Category Archives: Protection of Privacy

B.C. GOVERNMENT TRIES TO SPIN ITS OWN SPIN

Is the advice government communications staff provide serve the public interest or a political interest? (Graphic by Government of British Columbia)

Does the advice government communications staff provide serve the public interest or a political interest? (Graphic by Government of British Columbia)

What started out as a British Columbia government attempt to defend the job its communication staff do has, ironically, ended up demonstrating the weakness of the province’s freedom of information law, as well as how those officials can work against the public’s right to know.

Earlier this year, I wrote an open letter about how such staffers often don’t respond or give non-responses to the questions reporters ask. They also advise elected officials to do the same thing, as well as restrict access to bureaucrats who actually have answers.

That cross-Canada issue was then covered by three radio shows, including Daybreak South. The Kelowna, B.C.-based CBC program succeeded in getting Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for British Columbia’s spin doctors, to agree to an interview.

Following that interview, on Feb. 27, I filed a freedom of information request for all of the communications materials prepared for that appearance.

The government responded 49 business days later.

That’s 19 days longer than the legal time limit, even though there were only nine pages to release.

Of those pages, four were simply a copy of my open letter and a transcript of an earlier interview I had done with Daybreak South.

The remainder featured communication advice for Wilkinson, including a recommendation that he should “point to [his] own recent examples of media availability, comments and interviews” during his appearance on the program.

In fact, that’s exactly what the minister did when host Chris Walker told him “every single reporter” he’d spoken with over the past week had had difficulty getting answers from the government.

“Having spoken with probably 25 reporters so far this week, I find it a little confusing when they say they don’t have access to us. You know, I talk to them on a daily basis,” said Wilkinson.

“And, as I say, I’ve got a list here in front of me of encounters with Daybreak South in the last few months on a whole range of issues that were dealing directly with ministry staff people.”

That list, which was part of the advice provided to the minister, also named provincial bureaucrats who had done interviews with other news outlets.

But most of those interviews were about politically uncontroversial subjects. And, as Walker pointed out, “What you don’t have is all the times we’ve been rejected for interviews.”

Instead, what Wilkinson did have was government communications-approved responses that anticipated many of Walker’s other questions. I say responses, because that doesn’t mean they were spin-less answers.

Indeed, at one point during their conversation, Walker said, “Doesn’t this interview sort of illustrate our point: that when we try to ask questions we get instead a series of talking points and examples that suite your argument. This kind of illustrates the problem we have, don’t you think?”

Appropriately, Wilkinson responded, “No, I think it kind of points out you’re, perhaps, misperceiving this issue” before returning to his talking points – which, equally appropriately, were sent to me two months after the interview, at a time when most of the audience will have already forgotten about it.

The following is a complete copy of those records.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• It was a big week for the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. The association released its sixth annual review of freedom of expression in Canada, which included a look at our country’s “crippled” access to information system. The report gave that system a failing grade and published the results of a poll showing 79 percent of those surveyed think improving government openness and access to information is personally important to them.

• The association also hosted Flying Blind, a conference at Ryerson University in Toronto looking at the “current challenges to creating, accessing, and sharing information in Canada, and work to create a path forward.” J-Source live blogged the first and third panels of that conference.

• Embassy’s Carl Meyer tweets that the federal Conservative’s omnibus budget bill will retroactively revoke Canadians’ ability to file an access request for long gun registry data. In a subsequent article, iPolitics quotes access lawyer Michel Drapeau as saying, “We shouldn’t go out and purge records because we changed our mind or we don’t believe in what it is. I find that wrong and I find it is like robbing part of our collective and national memory and to what purpose.”

• The Canadian Press reports NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus filed an order paper question asking about the process the government followed to ensure an individual meets the constitutional residency requirements for appointment to the Senate. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra refused, stating, “The government does not comment on matters before the courts.” That’s a reference to “fraud, bribery and breach of trust trial of Mike Duffy, where the suspended senator’s qualifications to represent Prince Edward Island when he lived primarily in Ottawa is a pivotal issue.”

• The Globe and Mail reports that, due to lousy data, researchers had difficulty creating a Canadian version of a New York Times report showing “where Americans are healthy and wealthy, or struggling.” (hat tip: Laura Tribe)

• The Tyee reports, “Canadians will have to wait until the end of June or longer to find out the full effects of the Tories’ changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, despite the government’s promise to release information about it every three months.”

