If you’ve been a reader of this site, you’ll know I’ve been busy working on a dissertation about the early history of freedom of information in Canada. So I’m very excited to announce I’ll be sharing some findings from that work next week. This coming Thursday, I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “The falling currency of democracy: information as an instrument of control and certainty in the postwar and post-truth eras” at Mount Royal University and Medicine Hat College’s second Liberal Education Conference. This year’s conference theme is “Can a liberal education make you a better discerner of the truth?”
Transparency scholars and advocates have often said that freedom of information laws are a reaction to a growth in government – something I’ve found can be seen at the very beginnings of the modern right to know movement.
In a 2015 paper, public administration professor Alasdair Roberts wrote that such growth happens “either because the country confronts some new challenge, or has the opportunity to adopt some new technology of administration. These movements create risks, such as the possibility that an expanded or more complex bureaucracy might slip from the legislative or public control. Sometimes there are scandals or abuses that give evidence of these new risks. Then there is a countermovement, concerned with the imposition of openness requirements and procedural checks,” which include transparency measures such as freedom of information laws.1Alasdair Roberts, “Too much transparency? How critics of openness misunderstand administrative development,” (paper prepared for the Fourth Global Conference on Transparency Research, Lugano, Switzerland, June 4-6, 2015).
In the United States, just such a countermovement began in earnest in the early 1950s, as journalists, politicians and others started expressing concerns about the “omnipotent administration” of the “superstate,” which was “so vividly pictured by George Orwell in his novel 1984.”2House Committee on Government Operations, Twenty-Fifth Intermediate Report of the Committee on Government Operations, 74. That countermovement included the publication of The People’s Right to Know. Commissioned by the American Society of News Editors in October 1950 and printed three years later by Columbia University Press, it was the first “scholarly, legally documented presentation on the subject” of freedom of information in the United States.3James S. Pope, Forward to The People’s Right to Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings by Harold L. Cross (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), ix.
The 405-page book “nearly sold out within a week of its publication date,” despite a weighty US$5.50 price tag – just over $50 in today’s money.4J.R. Wiggins, “An arsenal of arguments for the right to know,” The Washington Post, April 26, 1953. Reviewing the book in The Washington Post, the paper’s managing editor James R. Wiggins remarked that such popularity wasn’t surprising since it contained “information so essential to the exercise of a fundamental right.”5J.R. Wiggins, “An arsenal of arguments for the right to know,” The Washington Post, April 26, 1953. Yet it was New York Times general Louis M. Loeb who offered the most insight into that purported popularity. In his own review of the book, Loeb described it as a timely and helpful text because its publication coincided with Americans’ search for a “new balance” between “the citizen and his Government owing to the tremendously enlarged field in which the Government enters the life of every citizen”6Louis M. Loeb, “The Need for Facts,” The New York Times, May 17, 1953. – foretelling one of the principle arguments that would be made in favour of the public’s right to know.
|1.||↑||Alasdair Roberts, “Too much transparency? How critics of openness misunderstand administrative development,” (paper prepared for the Fourth Global Conference on Transparency Research, Lugano, Switzerland, June 4-6, 2015).|
|2.||↑||House Committee on Government Operations, Twenty-Fifth Intermediate Report of the Committee on Government Operations, 74.|
|3.||↑||James S. Pope, Forward to The People’s Right to Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings by Harold L. Cross (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), ix.|
|4, 5.||↑||J.R. Wiggins, “An arsenal of arguments for the right to know,” The Washington Post, April 26, 1953.|
|6.||↑||Louis M. Loeb, “The Need for Facts,” The New York Times, May 17, 1953.|
“The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”1Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962; New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2002), 14. Anyone who has read Silent Spring, the 1962 book that “ignited”2Eliza Griswold, “How ‘Silent Spring’ ignited the environmental movement,” The New York Times, September 21, 2012. the environmental movement, will remember that phrase. Indeed, it was one of author and biologist Rachel Carson’s favourites.3Samuel A. Tower, “Rachel Carson is pictured on new 17-cent issue,” The New York Times, May 31, 1981. Since then, it has been repeatedly used to argue for the disclosure of information about how science, corporations and governments may be damaging us and our environment.4David C. Vladeck, “Information access – surveying the current legal landscape of federal right-to-know laws,” Texas Law Review 86, no. 7 (June 2008): 1787. But French scientist and philosopher Jean Rostand, who coined that phrase on April 21, 1960 while accepting the Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science,5 The UNESCO Courier, “Jean Rostand receives Kalinga Prize,” The UNESCO Courier, June, 1960 was concerned with a specific kind of damage.
Earlier that month, on April 1, France completed its second atomic bomb test. The test, which took place at the atomic proving grounds at Reggan in southwestern Algeria, exploded with a force of “less than 19,000 tons of TNT, which was the power of the United States atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.”6W. Granger Blair, “Compact a-bomb closer in France: sizable step taken toward operational device with second Sahara blast,” The New York Times, April 2, 1960. That explosion, and the 16 others that France detonated in the Sahara, “vitrified vast tracts of desert with heat and plutonium and left a legacy of uncontained radiation that is still crippling inhabitants.”7Johnny Magdaleno, “Algerians suffering from French atomic legacy, 55 years after nuke tests,” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/1/algerians-suffering-from-french-atomic-legacy-55-years-after-nuclear-tests.html accessed March 12, 2018
At the time of the second detonation, representatives of 22 Asian and African nations called for a special session of the United Nations General Assembly to consider those tests.8Special to The New York Times, “French a-tests scored: Africans and Asians again ask special U.N. session,” The New York Tines, April 6, 1960. But, on April 14, those representatives only had 36 of the 42 votes they needed to do so, out of the 82 nations casting ballots. According to The New York Times, one reason for the defeat of the special session was a feeling that since French President Charles de Gaulle was going to be in the city between April 26-27 “it would have been discourteous to take this means of protesting his decision to make France a nuclear power.”9Thomas J. Hamilton, “Neutrals in the U.N.: Asian-African differences pointed up by defeat of move on atom tests,” The New York Times, April 17, 1960.
That vote happened just seven days after an American Chemical Society symposium designed to “describe in detail the path of nuclear particles from bombs through the soil, plants, food, animals, and milk into human bone and tissue.”10Frank Carey, “85 per cent of fallout now down,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1960. During the symposium, Columbia University geochemistry professor John Laurence Kulp said that plants used for food may have picked up “less radioactive poison than earlier calculations indicated.”11Editorial, “Qualified comfort,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 7, 1960. However, Wright Haskell Langham, the group leader for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory’s biomedical research division, also said fallout from past nuclear weapon tests may have increased “the incidence of bone cancer and leukemia 5 to 10 per cent in the generations presently growing up.”12Editorial, “Qualified comfort,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 7, 1960.
