Category Archives: Privacy


Conservative cabinet minister John Baird's resignation got more coverage than a bill that could potentially turn Canada's spies into "secret police." (Graphic by Government of Canada)

News of Conservative cabinet minister John Baird’s resignation got the same amount of coverage as a bill that could potentially turn Canada’s spies into “secret police.” (Graphic by Government of Canada)

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING? Few Canadians can pick John Baird out of a lineup and even fewer can be certain of the influence he had as our foreign affairs minister.

Yet many news outlets appear to have paid around the same amount of attention to his resignation as they did when the government’s controversial anti-terror bill was first introduced – another example of how our ailing and flailing media have a tendency to put personality and politics on par with or ahead of policy and the public interest.

News of that resignation broke on Feb. 2 with CBC News’s Terry Milewski getting the jump on the announcement.

Between that date and Feb. 7, at least 115 columns, editorials and reports were published about Baird’s departure by news outlets listed in the Canadian Newsstand database.* Eight of those articles were given front-page treatment and there were five segments on CBC’s The National covering Baird’s exit.

Yet that coverage was likely the first time many Canadians had even heard of the Ottawa-area MP. After all, in 2011, 64.6 percent of the Canadian Election Study‘s more than 4,000 respondents said they didn’t know who the country’s current finance minister was (Jim Flaherty, if you’re too embarrassed to ask).

The study didn’t quiz respondents about the name of our foreign affairs minister. But if a majority of Canadians can’t identify who holds the purse strings attached to their tax dollars, what are the chances they know who commands Fort Pearson – the nickname for the headquarters of our country’s diplomatic corp.

Moreover, it’s unclear whether Baird was just another actor on the world stage or if he actually got to pen his own lines.

Following his resignation, he was variously described as being a “transformative” foreign affair minister, having “tilted Canada strongly towards Israel” and “played an important role” in “seeking warmer and more profitable relations with the Asian giant.”

But since much of our government is practiced in secret – with policy advice and cabinet records being kept under lock and key – can we really be sure which parts of that supposed legacy were authored by Baird and which parts were ghost written by his boss Stephen Harper or someone else?

What we do know for sure is the government’s proposed new anti-terror law has been described in the media as a “dangerous policy” that could create a “secret police force” and raises “worrying questions about freedom of expression.”

We also know that, between Jan. 29 – when the bill’s details started rolling out – and Feb. 3, there were 111 articles in the Canadian Newsstand database covering it.** Nine of them made front pages, while The National broadcast three segments on the law.

I make this comparison not to throw stones from my glass house but rather to hold a mirror up to a habit that is also a dangerous addiction.

When I was at British Columbia’s legislature I, like many other political reporters in this country, spent too much time writing about personality and politics and too little time covering policy. It’s easy and of interest to the audience we’re most familiar with – the bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicians and staffers we cover.

But the consequence is a public that’s less and less informed about our government and less and less interested in what journalists report on. We’ve helped turn a subject that should be the concern of the many into something that’s a concern for the few – political partisans and profiteers.

In doing so, journalists are undermining both our audience and what passes for democracy in this country. And that’s a legacy that going to with us long after Baird is gone.


• “The federal environment minister’s office tried to hide the fact a grizzly bear was struck on the Canadian Pacific Railway line in Banff National Park in May 2014,” according to the Rocky Mountain Outlook. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• “With a $10,000 per week per reporter price tag to follow political parties on their election campaigns and limited access to their leaders who are tightly scripted,” the Hill Times reports, “media outlets are reassessing how they will report on the upcoming election with smaller budgets.”

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that it took the Canadian Border Services Agency “826 days to respond” to an access request he filed on Oct. 30, 2012. The irony: that response stated the agency is “committed to providing the highest level of client service.”

• Byran Smith, a former policy advisor to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, is looking to cash in on the open data movement. The Globe and Mail reports Smith’s company, ThinkData, “collects and cleans up government datasets which in their raw state can arrive in any number of conflicting formats. The service parses each one, and hosts a clean copy on its servers, which clients can access.”

• Maclean’s reports Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census was defeated “by a vote of 147 to 126. Every opposition MP voted in favour, but nearly every Conservative voted against  – Michael Chong was the only Conservative to vote in favour.”


