, this deal will likely result in layoffs and newsroom closures, further reducing the resources the fourth estate has to hold power to account in this country.

And third, the birthing of such a behemoth will almost certainly push the already endangered beat of media criticism to the brink of extinction. After all, the number of journalists willing to risk future employment by criticizing the country’s largest newspaper chain would be few and far between.


#cdnfoi wasn't the only hashtag under consideration. (Graphic by Will Brown)

#cdnfoi wasn’t the only hashtag under consideration. (Graphic by Will Brown)

The campaign to encourage Canadians to tag stories about government secrecy with #cdnfoi on twitter has so far been a success.

According to the service Hashtracking, from September 17 to 24, there were just 79 tweets using that tag. But between September 25, the day before that campaign was officially launched, and October 2, there were 1,018. That’s almost 13 times more.

#cdnfoi usage between September 5 and October 5 (Graphic by Hashtrack)

#cdnfoi usage between September 5 and October 5. (Graphic by Hashtrack)

But what made us decide to promote #cdnfoi , which was originally created by former Canadian Press deputy Ottawa bureau chief Dean Beeby, over another hashtag?

Well, here’s the list of the other options that were under consideration by the campaign’s sponsors —  the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists, IntegrityBC and DeSmog Canada  — as well as why they weren’t selected.

#ATIP This abbreviation for access to information and privacy is common at the federal level but not at the provincial level.

ATIP, which is sometimes used as a hashtag for “a tip,” also refers to requests for information under two pieces of legislation: the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.

By comparison, the principle of freedom of information is about more than that, encompassing the need for policies such as open meetings and less restrictive media relations policies.

Moreover, there has been some controversy over the federal Access to Information Act not being named the Freedom of Information Act. In a 2001 article published in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, former MP John Bryden wrote:

…the Canadian government has never stated that it believes in [the principle that the public’s right to know is superior to whatever right to privacy public officials might have]. Indeed, it has prevaricated by the very choice of name for its freedom of information legislation: Access to Information Act. It is a cautious title, used only by Canada, Hong Kong and South Africa. It implies that people are entitled to government information but the government has no responsibility to provide it.

#FOI This abbreviation for freedom of information is common at the provincial level. But foi is also the word for faith in French and is sometimes used as a hashtag by speakers of that language.

#CDNRTK This abbreviation for Canadian right to know has the advantage of being about a powerful principle. But RTK isn’t a common abbreviation, nor is RTI, which stands for right to information.


Stand up for your information rights with just a few keystrokes. (Graphic by Will Brown)

Stand up for your information rights with just a few keystrokes. (Graphic by Will Brown)

Partisans may not believe it, but Canada’s “culture of secrecy” existed long before Stephen Harper moved into the prime minister’s office. And it’ll be around long after he moves out, unless Canadians do more than just cast their ballots in the next election.

That’s why four groups concerned about freedom of information, one of which I’m part of, are launching a campaign encouraging Canadians to take a small but vital step on social media that would raise more awareness of just how much is being hidden from us: spotlighting examples of government secrecy with the hashtag #cdnfoi.

Such secrecy has its roots in our political system, which has a tradition of strict party discipline. Because of that discipline, decisions made by the government behind closed doors – in cabinet meetings, for example – are rarely defeated in the House of Commons, making secret forums the principle arbiters of public policy.

To be sure, the Harper administration has done more than its share to cultivate a backroom state, frustrating access to government records and officials, as well as failing to fix our broken freedom of information system. But Canadian society is an especially fertile ground for the growth of policies that violate our right to know.

In part, that’s because our country doesn’t have any groups that exclusively and routinely advocate for greater freedom of information at a national level. The closest we have is the small BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

But, as its name implies, the association’s two staff members toil on information and privacy issues in British Columbia and the rest of Canada from a tiny office above a beauty salon and spa in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, other organizations that care about our right to know have even more multiplicitous mandates. For example, Ottawa’s DemocracyWatch stands on guard for democratic reform and corporate responsibility, as well as freedom of information. Meanwhile, Halifax’s Centre for Law and Democracy also deals with other human rights issues abroad.