It was against this backdrop, at UNESCO House in Paris, that Rostand – whose father was the author of Cyrano de Bergerac – said, “Any distinction between the man of science and the ordinary man is no longer admissible, any more than a form of segregation based on an inequality of knowledge. Whether we like it or not, the laboratory henceforward opens right onto the street. Science not only affects us at any given moment of our day-to-day existence, it dogs us, it pursues us. Have we not all of us been transformed into involuntary guinea pigs ever since atomic fission, without asking our opinion, began to plant harmful particles in our bones?”13Jean Rostand, “Popularization of science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.
As a result, he continued, “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know. The time is clearly coming when the man in the street will have his say with regard to the great social, national, international and moral issues latterly raised by certain applications of science; and it may be that the specialist himself, weary of bearing on his own the weight of his too-heavy responsibilities will rejoice at finding understanding and support in public awareness.”14Jean Rostand, “Popularization of science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.
|1.||↑||Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962; New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2002), 14.|
|2.||↑||Eliza Griswold, “How ‘Silent Spring’ ignited the environmental movement,” The New York Times, September 21, 2012.|
|3.||↑||Samuel A. Tower, “Rachel Carson is pictured on new 17-cent issue,” The New York Times, May 31, 1981.|
|4.||↑||David C. Vladeck, “Information access – surveying the current legal landscape of federal right-to-know laws,” Texas Law Review 86, no. 7 (June 2008): 1787.|
|5.||↑||The UNESCO Courier, “Jean Rostand receives Kalinga Prize,” The UNESCO Courier, June, 1960|
|6.||↑||W. Granger Blair, “Compact a-bomb closer in France: sizable step taken toward operational device with second Sahara blast,” The New York Times, April 2, 1960.|
|7.||↑||Johnny Magdaleno, “Algerians suffering from French atomic legacy, 55 years after nuke tests,” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/1/algerians-suffering-from-french-atomic-legacy-55-years-after-nuclear-tests.html accessed March 12, 2018|
|8.||↑||Special to The New York Times, “French a-tests scored: Africans and Asians again ask special U.N. session,” The New York Tines, April 6, 1960.|
|9.||↑||Thomas J. Hamilton, “Neutrals in the U.N.: Asian-African differences pointed up by defeat of move on atom tests,” The New York Times, April 17, 1960.|
|10.||↑||Frank Carey, “85 per cent of fallout now down,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1960.|
|11, 12.||↑||Editorial, “Qualified comfort,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 7, 1960.|
|13, 14.||↑||Jean Rostand, “Popularization of science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.|
The aphorism “information is the currency of democracy” has often been used by transparency advocates to lobby for openness in government. Most attribute that phrase to consumer advocate Ralph Nader.1Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the Committee on Government Operations, Hearings on S. 1637 to Establish Standards and Procedures for Government Advisory Committees, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., 1971, 985; Washington Bureau of The Sun, “Flaws in Congress are next target for Nader’s band of reformers,” The Baltimore Sun, November 3, 1971; Ralph Nader, “The underachievements of Congress,” The New York Times, December 23, 1971. Nader used that phrase on October 11, 1971 while testifying before a Senate subcommittee. He used it again and more publicly during a November 2, 1971 speech to the National Press Club where he announced the launch of “the most comprehensive and detailed study of the Congress since its establishment.” Others misattributed it to Thomas Jefferson.2Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, s.v. “Information is the currency of democracy (spurious quotation),” accessed March 2, 2018, https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/information-currency-democracy-spurious-quotation. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a non-profit corporation that owns and operates the American Founding Father’s former plantation, currently has “no evidence to confirm that he ever said or wrote, ‘Information is the currency of democracy.’” As a result, it has labelled it a spurious quotation. But I’ve found what appears to be an antecedent of sorts to the saying. In his 1908 annual report, the superintendent of public schools of Philadelphia, Martin Grove Brumbaugh wrote:
Two individuals can participate in a common cause only to the extent that they possess common sentiment and common knowledge. To increase their effective participation requires a broadening of their common knowledge. To make participation impossible requires only the absence of common knowledge. This holds true throughout. Hence our democracy depends upon the possession by all its individual participants of a fund of common knowledge, which fund is the currency of democracy; and the function of the public school is to impart such a fund of common knowledge to all that participate in our democracy as to make facile the interchange of ideas and the reciprocal regard of each for the other. The initiation into democracy should always be contingent upon the possession of this common knowledge. For that reason the stranger from without should serve an apprenticeship in the American public school before he is invested with the toga of American citizenship. Likewise any one in our midst, native or foreign born, that has neglected to fit himself for participation in our democracy should be denied what his own neglect prevents him from comprehending.
Moreover, the growth of democracy, as well as its security, depends upon the widening of this fund of common knowledge. Hence the specific means of promoting the best traditions in our national life will be found to lie in the increased efficiency of the schools. What the school is as the creator of common thought and common sentiment determines what our democracy is. Upon this basis the state supports the school, and the system of education is maintained by taxation prescribed by the laws of the state. The measure of this financial support is the measure of our belief in democracy. When any citizen opposes an equitable, indeed, a liberal support to the schools, he opposes the government itself.3Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia, Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia for the Year Ending December 31, 1908 (Philadelphia, PA, 1909), 18.
Brumbaugh, who “drastically reorganized the ways schools operated and taught children by building additional primary and secondary schools, reforming academic programs in the high schools, and raising teacher salaries,” would go on to become the Republican governor of Pennsylvania.4The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, s.v. “Martin G. Brumbaugh,” accessed March 2, 2018, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/education-and-opportunity-2/3c09824v/.