• The Rocky View Weekly reports Chestermere, Alta. officials are “working with a number of groups, including the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, to push through some changes” to the province’s freedom of information law. According to the newspaper, the proposed changes would allow governments to “recoup some of the costs associated with expensive requests.” Mayor Patricia Matthews is quoted as saying, “The average person like me wants to be able to keep taxes down, so we are hoping that by bringing this to the attention of our residents, it puts some pressure on their elected officials to say it can’t continue.”

• The Globe and Mail reports police allegations that “former premier Dalton McGuinty’s chief of staff took steps to keep government information secret – ‘double deleting’ e-mails and communicating by BlackBerry messenger to avoid leaving public records of his discussions” According to the newspaper, “Livingston, through his lawyers, has maintained that he did nothing wrong. No charges have been laid and the allegations have not been tested in court.”

• IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis writes that, since July 1, 2013 there have been only two references to “open government” on the B.C. government’s Website – even though Premier Christy Clark promised she was going to lead the most open and accountable government in Canada.

According to the Province, the B.C. government “says legal and privacy considerations prevent release of a full version of a scathing report into the mistaken firings of several health researchers in 2012.”


• Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets that Vancouver transit authority executives met to discuss its upcoming electronic fare card but “kept no minutes.”

• Concerned Residents Association of North Dumfries executive director Tamara Brown tweets that Cambridge, Ont. is asking for more than $60,000 in response to an access request for “info that should normally be public” regarding urban sprawl.

• CBC News reports several Winnipeg, Man. civic corporations aren’t subject to the province’s access law.

• Surrey, B.C. is “rolling out its ambitious Open Data Calogue” which “gives residents and business owners access to “economic indicators, business licences, commercial and industrial vacancy rates, population projections and availability of employment broken down into specific areas.” In an interview with Business in Vancouver, the city’s information technology Geoff Samson said the catalogue is the largest offering of this type of information by any city in Canada.

• “On the heels of criticism of its secret budget meetings,” the Waterloo Region Record reports Waterloo, Ont.’s local government is “pledging to get the public more involved in its 2016-2018 budget.”

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

* = Canadian Newsstand features articles from 270 of the country’s newspapers, as well as the Canadian Press wire service. Among the papers are those published by Postmedia Network Inc. and Brunswick News Inc., as well as FP Newspaper Inc., Glacier Media Inc., Torstar Corp.’s dailies and some of the properties owned by Black Press Group Ltd. Among those excluded are papers owned by Quebecor Inc. and Transcontinental Inc.

** = I searched Canadian Newsstand for the terms “Bill C-51,” “anti-terror law,” “anti-terrorism law,” “anti-terror bill,” “anti-terrorism bill,” “anti-terror legislation,” “anti-terorism legislation” or “Anti-Terrorism Act.”


This letter from Liberal MP Scott Simms appeared again and again and again... (Graphic by Lloydminster Source)

This letter from Liberal MP Scott Simms has appeared again and again and again… (Graphic by Lloydminster Source)

A TRANSPARENT ATTEMPT The federal Liberals’ new open government critic Scott Simms appears to be still figuring out how the country’s broken access to information system works. But that didn’t stop him from encouraging Tory MPs to vote for proposed reforms to that system in a series of form letters published in newspapers across the country.

Simms’s rookie status showed earlier this month during his first meeting as vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

At that meeting, the Liberal MP asked information commissioner Suzanne Legault if she thought a parliamentary review is necessary “for what you do…of your job in general.”

The response: “Well, we are here. There is a standing committee reviewing the work of my office on a regular basis.”

Simms, who was named open government critic in November, replied, “I told you I was new.”

Nevertheless, less than a week later, he was out pitching the merits of Liberals’ Transparency Act — which would require a statutory review of the Access to Information every five years.

That pitch took the form of nearly identical letters to the editor that, according to the Canadian Newsstand database, were published in at least nine newspapers and called on local Tory MPs to support that bill.