By comparison, the United States has three umbrella organizations that exclusively safeguard Americans’ right to know.

They include:, representing 94 groups; the National Freedom of Information Coalition, representing 30 dues-paying groups; and the Sunshine in Government Initiative, representing nine groups.

Such umbrella organizations have always been few and far between in Canada.

In the seventies, a coalition called ACCESS: a Canadian Committee for the Right to Public Information was established to lobby for greater freedom of information.

Reports from the Globe and Mail back then described the committee as having the backing of groups such as the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Daily Newspapers Association.

But long-time right to know researcher Ken Rubin stated in an email that ACCESS, which played a key role in the creation of Canada’s current freedom of information law, was actually “primarily a group of diverse individuals” that included academics, activists and lawyers and had some “paper” affiliations with other organizations.

Despite that key role, by the eighties the committee had folded. According to Rubin, during the same decade, a “loose coalition” came together under the auspices of the Canadian Federation of Civil Liberties and Human Rights Associations to “monitor and improve” freedom of information. That coalition also “went by the wayside” once the federation “faded away.”

Then, in January 2000, investigative reporter Robert Cribb announced the formation of Open Government Canada – a “national forum for FOI networking, education and advocacy pushing for legislative changes that grant greater access to public information. ”

More than 25 groups were represented at its founding conference in March of that year. However, in an email, Cribb stated the coalition “died a regretful death.”

The reason: “It proved to be impossible to lure financial support for such an endeavour – part of the perplexing lack of concern, engagement or righteous indignation in Canada around issues such as freedom of information and the public’s right to know.”

Those concerns aside, in 2011, DemocracyWatch launched the Open Government Coalition. So far, the coalition is made up of three groups – not counting DemocracyWatch and an affiliated charity. Although founder Duff Conacher stated in an email he plans to expand it this fall.

In the meantime, the New Democrats and the Liberals have proposed laws and policies that would open up government. They should be applauded for doing so. And, if the past is a predictor of the future, they may even act on some of those proposals if they win power – just as the Conservatives did.

But eventually the expediency of secrecy seems to seduce every government, regardless of its political stripe. Which means a New Democrat or Liberal administration will likely become just as tight with information as the Conservatives – albeit, perhaps, with more of a velvet glove covering that clenched, iron fist.

Don’t believe me? Well, look no further than the United States where Democrat president Barack Obama swept into office promising an “unprecedented level of openness in Government.”

Five years later, an Associated Press analysis found that in 2013 his administration “more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.”

More recently, the agency also listed “eight ways the Obama administration is blocking information.”

Meanwhile, for his part New York Times reporter James Risen has called “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”

Just as neither the right nor the left has a monopoly on the truth, neither has a monopoly on secrecy.

As a result, it’s vital for Canadians to start paying better attention to our information rights so we can better safeguard them.

That’s why the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists, DeSmog Canada and IntegrityBC, are now encouraging Canadians tweet about threats to their right to know using the hashtag #cdnfoi.

Those threats include everything from backroom government meetings and frustrated freedom of information requests to inaccessible officials and nonexistent public records, whether they are at the federal, provincial or local level.

At present, the use of that hashtag isn’t widespread, making it more difficult for Canadians to know about such threats.

So, by just tagging stories about government secrecy with #cdnfoi, you can help your fellow citizens know about what they aren’t being allowed to know.

And you can encourage others to take up the fight by sharing these graphics promoting #cdnfoi – helping change Canada’s culture of secrecy in the process.


Will this soon be standard issue equipment for civil servants when reporters are present? (Photograph by

Will this soon be standard issue equipment for federal civil servants dealing with the news media? (Photograph by

REPORTERS GET SPECIAL TREATMENT FROM HARPER ADMINISTRATION The muzzle federal bureaucrats must wear around journalists appears to be so tight that they can’t even talk about the Harper administration’s open government action plan if a reporter is in the room but one of their spin doctors isn’t.

The scene of that crime against free speech was a “public workshop” in Halifax which was supposed to give Canadians an opportunity to comment on the second edition of that plan.