|1.||↑||Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the Committee on Government Operations, Hearings on S. 1637 to Establish Standards and Procedures for Government Advisory Committees, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., 1971, 985; Washington Bureau of The Sun, “Flaws in Congress are next target for Nader’s band of reformers,” The Baltimore Sun, November 3, 1971; Ralph Nader, “The underachievements of Congress,” The New York Times, December 23, 1971. Nader used that phrase on October 11, 1971 while testifying before a Senate subcommittee. He used it again and more publicly during a November 2, 1971 speech to the National Press Club where he announced the launch of “the most comprehensive and detailed study of the Congress since its establishment.”|
|2.||↑||Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, s.v. “Information is the currency of democracy (spurious quotation),” accessed March 2, 2018, https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/information-currency-democracy-spurious-quotation. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a non-profit corporation that owns and operates the American Founding Father’s former plantation, currently has “no evidence to confirm that he ever said or wrote, ‘Information is the currency of democracy.’” As a result, it has labelled it a spurious quotation.|
|3.||↑||Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia, Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia for the Year Ending December 31, 1908 (Philadelphia, PA, 1909), 18.|
|4.||↑||The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, s.v. “Martin G. Brumbaugh,” accessed March 2, 2018, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/education-and-opportunity-2/3c09824v/.|
During her last week as Canada’s fifth information commissioner, Suzanne Legault excoriated the federal government’s secrecy and the Liberals’ failure to make it more open.1Daniel LeBlanc, “Information watchdog blasts Liberals ahead of her retirement,” The Globe and Mail, February 21, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/information-watchdog-blasts-liberals-ahead-of-her-retirement/article38060282/ (accessed February 22, 2018). But she’s far from the first commissioner to do so on their way out of office, a reminder of how long the federal freedom of information system has been broken and the equally long chances of it ever being fixed. For example:
- in her final annual report, which was released on May 18, 1990, Canada’s first information commissioner Inger Hansen wrote that she remained convinced “the political will in support of freedom of information could be stronger,” “the bureaucratic resistance to freedom of information could be stronger” and “the tendency to withholding government information should give way to attitudes favouring disclosure;”2Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1989-90 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1990), 2.
in his final annual report, which was released on June 4, 1998, Canada’s second information commissioner John Grace wrote, “A culture of secrecy still flourishes in too many high places even after 15 years of life under the Access to Information Act. Too many public officials cling to the old proprietorial notion that they, and not the Access to Information Act, should determine what and when information should be dispensed to the unwashed public. If bold boasts are to be believed, some have taken to adopting the motto attributed to an old New York Democratic boss: ‘Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink;’”3Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1997-1998 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 3. and
in his final annual report, which was released on June 13, 2006, Canada’s third information commissioner John Reid wrote, “After almost 23 years of living with with the Access to Information Act, the name of the game, all too often, is how to resist transparency and engage in damage control by ignoring response deadlines, blacking-out the embarrassing bits, conducting business orally, excluding records and institutions from the coverage of the Access to Information Act, and keeping the system’s watchdog overworked and under-funded.”4Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 2005-2006 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 6.
Even Robert Marleau, who failed to finish his seven-year term as the country’s fourth information commissioner and was criticized for being “more lapdog than attack-mutt,”5Greg Weston, “PM is the biggest muzzle master yet,” Whitehorse Star, March 16, 2009. wrote, “Much more is needed to bring about a true culture of openness and transparency, and allow Canada to regain its status as a leader in the area of access to information.”6Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report 2008-2009: Maximizing Compliance for Greater Transparency (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 2009), 1. As such, the question isn’t when the government will do that, since both the Liberals and Conservatives have repeatedly demonstrated they won’t. The question is whether Canadians care.
|1.||↑||Daniel LeBlanc, “Information watchdog blasts Liberals ahead of her retirement,” The Globe and Mail, February 21, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/information-watchdog-blasts-liberals-ahead-of-her-retirement/article38060282/ (accessed February 22, 2018).|
|2.||↑||Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1989-90 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1990), 2.|
|3.||↑||Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1997-1998 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 3.|
|4.||↑||Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 2005-2006 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 6.|
|5.||↑||Greg Weston, “PM is the biggest muzzle master yet,” Whitehorse Star, March 16, 2009.|
|6.||↑||Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report 2008-2009: Maximizing Compliance for Greater Transparency (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 2009), 1.|
If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is serious about making government information “open by default,” he’ll have to deal with the same arguments that helped scuttle Canada’s first right-to-know bill a half-century ago.
Prior to the recent election, Trudeau unsuccessfully tried to demonstrate his commitment to that principle by introducing a private member’s bill entitled the Transparency Act.
That bill, which was defeated on second reading, would have made it somewhat easier to ask for government records and get more of them.
But it wouldn’t have closed the some of the biggest loopholes in the Access to Information Act, which let the government keep its most informative and important records secret.
That made Trudeau’s commitment to “raise the bar on openness and transparency in government” questionable.
Nevertheless, the prime minister repeated that commitment following last week’s swearing-in ceremony.
So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt I didn’t during the campaign and assume his post-election effort to make information “open by default” will actually do just that.
Such an effort would have to allow the public to access all sorts of records that are usually under lock and key, including, for example, advice and recommendations developed for the government, as well as accounts of deliberations involving government officials.
In some ways, such a law wouldn’t be dissimilar to the one former Vancouver Sun columnist and NDP MP Barry Mather proposed in April 1965 – two months after United States Senator Edward Long introduced the bill that would lead to that country’s Freedom of Information Act.
Mather’s legislation would have required government to make any information or records “concerning its doing available to any person at his request in reasonable manner and time,” with the Exchequer Court of Canada (the predecessor to the Federal Court of Canada) adjudicating that access.
In the words of the Globe and Mail, exceptions would have been made for “matters of national security, matters exempted by statute from disclosure, trade secrets, commercial information obtained from private persons and subjects of private interest ‘to the degree that the right to personal privacy excludes the public interest.'”
But that’s a short shadow compared to the long darkness of the Access to Information Act, which includes 75 separate exemptions and exclusions.
The Globe and Mail wrote favourably about Mather’s bill, stating it would do much to open the government’s “many closed doors and keep the public informed about what is, after all, its own business.” As a result, the newspaper advised the ruling Liberals to put their “blessing” on the bill and “ensure its passage.”
The Liberals didn’t heed that advice. And, when the bill made it to second reading three years later, after being re-introduced by Mather, two of the party’s MPs, Yves Forest and Colin Gibson, seemed to explain why.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Forest, the then-parliamentary secretary to the president of the privy council, said that bill did not “give enough important to the generally accepted principle” of administrative secrecy. According to Forest, that principle allows:
…complete freedom of expression and also of communication between the members of the administration at various levels, and particularly from lower to senior officials. In my opinion, the contrary could reduce the efficiency of our whole administrative system as we know it.
In other words, Gibson said, “if official files are opened to the public scrutiny too much administration caution will result, which will seriously inhibit the effective functioning of civil servants. No one likes to work with someone leaning over his shoulder reading what he is writing.”
So it’s not surprising that the Access to Information Act, which was introduced by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1980, appears to have been drafted to guard against what Gibson called “eavesdropping and spying,” helping legally fortify the anachronistic notion that political decision-making must happen in private.
But what is surprising is how much purchase that notion still has in Canada.
In response to the Transparency Act’s proposal to make records in ministerial offices subject to access requests, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former communications director Andrew MacDougall argued that change would cause politicians and their staffers to “pull their punches” when discussing and debating public policy:
Think of all the internecine battles that are part and parcel of any office. Think of the snide comments about your colleagues often said in frustration. Now picture it on a front page. Think that would change your behaviour — or drive it further underground? Would that make your company perform better, or worse?
