Category Archives: Freedom of Information

GOVERNMENT TABLES PAPER PRODUCTION GUIDELINES

Government gives guidelines for what documents MPs can and cannot see.

March 15, 1973 – The government introduced its Guidelines for Motions for the Production of Papers.1Canada, Parliament, House of Commons Debates, 29th Parl, 1st Sess, Vol 2 (15 March 1973). They were supposed to “enable Members of Parliament to secure factual information about the operations of government to carry out their parliamentary duties and to make public as much factual information as possible, consistent with effective administration, the protection of the security of the state, right to privacy and other matters.”2Canada, Parliament, Standing Joint Committee on Regulations and Other Statutory Instruments, 30th Parl, 1st Sess, No. 13 (18 February, 1975). Indeed, when the Standing Joint Committee on Regulations and Other Statutory Instruments began considering those guidelines on February 18, 1975, Privy Council President Mitchell Sharp even went so far as to argue that they “amount to saying that everything that is available will be made public unless it falls within certain categories of exemptions.”3Canada, Parliament, Standing Joint Committee on Regulations and Other Statutory Instruments, 30th Parl, 1st Sess, No. 13 (18 February, 1975). However, he acknowledged, “Naturally these exemptions have given rise to some criticism.”4Canada, Parliament, Standing Joint Committee on Regulations and Other Statutory Instruments, 30th Parl, 1st Sess, No. 13 (18 February, 1975). Indeed, during a visit to Canada two years later, consumer crusader Ralph Nader quipped, “By the time you read all the exemptions, the only one who’s got the rights is (Prime Minister Pierre) Trudeau.”5The Canadian Press, “Nader Calls for Law Giving Public Access to Gov’t Data Banks,” Vancouver Sun, April 13, 1977.

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

References   [ + ]

1. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons Debates, 29th Parl, 1st Sess, Vol 2 (15 March 1973).
2, 3, 4. Canada, Parliament, Standing Joint Committee on Regulations and Other Statutory Instruments, 30th Parl, 1st Sess, No. 13 (18 February, 1975).
5. The Canadian Press, “Nader Calls for Law Giving Public Access to Gov’t Data Banks,” Vancouver Sun, April 13, 1977.

RIGHT TO KNOW POPULARIZED

The Associated Press’s Kent Cooper, sitting beside four telephones in his office. (Photograph by Bernard Hoffman, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images)

January 22, 1945 – Associated Press executive director Kent Cooper popularized the phrase the “right to know” during a speech at Temple Emanu-El in New York.1Editorial, “The Right to Know,” New York Times, January 22, 1945.

In the years before that speech, Cooper worried about how the three major foreign news agencies of the time – Havas in France, Reuters in the United Kingdom, and Wolff in Germany – had divided the world into spheres of influence where each had monopolistic control over the foreign news that came in and out of them.2David Anderson,“For World Press Freedom,” Bakersfield Californian, March 24, 1943. He was also concerned about how those news agencies had become carriers of government propaganda, which he blamed for the First and Second World Wars.3Kent Cooper, Barriers Down: The Story of the News Agency Epoch (New York, NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942), 315; Kent Cooper, “Freedom of Information: Head of Associated Press Calls for Unhampered Flow of World News,” Life, November 13, 1944.

As a result, Cooper came to the conclusion that the American “principle of true and unbiased news” should be “given to the world in a militant effort to improve international relations.”4Kent Cooper, “Kent Cooper’s Address on the Methods of Insuring World-Wide Press Freedom,” New York Times, January 22, 1945. Underpinning this conclusion was the belief that people who truthfully know one another don’t go to war with one another. That meant establishing a “worldwide free press, a worldwide communications system, and the necessary facilities for news men to do their work everywhere without interference.” It also meant the United States should impose on its enemies, as well as any country receiving its postwar aid, the acceptance of this “right to know.”5Kent Cooper, “Kent Cooper’s Address on the Methods of Insuring World-Wide Press Freedom,” New York Times, January 22, 1945.