But, according to the investigative reporter Tim Bousquet, when he showed up to that meeting, a woman who worked for the Treasury Board “asked who I worked for and left the room to make a phone call.”

“When she came back, she said that with a journalist in the room, the Treasury Board employees were not authorized to speak without a government media professional in the room.”

Ironically, the Canadian Association of Journalists recently wrote a letter calling on the federal government to do away with such poisonous public relations restrictions as part of its new open government action plan (disclosure: I drafted and then, as one of the association’s regional directors, co-signed that letter).

TRAINED SEALS FAIL TO FLEE AQUARIUM Michael’s Chong Reform Act is being “watered down to the point of transparency,” according to the National Post’s Andrew Coyne. But don’t say I didn’t warn you this would happen.

The bill, which was introduced last year by Chong, was supposed to legally enshrine caucus’s authority to remove party leaders. It was also supposed to take away the final say those leaders have on who gets to run for their party and who doesn’t.

But, last week, Chong announced he would be proposing two major changes to the Act that will limit those provisions.

The first will allow parties to designate someone who will get a final say on who can be an election candidate. The second will allow caucuses to opt out of having the power to remove their leader.

In response, Coyne — who had described the bill as containing “the seeds of a revolution” — wrote the Reform Act has been “effectively gutted”

But that should come as no surprise to readers here.

Earlier, in covering the Reform Act, I opined, “Canada’s MPs may soon have a chance to steal fire from their gods. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t seize it.”

THE HIGH PRICE OF FREEDOM (OF INFORMATION) A Calgary city councillor wants the public to pay more for information about work the public has paid for, even though Alberta’s freedom of information fees are already among the highest in the country.

Speaking with the Calgary Herald, Ray Jones said, “I think there should be fair market value on it. I think whoever asks the FOIPP requests should be paying for it.”

According to the newspaper, Jones made the comment after aides “spent days responding to a query under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for details of all the gifts councillors have given to the public.”

It costs $25 to file a freedom of information request in Alberta, with other provinces and the federal government charging $5 or nothing at all. Only the Northwest Territories and Nunavut match Alberta’s filing fee.

Similar to other Canadian governments, Alberta also allows freedom of information applicants to be charged the cost of searching for records and copying them.

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


The public have enough information to prevent disasters like this one -- the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond collapse -- from happening in the future. (Photograph by Cariboo Regional District)

The public doesn’t have enough information to prevent disasters like this one — the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond collapse — from happening in the future. (Photograph by Cariboo Regional District)

British Columbia is one of the country’s biggest mineral producers. But, compared to Americans, British Columbians have very little information about the safety and regulation of that activity. And that means journalists, activists and citizens have very little power to stop mining problems before they become mining disasters.

Just such a disaster happened last month when the tailing dam at Imperial Metals Corp.‘s Mount Polley Mine collapsed, resulting in a flood of concern and questions about safety at similar operations in the province.

In response to a request from Vancouver Sun reporter Gordon Hoesktra, the government released details on the 49 “dangerous or unusual occurrences” that were recorded as happening at tailing ponds in British Columbia between 2000 and 2012.

Earlier, it also released a summary of inspections at the Mount Polley Mine. But a spokesperson for the ministry of energy and mines confirmed the government “does not generally publicly post mine inspection reports or related information, including the dates on which they were conducted.”

The reason: such reports, which can be obtained via the province’s sometimes-lengthy and often frustrating freedom of information request process, “need to be reviewed for any personal and financial information before they can be released.”

The government also hasn’t released details on the “dangerous or unusual occurrences” that were recorded as happening at mining locations other than tailing ponds between 2001 and 2012. Those occurrences, according to aggregate statistics released as part of the chief inspector of mines’s annual report, include 1,173 incidents at pits, 287 incidents at plants or mills, 178 incidents at maintenance shops, etc. etc., etc.

When asked whether the province discloses any other information about health, safety and environmental violations at mines in British Columbia, a ministry spokesperson stated the government does post overviews of significant spills of oil or hazardous material. “From time to time, and as appropriate” it may post hazard alerts about incidents at mines “when relevant on a broader scale.”