Nor is MacDougall the only one making such arguments. For example, two years ago, the Globe and Mail opposed proposals from two information commissioners that would have required government officials to document their decision-making.
The reason: “Cabinet ministers and their closest advisers should be free to talk about the reasons for a decision without making a paper or electronic memorandum. Their motives and purposes are best scrutinized in parliamentary debate, question periods and legislative committees.”
In principle, that may seem reasonable to many Canadians. But, in practice, it means that government officials only have to disclose what they want to disclose to us about their decision-making – a behaviour that’s too often tolerated and accommodated by the Access to Information Act.
Such secrecy was politically beneficial to Harper, as it surely could be to his successor Trudeau. So it remains to be seen whether Trudeau will resist the temptation to cultivate rather than uproot that secrecy.
• The Toronto Star has paraphrased newly-appointed Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains as saying that government “scientists are free to speak to the media about their work.”
• “Tens of thousands of records amassed during various stages of the settlement process with the survivors of Indian residential schools” have begun being released to the public, according to the Global and Mail. The newspaper reports those documents will shed “further light on a long and often brutal attempt by the government at forced assimilation.”
• The Toronto Star reports, “Restoring the long-form census will be among the first acts of the new Liberal government.”
• Writing in the Hill Times, long-time right-to-know advocate Ken Rubin writes that Trudeau must act quickly to introduce transparency legislation “as majority governments become more defensive and secretive over time.”
• The Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt makes three modest suggestions to improve the federal government’s relationship with the media: “let ministers speak,” give a “daily media briefing” and don’t “go over the heads of reporters with coverage complaints and straight to their bosses or head offices.”
• In an op-ed published in the Toronto Star, William Kowalski — a member of PEN Canada’s Canadian Issues Committee — writes that, “If freedom of expression in Canada were a medical patient, it would be dangerously close to needing life support. With Canada’s new government assuming its place, now is the time to make good on the promise of an open, more transparent relationship between the government of Canada and its citizens.”
• The Green Party of Canada has refused to say how much money it was paying MP Bruce Hyer to be its deputy leader, claiming it’s private information.
• The raw data from Newspapers Canada’s 2015 freedom of information audit is now available.
• The Globe and Mail reports British Columbia’s former information commissioner David Loukidelis will be paid $50,000 to tell the provincial government how to implement the recommendations in a “stinging report that said officials — including those in the premier’s office — routinely deleted information.”
• According to 24 hours Vancouver, NDP MLA Carole James has alleged provincial government lawyers attempted to “impede” the release of that report, which was penned by the province’s current information commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
• Loukidelis is scheduled to complete his work before Dec. 15. But CKNW reports the family of a Highway of Tears victim worries that means his advise may “get lost in the days leading up to Christmas.” Emails about the Highway of Tears were among those deleted by the government.
• The Vancouver Courier’s Geoff Olson writes that “contravening Freedom of Information laws isn’t a glitch in the provincial government’s doings, it’s a feature.”
• Speaking of which, B.C. MLA Vicki Huntington’s reports that when freedom of information requests were filed on the decision to replace the Massey Tunnel with a bridge, each of them received a “no records reply.”
• In response, according to the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, “Transportation Minister Todd Stone confirmed the sought-after business plan and cost-benefit analysis for the Massey replacement remains a work in progress. Due for release soon, he assured me.”
• Nevertheless, according to the Times Colonist, it’s both “ludicrous” and “insulting” to It’s ludicrous to say that no records exist of a project that will cost an estimated $3 billion. (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• CBC News reports, “The backlog for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to review applications is currently two years. That means if a government department refuses a request for information, it will be two years before the appeal is even heard.”
• The Alberta government has, according to Global News, expanded its sunshine list to disclosure the salaries for “all employees of public sector bodies, including Alberta Health Services and post-secondary institution.”
• “The City of Saint John has taken an important step toward greater transparency and accountability by launching an open data portal,” according to the Telegraph-Journal.
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
Author’s note: Publication of this column was delayed due to illness.
The British Columbia government’s continued efforts to prevent the public from seeing its paperwork is costing millions of dollars each year.
The public is supposed to be able to access that paperwork using the province’s freedom of information law, allowing them to make “informed judgments about government policy” in the words of former New Democrat attorney general Colin Gablemann.
But the 53 exceptions or loopholes in that law, which Gablemann introduced 23 years ago, can make it extremely easy for the government to keep the public uninformed or misinformed.
For example, one of those loopholes allows the government to refuse access to any advice or recommendations about those policies. And another makes most of what happens in cabinet inaccessible, even though that’s where many policy decisions are made.
As a result, the government doesn’t just need bureaucrats to find records requested under its freedom of information law. It needs bureaucrats to apply those loopholes. It needs, in other words, censors.
According to the ministry where those bureaucrats work, the price of all that finding and censoring in fiscal 2014/15 averaged $2,358 per request, for a total cost of $19.7 million. That means the most prolific requesters can easily run up bills totalling $100,000 or more in their pursuit of government records and, often accountability.
I certainly must have when I was covering provincial politics and filing over a hundred requests each year. After all, thanks to the muzzling of the bureaucracy, those requests (even with their limitations) are one of the few means reporters have of finding out what the government doesn’t want you to find out.
That’s also why freelancer Bob Mackin, who has written for publications such as The Tyee, Business in Vancouver and the Vancouver Courier, filed 1,913 freedom of information requests in the almost five years between Jan. 1, 2009 and Sept. 22, 2014.
Those requests, which made up 40 percent of the total filed by the media during that time period, resulted in big stories, small stories and often times no story at all – the later being a common experience for reporters using freedom of information laws.
Among Mackin’s biggest stories were those that revealed the government:
• feared a riot if the Vancouver Canucks lost game seven of the Stanley Cup finals;
• considered privatizing its liquor stores;
• used 2010 Winter Olympic advertisements to promote Premier Gordon Campbell; and
• wanted to invest in a Victoria condominium development with “unresolved” financial issues.
According to a freedom of information request filed by a private individual and sent to me by Mackin, the government claims the reporter’s requests costed $3.85 million to respond to.
But that price, which was calculated by just dividing the cost of all requests responded to between Jan. 1, 2009 and Sept. 22, 2014 with the total number Mackin filed, was likely unnecessary.
By closing some of the bigger loopholes in its records access law, the government wouldn’t need so many censors to read and then blank-out information before it’s released to individuals such as Mackin. And by releasing more records without requiring costly access requests, the government could further reduce its expenses.
In fact, releasing more records without requests is something British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham and her predecessors have repeatedly recommended.