• Citing an article from the Canadian Press, the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugilese writes, “The Defence Department is refusing to release the text of a ministerial directive that sets out how the Canadian Forces can seek and share information from foreign partners even when it may put someone at risk of torture.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Winnipeg Free Press criticizes Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “blatantly” undermining “the Office of the Correctional Investigator or other watchdogs, whose roles are fundamental to good and open government.”

• The Toronto Star’s Craig Desson reports on his experience filing a request with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for whatever files it had on him. (hat tip: Joanna Smith)

• Just in case you missed the news last week, PEN Canada has relaunched its Censorship Tracker. The tracker allows for the mapping of free expression violations across the country.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Times Colonist reports the British Columbia Court of Appeals has “reversed an earlier ruling about the publication of cabinet documents.” That ruling had given the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation permission to publicly use those documents, which “reflected the provincial cabinet’s thinking” during tense contract negotiations a few years ago. Those negotiations eventually resulted in court action that alleged the government negotiated in bad faith, something the Court of Appeals has also sided against.

• CBC News reports, “Documents are being shredded at the Alberta Legislature as one political party prepares to hand the reins of power to another.”

• In response, the province’s information commissioner Jill Clayton issued a news release stating, “There are rules for government ministries and their employees relating to the retention, destruction and preservation of records, and these rules apply and must be followed during the government’s transition period. If there is evidence that the rules are not being followed, a complaint can be submitted to my office.”

• Meanwhile, according to the Calgary Sun, Alberta Party leader Greg Clark has submitted a “number of Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP) requests to halt what he thinks could be improper shredding or digital deletion of files and to gain access to documents that have been destroyed.”

• The Tyee’s Andrew Nikiforuk is calling on Alberta’s incoming New Democrat government to restore transparency in the province by changing its freedom of information law.

• “The LCBO provides huge discounts on alcohol for foreign diplomats, but who buys what is being kept secret,” according to the Hamilton Spectator.

• BC NDP MLA Doug Routley asked Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk whether he encourages “senior public officials to avoid creating records of important government decisions.” But, rather than answer that question, Virk simply offered to provide Routley with a copy of the province’s freedom of information law. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)

• The Ontario government is asking the public to provide feedback on its draft open data directive. According to a news release, the directive “aims to make data that the government collects and generates on topics, like school enrollment and traffic volume on provincial highways, open to the public.” (hat tip: Herb Lainchbury)

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Ontario’s information commissioner has ordered the Town of Arnprior to release records about the town’s computer system. Those records have been withheld from a private citizen who requested them for about 10 years. According to the Chronicle-Guide, the citizen had asked for a report prepared by chief administrative officer Michael Wildman, which detailed the need to replace that system.

• On twitter, Springtide Collective founder Mark Coffin quotes Mahone Bay, N.S. councillor Lynn Hennigar as saying, “The only difference between us and the people we represent is access to information.”

• The Winnipeg Free Press reports, “Attempts to create a lobbyist registry at city hall hit a hurdle Thursday.” Acting city auditor Brian Mansky has told councillors the City of Winnipeg Charter does not have provisions to create such a registry. That means provincial “amendments would be necessary to give the registrar authority to enforce the registry and also to investigate activities.”

• Edmonton Coun. Andrew Knack has told CBC News the city should update its freedom of information policies to make it easier for people to access electronic data. According to the broadcaster, “The issue was raised when local cycling advocated encountered what he called an ‘obstructionist’ policy” after requesting a spreadsheet of locations where pedestrians and cyclists have been injured or killed.

• I’ll be speaking about access to information as part of a Monday evening panel on press freedom at the United Nations Association in Canada Calgary Branch’s annual general meeting.

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

TRANSPARENCY ISSUE LITTLE SEEN ON CAMPAIGN TRAIL

The fight to win power in this building didn't include many blows over freedom of information. (Photograph by Timorose)

The fight to win power in this building didn’t include many blows over freedom of information. (Photograph by Timorose)

Alberta’s freedom of information law is weak and underused. Yet, in an election where one of the most important issues is government accountability, there has been surprisingly little discussion about reforming that law – despite a proposed policy change that could further threaten the public’s right to know.