The federal and provincial governments also maintain databases of their environmental offenders. But both have major limitations. For example, the provincial database doesn’t include those who have violated British Columbia’s Mines Act. And the federal database, which has just 78 entries, only includes information about convictions of corporations obtained via court proceedings. It doesn’t include tickets, warning letters or compliance orders issued to them.*

By comparison, the haul of information about mines in the United States is considerably richer.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has a database that includes statistics and reports about past and present health and safety accidents, inspections and violations at individual mines. And the Environmental Protection Agency has a similar database detailing environmental inspections and violations at those operations.

That means Americans, with just a few keystrokes, can find out there were four injuries at Imperial Metals’s Sterling Mine in Nevada between 2012 and 2014, including a “serious abrasion to thumb,” a “tibia fracture” and a head laceration.

They also can find out there’s been six health and safety inspections of that mine so far this year during which 13 violations of the Mine Act were cited, with penalties and proposed penalties totaling $4,764.

And they can find out the last Resource Conservation and Recovery Act inspection of Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp.‘s Goldstrike Mine, which is also located in Nevada, took place on May 14 and that the operation is currently listed as being in “significant violation” of that legislation.

There is absolutely no reason why British Columbians shouldn’t be similarly informed about our own mines — except for our willingness to elect governments on both the left and right that exploit our political complacency and infantilism.

After all, how many citizens do you think will put information rights as their top issue the next time they go to the polls? And how many even care about those rights between elections?

But without such information it’s impossible for British Columbians to know how safe our mines are — and whether officials are doing enough to keep those operations safe.

Journalists and activists just don’t know what we don’t know.

Instead, we have to trust that our Father Knows Best government will take care of its citizen-children at the expense of the powerful who are its friends and financiers.

And that’s exactly the way most politicians, once they get into power, seem to like it.

* = Imperial Metals doesn’t show up in either database.


One possible punishment for public bodies that violate Canadians' right to know. (Photograph by

One possible punishment for public bodies that violate Canadians’ right to know. (Photograph by

NAME THAT SHAME Like Canadian reporters, students journalists in the United States have seen their freedom of information requests frustrated.

But, six months ago, a legal aid group for those students decided to something clever about that frustration.

The Student Press Law Centre launched a Tumblr blog called FOIA Shaming, inviting campus reporters to share stories about university administrators who have violated the public’s right to know.

Only five such stories have posted on the blog so far. Nevertheless, I wonder whether a similar initiative to shame Canadian public bodies that charge excessive fees for freedom of information requests or are laggards in responding to them might be worthwhile?

CANADIANS CAMERA SHY In the United States, television cameras are allowed in state courts but not in the Supreme Court. By comparison, in Canada, cameras have been rare in trial courts but our highest court is televised. However, public attitudes towards expanding such coverage are very different in the two countries.

Last week, the Washington, DC-based Coalition for Court Transparency released poll in which 74 percent of 1,000 respondents said they would support having the Supreme Court’s proceeding broadcast “live to the American people.”

By comparison, when Angus Reid Public Opinion asked 1,017 Canadians in 2010 for their opinion on whether “cameras and recording devices” should be allowed inside our courts, just 49 percent said they would support such a decision.

A MADE IN CANADA SOLUTION? Is The Atlantic’s David Frum suggesting the United States should be more like Canada if wants to cure its political ills?

In a column published last month, Frum — the son of former CBC journalist Barbara Frum and brother of Canadian Conservative Senator Linda Frum — argued, “When government seems to fail, Americans habitually resort to the same solutions: more process, more transparency, more appeals to courts.”

But, according to Frum, “Each dose of this medicine leaves government more sluggish,” weakening political authority and yielding “more lobbying, more expense, more delay, and more indecision.”

Of course, as readers of this column know, Canadians don’t seem as prone to the same kinds of reformist tendencies.

As a result, our system of government — with its secret cabinet meetings, rigid party discipline and antiquated freedom of informations laws — remains comparatively efficient if somewhat undemocratic.

Frum did not respond to a tweet asking whether his column was inspired by that system.