For example, in a 2013 investigation report, Denham advised government to routinely publish 18 different kinds of information, ranging from government calendars, contracts and audits to public opinion polls, statistical surveys and economic forecasts.
And, as a result, British Columbians are continuing to pay to keep themselves in the dark.
• The Calgary Herald reports the Supreme Court of Canada will “hear a case that Alberta’s access czar says could impact her office’s ability to provide effective oversight when organizations refuse to release records requested under the province’s freedom of information law.” (hat tip: Charles Rusnell)
• The Toronto Star’s public editor Kathy English hopes incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau’s “call for ‘sunny ways’ does indeed shine much-needed light on Canada’s government.”
• Writing in the Hill Times, long-time freedom of information advocate Ken Rubin states Trudeau must “act quickly to introduce transparency legislation as majority governments become more defensive and secretive over time. So far though, Trudeau has announced as his first legislative priorities a law to give income ‘relief’ to middle class earners and an amended anti-terror Bill C-51.”
• In an op-ed published in the Chronicle-Herald, University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jone and freelancer Emily Kitagawa states there is “reason for skepticism” about the federal Liberals promise to reform the Access to Information Act.
• The Winnipeg Free Press’s editorial board writes it won’t be surprised if the federal Liberals fail to live up to their lofty promise to be open and accountable. “It is, after all, just part of tradition in this country.”
• Science journalist Margaret Munro writes that even a “modest improvement” in the federal government’s communication with the media will be welcome. “But a return to more open government will require not only new policy, but also a new mindset in the bureaucracy the Conservatives have left behind.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman writes, “It is crucial that this trend of limiting media access be reversed. Journalists at the very least act as a proxy for citizens; we have access – or should – to those in power. In order to hold governments to account, reporters require access to those governments. This is how journalists can expose bad behaviour – systemic or individual (the senate scandal, Rob Ford) – and effect change. When journalists are cut off, society suffers.”
• “Restoring the mandatory long-form census in time for the 2016 survey is doable,” according to two former chief statisticians of Statistics Canada who spoke to the Globe and Mail.
• CBC News reports air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukas is “calling on the Transportation Safety Board to release more information about a Porter Airlines flight that made an emergency landing in Sydney [N.S.] earlier this week.”
• The Calgary Herald’s Darcy Henton tweets that Alberta’s environment ministry wants $1,423 for records about what options it considered before deciding to repair the Kananaskis Country Golf Course. (hat tip: Erika Stark)
• Last month, British Columbia’s information commissioner released a investigation report that found staff in Premier Christy Clark’s government “delete emails response to access to information requests,” “wilfully or negligently” failed to produce records responsive to those requests and failed to “keep any sent emails, irrespective of the topic.” In response, Clark has ordered her cabinet minister and all political staff to save their email.
• Following the release of that report, columnists and editorial boards were critical of what BC NDP Opposition leader John Horgan called a culture of deception, deceit and “delete, delete, delete” in the Clark administration. Among them were the Vancouver Sun, the Times Colonist, the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, the Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason, the National Post’s Brian Hutchison, the Province’s Michael Smyth, The Tyee’s Paul Willcocks, the North Shore News, Kamloops This Week, the Peace Arch News and the Cowichan Valley Citizen’s Andrea Rondeau.
• In an open letter to Clark, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs writes that it is “shocked, alarmed and deeply offended” that records about the Highway of Tears were among those deleted by the Clark administration.
• The Times Colonist reports the head of the province’s public service also “apparently never kept any records related to the firing of eight drug researchers during the two-year period when the provincial government was under heavy fire for its handling of the case.”
• In the wake of these revelations, the Georgia Straight reports the BC NDP is “collecting a growing body of evidence that proves a Liberal government practice of deleting emails was ‘systemic’ and explicitly for the purpose of preventing the release of information to the public.”
• The Times Colonist’s Les Leyne reports British Columbia’s information commissioner is swamped with complaints about the handling of access requests by the province’s government.
• In an interview with CKNW’s Jon McComb, the minister responsible for introducing British Columbia’s freedom of information law Colin Gabelmann speaks about the history of that legislation.
• Newfoundland and Labrador’s information commissioner has ordered that province’s government to release records about how much an external consultant charges for information technology work.
• CBC News reports a retired New Brunswick high school teacher is “fighting what he calls ‘ridiculous’ secrecy at one of the province’s school districts for failing to disclose information over the naming of a new school in Woodstock.”
• The Ubyssey reports that lack of answer around University of British Columbia president Arvid Gupta’s resignation has resulted in a “deluge” of freedom of information requests at the post-secondary institution.
• “How much the District of Muskoka [Ont.] is setting aside for capital projects could become shrouded in secrecy to prevent skewed bids from contractor,” according to the Bracebridge Examiner.
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
Author’s note: Publication of this column was cancelled last week due to illness.
By endorsing the Conservatives for another term in government, some of Canada’s biggest dailies have betrayed both democracy and themselves.
Last week, papers owned by Postmedia Network Inc., the country’s largest English-language daily newspaper publisher, ran editorials with headlines such as “Conservatives are the most prudent choice,” “Let’s keep Harper’s steady hand on the helm” and “No change is best.”
Those papers were joined by the Globe and Mail, which endorsed the Tories but not Stephen Harper – seemingly and improbably suggesting his party colleagues weren’t, at the very least, responsible for enabling their leader’s baser decisions.
In the main, the pith of those newspapers’ contestable argument is that, according the Vancouver Sun, “The Harper government has kept a steady hand on the economic rudder” and, as such, is “best able to maintain a stable and healthy economy.”
Yet at least some of those editorials also affirmed the Conservative’s slide into crypto-despotism.
For example, the Montreal Gazette wrote that the party has “demonstrated high-handed disrespect for Parliament and the democratic process on occasion.” Meanwhile, the Ottawa Citizen was even more fulsome, stating Harper has:
…picked political fights with major pillars of our democratic system – Elections Canada, the judiciary, officers of parliament – for no obvious reason apart from the fact that they appear to stand in his way. Under his watch there were unreasonably high levels of moral and even criminal corruption among some of those closest to him. He has indulged his MPs in their quest to make a mockery of Question Period.
That means, in their endorsements, those papers weren’t just choosing between left and right. They were choosing between democracy and stability. And, in the end, they choose what they see as stability.
In a strange way, it was a very Canadian decision.
That secular trinity of stability – which contrasts sharply with the American commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – is exemplified by our secretive, winner-take-all, Father Knows Best political system and is part of our often unacknowledged political values.
For example, in 2014, 24 percent of Canadian surveyed by AmericasBarometer said it would be justifiable for the prime minister to govern without Parliament if the country was facing very difficult times.