Following Cooper’s speech, a New York Times’s editorial called that saying a “good new phrase for an old freedom” – even though others had used it before.6Editorial, “The Right to Know,” New York Times, January 22, 1945.

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

References   [ + ]

1, 6. Editorial, “The Right to Know,” New York Times, January 22, 1945.
2. David Anderson,“For World Press Freedom,” Bakersfield Californian, March 24, 1943.
3. Kent Cooper, Barriers Down: The Story of the News Agency Epoch (New York, NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942), 315; Kent Cooper, “Freedom of Information: Head of Associated Press Calls for Unhampered Flow of World News,” Life, November 13, 1944.
4, 5. Kent Cooper, “Kent Cooper’s Address on the Methods of Insuring World-Wide Press Freedom,” New York Times, January 22, 1945.

PUBLICITY SUGGESTIONS ALARM COMMISSIONERS

The Royal Commission on Security also commented on concerns surrounding administrative secrecy. (Graphic by Government of Canada)

June 26, 1969 – The Royal Commission on Security’s abridged report was tabled in the House of Commons. The commission, which was announced on November 16, 1966,1Bob Cohen, “Security Probe: Commission Due to Meet Soon,” Ottawa Citizen, November 17, 1966. had three members: Montreal industrialist and former deputy minister of trade and defence production Maxwell Mackenzie, former national Co-operative Commonwealth Federation leader M.J. Coldwell and former Laval University law dean Yves Pratte. They were charged with conducting an inquiry into “the operation of Canadian security.”2Canada, Royal Commission on Security, Report of the Royal Commission on Security – Abridged (Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services, 1969), iii.

But, as part of that inquiry, they also commented on the “controversy” surrounding “the extent to which governments maintain that their administrative activities should remain confidential.”3Canada, Royal Commission on Security, Report of the Royal Commission on Security – Abridged (Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services, 1969), 79. In their report, the commissioners stated:

“…we would view suggestions for increased publicity with some alarm. We think the knowledge that memoranda might be made public would have a seriously inhibiting effect on the transaction of public business. We believe that the process of policy-making implies a need for wide-ranging and tentative consideration of options, many of which it would be silly or undesirable to expose to the public gaze. To insist that all such communications must be made public would appear to us likely to impede the discussive deliberation that is necessary for wise administration. In Canada, the bureaucracy is not vast, and the number of serious inquirers quite small. It seems to us that there is no reason why controlled access to specific administrative files or documents cannot be permitted and arranged on an ad hoc basis when a genuine requirement can be established.”4Canada, Royal Commission on Security, Report of the Royal Commission on Security – Abridged (Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services, 1969), 80-81.

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

References   [ + ]

1. Bob Cohen, “Security Probe: Commission Due to Meet Soon,” Ottawa Citizen, November 17, 1966.
2. Canada, Royal Commission on Security, Report of the Royal Commission on Security – Abridged (Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services, 1969), iii.
3. Canada, Royal Commission on Security, Report of the Royal Commission on Security – Abridged (Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services, 1969), 79.
4. Canada, Royal Commission on Security, Report of the Royal Commission on Security – Abridged (Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services, 1969), 80-81.

INTELLECTUALS SLAM SECRECY

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

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

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

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

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

References   [ + ]

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

TWIN FREEDOMS SPEECH

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

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

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

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

References   [ + ]

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

TURNER PUSHES FOR FOI LAW

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

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

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

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

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

References   [ + ]

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

STUDY PUSHES FOR INFO RIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

References   [ + ]

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

FEDS LAUNCH INFO STUDY

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

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

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

References   [ + ]