Those letters, which were written in Simms’s capacity as the Liberals’ democratic reform critic, all began in a similar way. For example:

• “Local Member of Parliament Mike Allen couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘we will make government more open by strengthening access to information laws;'” (Bugle-Observer)

• “Local Member of Parliament Robert Goguen couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘broad exclusions are undesirable in an access to information regime from the perspective of openness and transparency;'” (Times & Transcript)

• “Local Member of Parliament Cheryl Gallant couldn’t have been clearer when she said that ‘we put our words into action … we live within the realms of accountability and transparency;’ (Arnprior Chronicle-Guide)

• “Local Member of Parliament Gerry Ritz couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘no aspect of responsible government is more fundamental than having the trust of citizens;'” (Lloydminster Source)

• “Local Member of Parliament Tony Clement couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘it is important to make sure that there is transparency for not only members of the House but the people of Canada;'” (Almaguin News)

• “Macleod MP John Barlow couldn’t have been clearer when he said, ‘Accountability and transparency are the hallmark of this government;'” (Macleod Gazette)

• “Local Member of Parliament [Dan Albas] couldn’t have been clearer when he said that what I hear from Canadians is they want more accountability;” (Summerland Review)

• “Local MP Ron Cannan couldn’t have been clearer when he said: Strengthening accountability and transparency was part of the governments promise to Canadians when we were first elected in 2006…We continue to move forward as an open and transparent government;” and (Kelowna Capital News)

• “Local Member of Parliament Rob Moore couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘Canadians were demanding more accountability from public office holders and from Parliament, more accountability in the way their tax dollars are spent and more transparency in the way we run our democratic process.'” (Kings County Record)

The letter then continued by stating those MPs will soon have a chance to put their sentiments “into practice” by breaking party ranks and voting for the Liberals’ Transparency Act.

But before that vote happens, perhaps Simms should also learn more about some of the problems that bill is meant to fix?


• The Chronicle Herald reports a “little-noticed bill from the Senate” would allow federal government regulations to be altered without them being reported in a public record. (hat tip: Jeremy Nuttall)

• Twenty-one countries make their data more available than Canada does, according to a new survey by the Open Knowledge Foundation.

• Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell details how “both Liberal and Conservative governments — usually supported by federal bureaucrats — have slowly but surely frustrated the workings of Canada’s Access to Information system.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek warns the Australia government is in process of abolishing their information commissioner, setting a “worry precedent” for Canada.

• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association is hiring a new program director.

• Public interest researcher Ken Rubin, an expert on government secrecy, writes that freedom of information reforms being proposed by the Liberal Party won’t “drastically increase opening up government records and meetings.”

• The Ottawa Citizen writes that proposals to increase access to information application fees make for “interesting brainstorming, but that’s about it.”

• A transcript of information commissioner Suzanne Legault’s appearance before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics is now available.

• The Ontario government has passed legislation that “strengthens political accountability, makes the business of government more transparent, and gives Officers of the Legislature more responsibility in their roles.” Among the reforms: those who alter, conceal or destroy records with intent to deny an access request can now face a penalty of up to $5,000.

• The Toronto Star reports “nearly every single piece of information in a recent Ontario Court of Appeal ruling is being kept secret…But it’s unclear why.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Toronto Star and the Ontario NDP are calling on the government there to make public how much individual doctors bill the province’s healthcare system — information that is already available in Manitoba and British Columbia.

• A Toronto Star investigation has found “Ontario’s most vulnerable children in the care of an unaccountable and non-transparent protection system. It keeps them in the shadows, far beyond what is needed to protect their identities.”

• CBC News reports the University of Prince Edward Island Student Union is continuing to push for the school to be subject to the province’s freedom of information legislation.

• “Many school boards are limiting media access to trustees in a way the public would never accept if they were city councillors or members of Parliament,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. As a result of that limited access and tepid interest in school board elections, the newspaper argues “the entire trustee system is looking increasingly like a farce, and trustees themselves are doing the system no favours by acting like mere cogs in a wheel.”

• North Vancouver’s school district has twice stopped a former school trustee candidate from trying to record its board meetings, reports the North Shore News. As a result, the newspaper has written an editorial stating the board is “finishing its term with an F in transparency.”

• The North Shore News writes Stephen Harper’s new era of accountability has been defined by “tight control of the message, where no one is actually accountable.”

• The Mississauga News reports the “Peel Regional Police are keeping secret their list of restaurants and bars in the Region that are notorious for producing drunk drivers, even though a Peel officer revealed one of the establishments in court earlier this year.”