Among the other countries polled in the western hemisphere, only respondents in Haiti, Peru and Paraguay were more supportive of such a coup.
Similarly, just 45 percent of Canadians approve of people participating in legal demonstrations – 10 percentage points lower than respondents in the United States.
Nevertheless, it was still jarring to see newspapers favour a party that has shown such disdain and disregard for democracy because, in its absence, journalism is put in peril.
Without the twin freedoms of expression and information associated with that political system, the power of reporters to challenge the decisions and actions of those they cover is crippled.
Those freedoms have always been less than absolute in Canada – sometimes to serve the public interest and too often to serve the private interests of the powerful.
But the Conservatives, like the Liberals when they were in government, have further attenuated them, something the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders decried in a statement released late last week.
That attenuation deepens Canada’s democratic deficit, and possibly the financial deficits of its already flagging newspapers.
After all, who will pay to read those publications if the journalists who write for them become more and more frustrated in their ability to report on what the government doesn’t want the public to know about?
Yet neither Postmedia nor the Globe and Mail seem to have recognized that four more years of the Conservatives might be bad news for them – regardless of what it would mean for the rest of Canada.
It would be easy to blame the owners and managers of those newspapers for this lack of foresight. But, with a few notable exceptions, too many reporters in this election were just as negligent in covering issues such as government secrecy and accountability.
That collective failure brings into relief the question of how much responsibility journalists and their employers feel they have to protect the freedoms they exercise on behalf of the public. And during this campaign, in newsrooms across the country, the answer, tragically, appears to have been very little.
• University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones’s latest annual freedom of information audit has been released by Newspapers Canada. That audit “ tells the story not only of Newfoundland and Labrador’s success and Ottawa’s failure, but also of foot-dragging by police forces, and widespread resistance at all levels of government to releasing computer data in formats useful in the digital age.”
• Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has released a report card grading the four major political parties for their stances on critical free expression issues.
• A coalition of 22 civil society groups concerned about the disrepair of Canada’s Access to Information Act has distributed a statement noting “the NDP and Liberal parties have included commitments in their platforms to improve the Act. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party did not see fit to even mention access to information in its platform.”
• CBC News’s Neil Macdonald argues that the federal government is simply prosecuting embarrassment by calling in the RCMP to investigate leaks at Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
• “Four years after he first asked Health Canada for all the information it had on a popular morning sickness drug, Toronto doctor Nav Persaud finally has the documents,” reports the Toronto Star. “But he cannot tell his patients or any other Canadians what’s in them” because of a confidentiality agreement he had to sign with the federal regulator.
• “Thousands of pages of correspondence and briefing notes on the federal government’s anti-terror Bill C-51 are so secret the government won’t disclose its reasons for censoring them,” according to Global News.
• “Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau scolded some of his own supporters Thursday after a journalist’s question on the resignation of his campaign co-chair elicited groans,” reports the Huffington Post.
• “Despite several high-profile privacy breaches and controversies over the destruction of government documents, MLAs studying changes to B.C.’s Freedom of Information legislation have had to cancel public meetings due to lack of interest in the topic,” reports the Vancouver Sun.
• IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis argues that cancellation may have had less to do with a lack of interest and more to do with the fact those meetings were announced during a federal election campaign, on the Friday before the Thanksgiving Day long weekend.
• The Telegraph-Journal opines that the New Brunswick government’s “treatment of a series of independent legislative officers shows a disturbing pattern — a growing cavalier attitude toward these important watchdog roles.” That treatment includes ignoring the province’s information commissioner.
• The Times-Transcript’s Norbert Cunningham writes that the Atcon fiasco demonstrates “why taxpayers should demand far more acountability from provincial governments, They all provide grants, subsidies, and loans in efforts to spur economic development. Have we ever seen a full accounting of outcomes? We hear positive announcements and expectations. Politicians boast when recipients prosper, but run for cover if they fail. We get an overall accounting of spending and losses, but few details.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER? Last month, the Toronto Star reported the NDP would have more to say on freedom of information reform before Election Day.
Twenty-eight days later (and just ten days before Canadians go to the polls) the party has finally opened its mouth after having spent the past nine years criticizing the Conservative government’s secrecy.
As part of its election platform, the NDP has promised six bullet points worth of fixes to the Access to Information Act — the long-broken law that is supposed to allow the people and the press to obtain unreleased government records but too often doesn’t.
Those proposals, totalling 116 words, match or surpass many of those already advanced by the Liberals.
Both parties promise to eliminate all access to information fees except the $5 cost to file a request.
Both parties promise to give the information commissioner the power to order the release of government records.
And both parties promise to make the administration of Parliament, the prime minister’s office and minister’s offices subject to the Access to Information Act.
The NDP isn’t committing to review the Act every five years or require government data and information to be available in “formats that are modern and easy to use,” as promised in the Liberal platform.
Nor does it make the so far empty promise of making government information “open by default” — which, according to commissioner Suzanne Legault, is the way that law is already written.
But, unlike the Liberals, the NDP would require public officials to document their action and decisions.
It would make claims of cabinet confidentiality subject to review by the commissioner.
And it would give access to information users a means of forcing the government to release information that’s in the “public interest.”
That appears encouraging.
But the effectiveness of that mechanism will depend on how the NDP defines the “public interest.”
After all, the public interest override in British Columbia’s freedom of information law is so narrowly defined that it’s been almost useless.
Similarly, the NDP has promised to “start implementing the Commissioner’s recommendations to strengthen and modernize the Act.”
But does that mean all of those recommendations, including proposed reforms to the exclusions and exemptions in the Act — loopholes that our public officials use and abuse to hide even the most basic information about their decisions from Canadians?
I’ve emailed Mulcair’s press secretary George Smith asking for answers to those questions with a deadline of Wednesday.
I’ll let you know if I get an answer.
OPEN AND SHUT The NDP’s proposed Access to Information Act reforms are part of the party’s commitment to lead a “transparent government” that’s more open and accountable than the Harper administration. But some of the party’s dealings with journalists during the election campaign could give cause to doubt that claim.
On Saturday, the Globe and Mail published a 8,927-word profile of Tom Mulcair after “all efforts” to interview him over a two-month period failed. According to the newspaper:
E-mail and in-person requests made to various people, from the chief press officer and chief of staff to the press secretary and campaign manager, led nowhere. Eventually, our inquiries were sent down the chain of command, and landed with a junior press officer, who did not return calls. Ten weeks after our initial request, and shortly before going to press, The Globe and Mail was offered a telephone interview – an offer we declined due to the imminent publication date. That prompted a senior aide to say that a face-to-face interview could be arranged; this request was rejected for the same reason.