Alberta has historically been a stranger to freedom of information legislation, which allows access to internal government documents. That access is important because the public can then find out things the officials they elect and the institutions they pay for don’t want them to find out.

But, according to the Globe and Mail, Peter Lougheed – Alberta’s premier between 1971 and 1985 – claimed such legislation was unnecessary because his was one of North America’s most open administrations. His successor Don Getty also rejected and later delayed introducing an access law, stating government information was already “made available by the wheelbarrow loads” in the legislature.

“We mail it to people. It’s provided on a day-to-day basis,” he added.

But there were many outside government who disputed such claims. For example, in 1992, the Calgary Herald reported the Association of Alberta Taxpayers delivered 20,000 coupons to Getty’s office “from individual citizens demanding an information law.”

At the time, association spokesperson Kevin Avram was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “The most difficult government to get information from is right here in Edmonton.”

Getting that information became easier when Ralph Klein’s government finally introduced a freedom of information law in April 1994, making the province the second to last jurisdiction in North America to do so.

But it remains an access laggard.

According to a 2012 report from the Centre for Law and Democracy, Alberta tied with New Brunswick and the federal government for having the worst freedom of information law in the country. In that report, the centre stated the loopholes in Alberta’s legislation create “enormous amount of wiggle room for recalcitrant public officials who would seek to avoid disclosure of embarrassing information.”

In addition, it costs $25 just to file a freedom of information request in Wildrose Country. In Canada, the two territories are the only other jurisdictions with that high of an application fee. And that price tag doesn’t include the additional costs often associated with actually obtaining those records.

I can’t help but think that Alberta’s application fee is one reason why the province’s access law is so underused.

According to the most recent statistics available, in fiscal 2012/13 Alberta government ministries received 60 general freedom of information requests per 100,000 people in the province. By comparison, in Ontario, where the application fee for those requests is $5, that number was 87 in 2012. And, in British Columbia, where there is no charge, that number was 106 in 2012/13.

But, troublingly, Premier Jim Prentice has a plan that could further suppress such access requests in Alberta even further.

Right now, an individual who files a freedom of information request is the only one who receives the records responsive to it. That means reporters and others can get scoops from making those requests – a reward for the considerable time, effort and sometimes money spent on them.

But, in February, CBC News revealed the premier moved to take those scoops away by “personally” ordering government to post responses online for everyone to see, including competing reporters. And if you don’t think that’s a disincentive, just think how you would feel if someone else could constantly claim credit for work you were responsible for.

Prentice’s order has yet to be carried out.

Nevertheless, it’s another reason why opposition parties should be promising to reform the province’s freedom of information legislation, a law that’s benefitted them during the election campaign.

For example, thanks to that law, Wildrose found out the government had spent more than $950 million on sole-source contracts in fiscal 2013/14. Similarly, the Alberta NDP learned of “skyrocketing” ambulance service delays in Calgary and Edmonton.

Both revelations were used to attack the Tories on the campaign trail, where – according to a telephone survey of 758 Albertans conducted for CBC News by the polling firm Return On Insight – accountability is the second most important issue for voters.

Yet the platforms for the Alberta Party, the NDP and the Alberta Liberals don’t include a word about strengthening the province’s freedom of information law. Only Wildrose’s platform promises such a change, while the Greens have a plank that commits them to a “radical overhaul of rules around transparency and accountability.”

Nor have journalists talked much about the need for reform either, perhaps because they believe too many believe Canadians don’t care about that issue – a self-defeating notion, even if it may sometimes be a truthful one.

But what all this amounts to is, at the very least, a missed opportunity to change that indifference, raising awareness among Albertans about why their information rights are important and how those rights can prevent another 44 years of unaccountable governments in this province.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

Writing in the Hill Times, lawyer Michael Drapeau questions what role information commissioner Suzanne Legault has played in the “diminishing importance” of Canada’s records access system. Drapeau critique’s Legault’s appointment of a new “commissioner-in-residence” at a time when she’s complaining about budget cuts. Those cuts also have him questioning why Legault decided to initiative a “wall-to-wall review” of the Access to Information Act, an “ambitious undertaking” that likely diverted “significant resources and management attention” away from overseeing the functioning of that legislation.