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: For most people, the holiday season is already here. But, for many of us in academia, it’s still marking season. Hence, the delay in posting this column.


Mandatory voting might make our democracy look better on paper. But it might not make our democracy better in practice. (Photograph by

Mandatory voting might make our democracy look better on paper. But it might not make our democracy better in practice. (Photograph by

THINK BEFORE YOU VOTE? Last week, the National Post’s Andrew Coyne argued in favour of mandatory voting. The reason: “‘majority’ governments are now formed in this country with the support of barely one in five adult citizens” resulting in a “crisis of democratic legitimacy.” But while such a measure would undoubtedly increase turnout at the polls, it may do little else.

The results of a 2007 experiment published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science and conducted by Université de Montréal political scientists suggests compulsory voting may have little or no effect of political knowledge or engagement.

And if our electorate continues to be uninformed and unengaged — as indicated by a recent survey commissioned by Samara — how much more legitimate will our majority governments be if voter turnout increases? On paper, the answer would be quite a lot. But in actuality, the answer may be very little. After all, how much more legitimate is a government elected by the ignorant than a government elected by a minority? And if we try to paper over that lack of legitimacy, whose interests are we really serving?

A new book surveys Canada's surveillance systems. (Graphic by Athabasca University Press)

A new book surveys Canada’s surveillance systems. (Graphic by Athabasca University Press)

UNKNOWN KNOWNS Our weak access to information laws mean Canadians can often find out very little about our country’s public and private institutions. But those institutions do find out a lot of information about us.

Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada — which is available as a free ebook, as well as in paperback — takes a look at why and how that surveillance is expanding.

The book — edited by University of Victoria political science professor Colin Bennett, University of Alberta sociology professor Kevin Haggerty, Queen’s University sociology professor David Lyon and University of Ottawa criminology professor Valerie Steeves — was launched earlier this month at an event in Ottawa.

IT’S A CELEBRATION! Who’s your favourite actor? What’s your favourite movie? Who’s your favourite writer? These kinds of questions are common during dinner parties, first dates and all manner of casual conversation. That’s because most people can answer to them. And I suspect it’s one of the reasons why there are so many festivals celebrating films and books.

Cartoonist Dan Murphy was among those who took part in J-Fest. (Image by Dan Murphy)

Cartoonist Dan Murphy was among those who took part in J-Fest. (Graphic by Dan Murphy)

But who’s your favourite reporter? What’s your favourite investigative news story? Who’s your a favourite columnist? I suspect not many Canadians have answers to those questions. It’s one of the reasons why I organized J-Fest this past weekend at the Canadian Association of Journalists annual convention. It was a public event where documentary filmmaker Damien Gillis, Michener Award-winning reporter Lindsay Kines and former Province columnist Dan Murphy spoke about their work and why it matters.

Approximately 40 people showed up to J-Fest, which was covered by The Tyee, the Georgia Straight and Vancouver Coop Radio’s Media Mornings. You can read also read J-Source’s live blog of that event here. But I think we’re going to need a lot more of these kinds of events and a lot more of this kind of coverage in the future.

After all, according to the Canadian Election Study, 55.7 percent of the 1,567 respondents who completed its mail back survey in 2011 said they have little or no confidence in the media. The quality of the work we sometimes produce can partially explain that lack of confidence. But journalists also don’t do enough to explain the value of the quality work we do produce.

Now that media advertising revenues are declining, we need to change that. Because the same people who say they have little or no confidence in the media are the same people we need to start paying for our work. And if that’s doesn’t happen, the shrouded future of journalism will look even darker than it does right now.

EXPLORING THE UNKNOWABLE COUNTRY Over the past few months, I’ve been assembling a list of Canadians who tweet about openness and accountability issues from a principally non-partisan perspective. That curated list also includes people and groups from other parts of the Anglosphere who are concerned about those issues. It’s part of a small attempt to further encourage more discussion about openness and transparency — which are often seen as only being of interested to a select few rather than of importance to the masses of the many. I welcome you to subscribe to that list on the twitter and email me any suggested additions.

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: To increase readability, I’ll be including subheads in forthcoming editions of The Week That Was. I’ll also be using more specific headlines to encourage sharing on social media.