That wouldn’t be so troubling if Mulcair hadn’t also refused to take questions during his campaign launch, with the Toronto Star noting he was the only leader not to do so:
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, notorious for how rare he is available to media, took five questions from reporters outside Rideau Hall Sunday morning. Those questions had conditions, though: the questions were restricted to those media outlets that have agreed to go on tour with the Conservatives, at a cost of $12,500 a week. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who launched his campaign in Vancouver several hours after the other two, was prepared to answer more questions than the seven reporters there had for him.
This could just be incompetence on the part of Mulcair’s campaign staff. Goodness knows there’s enough reason to believe that. But it could also be a sign that a NDP government would only be open and accountable on its own terms.
TOTALLY TRANSPARENT National Newswatch’s Don Lenihan continued overstating the Liberal’s government transparency platform plank last week, writing that party leader Justin Trudeau “has a long list of Open Government reforms.” For the record, that list is comprised of five bullet points and totals 128 words.
BY THE NUMBERS Last week, I noted that reporters are estimated to have filed over ten times more freedom of information requests with British Columbia government ministries per 100,000 people living in that province than they did in Alberta. But how does the rest of the provinces outside Quebec stack up? Well, only four other provinces track the data needed to make that comparison. Nevertheless, the numbers we do have make for interesting reading:
Ontario (calendar 2012)
215 media requests
1.9 percent of all requests
1.6 requests per 100,000
Alberta (fiscal 2012/13)
110 media requests
4.6 percent of all requests
2.8 requests per 100,000
Nova Scotia (fiscal 2012/13)
73 media requests
4.7 percent of all requests
7.7 requests per 100,000
Manitoba (calendar 2012)
146 media requests
8.7 percent of all requests
11.7 requests per 100,000
Newfoundland and Labrador (fiscal 2012/13)
73 media requests
25.6 percent of all requests
13.9 requests per 100,000
British Columbia (fiscal 2012/13)
28.1 percent of all requests
29.9 requests per 100,000
RIGHTS BUT NO RESPONSIBILITIES? In Canada, journalists exercise our right to information, as well as our freedom of expression, in their own interest, as well as the public interest.
But to what extent do journalists have a responsibility to protect those rights and freedoms?
And, if journalists don’t feel such a responsibility or don’t feel able to act on that responsibility, why is that and how is that affecting the decline of journalism and the ascendancy of spin in this country?
Those are just some of the questions I’ve been asking myself after the news media provided little or no coverage of an effort to make freedom of information an election issue, as well as the 20th anniversary of Alberta’s broken records access law.
I’ll be ruminating more about this in the future. But, in the meantime, I invite you to share your own perspectives by emailing me at this address.
• The Hill Times reports the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has called in the RCMP to conduct an investigation into the leak of an internal briefing document warning senior federal government insiders that Canada’s clout in the international community is diminishing.
• Meanwhile, according to CBC News, the Mounties are also looking into the leak of internal documents showing the Prime Minister’s Office directed officials to “stop processing a preliminary group of Syrian refugees, pending an audit of their cases.”
• The Tyee reports Conservative Leader Stephen Harper “met privately with select media outlets at the Red Truck Beer Company in East Vancouver this morning.” A source told the online magazine that “those invited were asked to submit three questions days ahead of time [and] then told which ones they could ask the Prime Minister.”
• The Telegraph reports Newfoundland and Labrador’s information commissioner has ordered the “release most of a controversial, secret report into sexual exploitation in the province.” According to the newspaper, the government has “argued that the report was based on interviews with sex workers and vulnerable individuals who could be put in danger if it was released publicly.”
• New Brunswick’s public safety minister has, according to the Telegraph-Journal, “shut down a right-to-information request seeking details around the death of man at the Saint John Regional Hospital last month, citing an ongoing coroner’s investigation.”
• The Telegraph-Journal reports New Brunswick’s Horizon Health Network is “refusing to release two reports about how to improve hospital security and patient safety after the death of Serena Perry,” a 22-year-old patient who was staying in Saint John Regional Hospital’s psychiatric unit on the nigh of Valentine’s Day 2012.
• The Globe and Mail reports, “Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne agreed to bar the media from three events with a high-ranking Chinese official at the request of the Communist Party.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)
• The Times-Transcript opines that New Brunswick’s “access to information and protection of privacy regulations appear to have worked well in the case of a Moncton daycare inspection report, in that the public’s right to know has been upheld in a way that also protects an individual worker at the daycare in question.”
• SooToday.com reports the Ontario government “fought beak and claw” to prevent the release of information about wood turtles in the vicinity of the Bow Lake Wind Farm.
• Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets the British Columbia government “wants to charge $3K to show info about its propaganda website redesign.”
• The Vancouver Sun’s Daphne Bramham reports an online poll of 611 Metro Vancouver adults was asked to rank the University of British Columbia’s assets. According to the poll, “transparency was dead last, with 32 per cent saying it was ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ representative of UBC.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)
• According to the New Westminster Record, British Columbia’s Douglas College has “declined to answer questions about the departure of its former president or why the institution continued to pay him $14,000 a month after he left suddenly last year.”
• A freedom of information request filed by the Collingwood Connection for the Town of Collingwood, Ont.’s Elvis festival contract has been denied.
• The Richmond News quotes the City of Richmond, B.C.’s planning policy manager Terry Crowe as saying the switch from the mandatory long-form census to the National Household Survey means, “You’re starting from scratch so it’s difficult to get a sense of the trends.”
• The Region of Peel, Ont. is debating creating a lobbyist registry, reports the Calendon Enterprise. But, according to the newspaper, the “hiccup is not knowing what a lobbyist is.”
It was the 20th anniversary of Alberta’s freedom of information law last week. But there were few Albertans who observed that anniversary, even among reporters who should be – but too often aren’t – using that law in the public interest.
Alberta tabled its records access legislation in 1994, 14 years after the same thing happened in Canada’s Parliament and 29 years after the American Freedom of Information Act was introduced in the United States Senate.
That made the province the second to last jurisdiction on the continent to give its citizens a legal means of requesting unreleased government records. Yet Alberta replicated and reinforced the flaws in Canada’s other access laws.
Like those other laws, the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act restricts or denies access to records that would reveal internal discussions, debates or divisions over government decisions.
Moreover, the regulations accompanying that legislation made Alberta the most expensive province to file freedom of information requests, turning something that should be a right into a privilege.
It also allows public bodies to refuse access to the meeting minutes and agendas of their governing councils. And it was later amended to deny access to ministerial briefing notes and binders.