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

ROWAT PRESENTS SEMINAL FOI PAPER

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

June 12, 1965 – Carleton University political science professor Donald Rowat presented his seminal paper on government secrecy in Canada at the annual meetings of the Canadian Political Science Association.1Ruth Worth, “Professor Urges End to Secrecy in Government,” Globe and Mail, 1968. In that paper, Rowat wrote, “Since the principle of secrecy in the British parliamentary system has been imbibed with our mother’s milk, so to speak, we find it hard to believe that a country can get along with it.”2Donald Rowat, “How Much Administrative Secrecy?” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 31, no. 4 (November 1965): 488. Yet both Sweden and the United States had. That is why Rowat commended and endorsed New Democrat MP Barry Mather’s freedom of information bill. 3Donald Rowat, “How Much Administrative Secrecy?” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 31, no. 4 (November 1965): 491. Rowat would be an inspiration for Mather.4Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates, 1st sess., vol. 1 (1968): 1167. And Progressive Conservative MP Gerald Baldwin, the “father and grandfather”5“Gerald W. Baldwin, O.C., Q.C., LL.D.,” Governor General of Canada, updated March 26, 2018, http://archive.gg.ca/honours/search-recherche/honours-desc.asp?lang=e&TypeID=orc&id=70. of the Access to Information Act, would describe him as “one of the real pioneers of open government.”6Gerald Baldwin, “Why Should We Tell You?” (unpublished manuscript, August 1, 1983).

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

References   [ + ]

1. Ruth Worth, “Professor Urges End to Secrecy in Government,” Globe and Mail, 1968.
2. Donald Rowat, “How Much Administrative Secrecy?” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 31, no. 4 (November 1965): 488.
3. Donald Rowat, “How Much Administrative Secrecy?” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 31, no. 4 (November 1965): 491.
4. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates, 1st sess., vol. 1 (1968): 1167.
5. “Gerald W. Baldwin, O.C., Q.C., LL.D.,” Governor General of Canada, updated March 26, 2018, http://archive.gg.ca/honours/search-recherche/honours-desc.asp?lang=e&TypeID=orc&id=70.
6. Gerald Baldwin, “Why Should We Tell You?” (unpublished manuscript, August 1, 1983).

“THIS IS NOT WHAT MY LETTERS ASKED FOR”

A 1976 request for information about government toxicology testing went as well as you’d think it would. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Right to Know Week, which began on Sunday, is supposed to be an opportunity to “raise awareness about people’s right to access government information while promoting freedom of information as essential to both democracy and good governance.” In practice, it’s often an opportunity for members of the freedom of information community to discuss the limitations of that right in Canada.

However, it’s important to remember that those limitations are as persistent as they are frustrating. Consider, for example, the experience of freelance writer Joan Liska back in 1976. In a letter sent to Vera Gellman, chief of the development division of the federal government’s product safety branch, Liska complained about the “shabby treatment” she had received in her requests for information about the “test protocols used for potentially hazardous substances.” Specifically, the freelancer stated:

“I have been requesting copies of the test protocols used by toxicologists working in relation to the Hazardous Products Act and Regulations for MONTHS already. But my requests have gone completely ignored. The replies always the same – namely, a brief letter remarking on the legislation and enclosing the legislation.

I have now at least 12 copies of the legislation and regulations. However, this is NOT what my letters asked for. In each letter, I specifically requested the toxicology tests, the ‘Acute, sub-acute and chronic’ animal studies, used in relation to the legislation. The legislation itself does not even mention the ‘acute, sub-acute and chronic’ tests, let alone the battery of other toxicology tests involved.

Please do not send me the legislation or regulations again. I want the test protocols for toxicity which manufacturers are required to perform – the ‘safety tests’ – before manufacturers can release a product in relation to the Hazardous Products Act & Regulations, on the consumer market…It is a disgrace that a Canadian citizen should thus be refused information on the safety tests conducted by her Government. One’s suspicion is escalated by this secrecy.”1Joan Liska to Vera Gellman, August 19, 1976.

I’m sure almost anyone who is the business of routinely seeking information from the government has wanted to write a letter like this. I know I have. The question is what will it take to put an end to this kind of obstructionism?

References   [ + ]

1. Joan Liska to Vera Gellman, August 19, 1976.