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


What price will Canada pay so the Conservatives can fill their coffers? (Photograph by

What price will Canada pay so the Conservatives can fill their coffers? (Photograph by

In its repeated attacks on the media, the governing Conservatives may also be undermining Canada’s international reputation for press freedom.

This week, the party’s fundraising and membership director Jaime Girard claimed in a fundraising email that, “Unlike the Liberals, [the Tories] don’t have the Ottawa media elite backing us.”

That followed an earlier fundraising email, distributed in August, claiming “the urban media elite are mobilizing against” the Conservatives.

Eight months before that, the party also exhorted supporters that they couldn’t “let Liberal attacks and the media stop us from reaching our [fundraising] goal.”

And, in November 2013, Justice Ministry Peter MacKay wrote that the Conservatives needed donations to “fight back” against Liberal leader Justin Trudeau “and his allies in the media.”

Such claims may seem to some like par for Canada’s increasingly partisan political course.

But they are also one of the indicators Reporters Without Borders uses to measure attacks on press freedom worldwide.

Its World Press Freedom Index questionnaire asks respondents how often the government of a country has attempted to publicly discredit or publicly insult journalists within the past 12 months.

The results of that questionnaire — which is sent to 18 freedom of expression groups, Reporters Without Borders’s 150 correspondents, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists — are then used to assemble the index.

The most recent index ranked Canada’s press freedom 18th out of 180 countries examined, although its methodology hasn’t been without criticism.


One possible response to Canadians' open government recommendations. (Photograph by

One possible response to Canadians’ open government recommendations. (Photograph by

OPEN GOVERNMENT INACTION? Canadians have given the federal government some worthy ideas on how it could be less secretive and more accountable. But some of them seem doubtful those ideas will actually be acted on.

The Harper administration has been consulting with Canadians about what should be in it’s Action Plan on Open Government 2.0 since April.

In addition to recommending reforms to the country’s freedom of information system, other suggestions that have been submitted online or made during in-person meetings have included:

  • establish an online ratings system so Canadians can grade the performance of unelected and elected officials, the institutions they work for and their policies;
  • ensure the preservation of Canada’s “documentary and public policy heritage”; and
  • establish public consultation principles that departments and agencies would have to abide by.

But the government also acknowledged “several comments reflect that the Government of Canada’s commitment to transparency leaves something to be desired.”

You can check all of those suggestions out here.

THE MEDIA’S STAR CANDIDATE Vancouver’s city hall might become a more welcoming place for reporters if former media executive Kirk LaPointe unseats sitting Mayor Gregor Robertson.

LaPointe, who is heading the right-wing Non-Partisan Association slate, is promising to “create the country’s most open, accountable government” should his party win the upcoming November civic election.

That would include a “bylaw requiring the city to disclose information routinely” and permitting city employees to “speak freely to the public.”

Such promises are laudable, especially given recent criticism of the Canadian and American governments for muzzling bureaucrats.

But they also not surprising given that LaPointe, the former managing editor of the Vancouver Sun (disclosure: he was also one of my bosses at that paper), has been a longtime friend of freedom of information.

I’ve personally participated in two panels with him on the subject and, during both, he forcefully championed Canadians’ right to know.

Despite those credentials, though, voters in Vancouver may be wary of LaPointe’s transparency agenda.

After all, in 1999, BC Liberal Party leader Gordon Campbell, the city’s former mayor, told his supporters he would also run “the most open and accountable government in Canada” and ended up doing almost the opposite when he became premier.

THE DEVIL’S IN THE EXEMPTIONS As I and others have written before, Campbell is far from the only political leader who has promised transparency and delivered opacity.

So, in some ways, the better question for a candidate seeking elected office is not what they would do to make government less secretive but when they think such secrecy is necessary.

In other words, when is government justified in withholding information from the citizenry and how does the candidate’s position differ from existing practice?

After all, it’s often those exemptions that have defanged right to know efforts in this country.

I’ve posed that question to LaPointe and will post his reply when he’s had an opportunity to answer.

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: A nasty summer bug kept me from posting last week’s column. My next look at the people, the press and the powerful will be published in two weeks.