Indeed, according to Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, Albert’s access law features an “enormous amount of wiggle room for recalcitrant public officials who would seek to avoid disclosure of embarrassing information”
That explains why the Edmonton Journal’s Linda Goyette once described that law as being an “oxymoron in action,” with her colleague Graham Thompson joking that FOIP stands for “Fuck Off, It’s Private.”
It also explains why Alberta, along with New Brunswick and the federal government, has been ranked as having the worst freedom of information law in the country.
And it explains why Newspapers Canada recently awarded the province failing grades in the timeliness and completeness of the records it releases.
Nevertheless, Alberta’s access law has still helped journalists tell stories the government would have otherwise suppressed, the very definition of news, according to 19th century British newspaper baron Alfred Harmsworth.
For example, in 2013, the Edmonton Journal’s Karen Kleiss and the Calgary Herald’s Darcy Henton used freedom of information requests to prove the ministry of human services had “dramatically under-reported the number of child welfare deaths over the past decade, undermining public accountability and thwarting efforts at prevention and reform.”
Then, a year later, CBC News’s Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell used freedom of information requests to help uncover the “personal and political use of public resources” by former premier Allison Redford.
The 20th anniversary of Alberta’s access law coming into force, which took place this past Thursday, was a chance to comment on those successes, as well as the legislation’s failings.
Yet it was the bureaucrats responsible for processing the province’s freedom of information requests who seemed to make up the majority of the audience.
For example, in Edmonton, a show of hands revealed there were just three members of the public in attendance, as well as four reporters: frequent freedom of information request filers Rusnell and Russell, as well as the Globe and Mail’s Justin Giovannetti and the BBC’s Matt Danzico.
Nor, according to the Canadian Newsstand and Google News, did the Journal, or any other newspaper in the province, print a word about the anniversary of Alberta’s freedom of information law.
Yet, that might not be surprising when you consider how little reporters use that legislation.
For example, in fiscal 2012/13, the media is estimated to have been responsible for just 110 access requests to provincial government ministries.
That represents 4.6 percent of the total or 2.8 requests per 100,000 people in this province.
By comparison, the media filed 29.9 requests per 100,000 people in British Columbia – over ten times more.
Alberta’s $25 freedom of information application fee, as well as the time-and-cash-strapped condition of its news outlets, may be part of the reason for those numbers.
But if it were the whole reason, wouldn’t you expect more op-eds and editorials demanding the repair of the province’s broken access system?
Wouldn’t you have expected reporters to write and talk about that disrepair during the recent Alberta election, where one of the most important issues was government accountability?
After all, it was in their private interest, as well as the public interest, to have done so.
Of course, Alberta’s reporters aren’t alone in being an inconstant friend to freedom of information.
The Provost News and the Chronicle-Herald, along with the Medicine Hat News, were also the only newspapers to write about an effort by 22 civil society groups to convince political party leaders to commit to four key reforms to the federal Access to Information Act.*
My colleagues may look askance at me for writing this column. Such is the sensitivity of too many reporters in this country.
But this country, compared with the United States, has precious few resources for reporters who want to be more than heralds for the privileged and the powerful.
Freedom of information laws, however flawed they are, are one of those resources.
But unless reporters use and advocate for that legislation, those flaws will continue to deepen until the laws themselves fracture, leaving nothing left to celebrate.
* = Disclosure: I was an invited speaker at the Right to Know Week forums in Calgary and Edmonton. I’m also vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, one of the 22 civil society group supporting the campaign to reform our broken access system. I organized the meeting where those reforms were drafted.
• Vice News reports on a leaked email showing “Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs is miffed its employees are leaking classified internal documents to the media and wants them to stop.”
• Freelancer Bob Mackin reports lawyer Amelia Salehabadi Fouques, a director on the board of the Canadian Soccer Association, believes the organization needs to take drastic action to make it a leader in transparency.
• The National Observer reports, “A potentially explosive parliamentary investigation into the Harper government’s so-called ‘muzzling’ of government scientists shows no signs of being released before the federal election on Oct.19, despite Canada’s Information Commissioner digging into it for more than two and a half years.”
• According to the Canadian Press, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, while visiting Nunavut, announced, “A New Democrat government would create a new parliamentary office to provide solid scientific advice and analysis to politicians, and would encourage scientists to speak their minds.”
• The Edmonton Journal reports a group of University of Alberta scientists have joined the Canadian Association of University Teachers in calling for a “new direction in science police and an end to [the] muzzling of federal scientists.”
• New Brunswick’s public safety department is refusing to give the Telegraph-Journal details about the deaths of the 11 people who died in provincial custody since 2004. A department spokesperson told the newspaper in July that those details were being kept secret “out of respect for the deceased and the families.” But the government is now promising to review that policy.
• The Telegraph-Journal’s Karissa Donkin filed a freedom of information request for records related to her fight to obtain New Brunswick’s daycare inspection reports. The response was less than illuminating.
• The Chronicle Herald reports Nova Scotia’s chief information access and privacy officer believes the province’s freedom of information legislation “serves members of the public quite well.” But columnist Paul Schneidereit reports on the repeated complaints about that legislation, as well as the government’s refusal to keep a commitment to fix the law.
• “The Ontario government funnelled at least $2.1-million in taxpayers’ money over the past two years to Liberal-connected consultants and advertising agencies,” reports the Globe and Mail. “The funds came from the caucus services budget, a pool of money subject to minimal disclosure rules.”
• “The Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations is taking St. Thomas University to court over the universities refusal to release details of severance agreements of three administrators between 2012 and 2013,” according to the Aquinian.
• The Winnipeg Sun reports Saskatchewan Finance Minister Greg Dewar has announced “the public will now have greater access to information related to government contract [sic] with the creation of a database that includes monthly summaries of purchase orders and outline agreements worth $10,000 or more. Details will include the name of the vendor, the purpose of the contract, the value, the duration of the contract, and significant contract amendments.”
• Newfoundland and Labrador has released a draft open government plan. That plan promises to “streamline and enhance the access to information process,” as well as “expand the amount of publicly available government information.”
• Public servant Bonnie Nelson has been awarded the 2015 Robert C. Clark Award which “recognizes a significant contribution to advancing access to information in Alberta.” According to the office of Alberta’s information commissioner, Nelson “successfully implementing the first routine disclosure program for Alberta Environment, which helped pave the way for other open data initiatives in the province.”
• Former Vancouver Non-Partisan Association council candidate Mike Klassen encourages whoever becomes the city’s new manager to make it a “model of openness and ask staff how you can exceed standards for access to information.”
• The City of Winnipeg has announced “public information released by the City through Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) applications, along with additional proactively disclosed civic government documents, will be published online and accessible to everyone.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• “Coun. Richard Carpenter is filing a complaint of an improper closed meeting against the City of Brantford for a budget task force meeting,” reports the Brant News.