• Fort William First Nation governance coordinator Damien Lee is looking to access the 250 research studies written for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was established in 1991. Those studies were previously made available on a CD-ROM that provided a “database program that allowed one to search for and through the research studies.” But, according to Lee, these days “accessing the CD-ROM is nearly impossible on the average person’s computer.” So he’s filed a request for that information to be provided in a PDF format. (hat tip: Alexiss Rusnak)

• Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia vice-president Aubrie McGibbon compares the differences between freedom of information and open data advocates, writing, “Where FOI is often characterized as individual requests for information, open data is characterized as a digital platform where a catalogue of data can be accessed. A second difference is one of culture – FOI advocacy is often characterized as being driven by lawyers and journalists, but open data is been driven by the technology sector.” (hat tip: Scientists for the Right to Know)

• The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Aaron Wudrick endorses Legault’s recommended reforms to the Access to Information Act, although he writes that not every one of them is a “slam-dunk.” Wudrick states “opening the system up to people outside of Canada, for example, seems unnecessary.”

In an email, he explained, “Our basic starting point is that since Canadians fund government, they therefore should be the ones prioritized when it comes to queries. Foreign entities or persons can already file ATI queries using an agent; propsed changes would just let them do so directly.  Our general concern is that this would encourage even more requests into an already strained system, and we think Canadians should have priority when it comes to having their queries answered.”

• The Globe and Mail’s Andrea Woo tweets that when she filed a freedom of information request with the United States’s National Archives, she got a response in “two(!) days.”

• Vice News’s Justin Ling tweets, “In this ATIP, they redacted…the crown in the RCMP logo.” (hat tip: Kirsten Smith)

• Wilfred Laurier University political science professor Christopher Alcantara writes, “When it comes to demands for greater detail about the salaries and expenditures of politicians and public servants, the amount of time and effort involved would be best spent elsewhere, given the limited benefits that would accrue from such policies.”

• PEN Canada has relaunched its Censorship Tracker to coincide with World Press Freedom Day. The tracker allows for the mapping of free expression violations across the country.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Times Colonist reports Saanich, B.C. police are “refusing to confirm who is responsible for a murder-suicide in a Cordova Bay house last week.” According to a police spokesperson, that’s because no criminal charges have been laid so both individuals have privacy rights – a position that has been criticized by the newspaper, as well as the province’s children and youth representative.

• The Times Colonist reports, “Despite employee complaints of bullying, mismanagement, low morale and high turnover in the province’s civilian police watchdog, the B.C. government’s human resources branch will not release results of its investigation into the Independent Investigations Office.”

• The Times Colonist reports, “For the second straight week, the (BC NDP) Opposition produced documents that show one senior [government] official denying the existence of records only to have another person release them.”

•  Nova News Now reports the Nova Scotia government is promising to give the public more information about aquaculture. But Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Keith Colwell has also “admitted veterinary records will be exempt under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.” That’s controversial because it means information on fish diseases that is publicly available in New Brunswick will be secret in Nova Scotia.

• The Coast reports the Nova Scotia government is late in filing its annual statistical report on freedom of information requests filed in that province. That report was last published in 2012. But, according to the newspaper, “the province says it identified ‘greater difficulties and discrepancies’ while reviewing 2013’s numbers.”

• “The Saskatchewan Party government has refused to turn over nearly two dozen records applied for under access-to-information laws, according to the Opposition NDP,” according to Global News.

• “Along with the job of holding the B.C. Liberals to account, the New Democrats used the spring session of the legislature to lay out a dozen reforms to be implemented if the party forms government after the next election,” writes the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer

• British Columbia’s Civil Forfeiture Office has been forced to disclose the names of its employees, the Globe and Mail reports. Law student Jeremy Maddock had filed a freedom of information request for those names, information the office claimed would put its employees at risk. But the province’s information commissioner decided against that claim. And now a judge has dismissed a justice ministry attempt to appeal that decision.

• “A staff member of the Centre for Law and Democracy is praising recommended changes to Newfoundland and Labrador’s access to information legislation,” reports CBC News. “Michael Karanicolas, legal officer with the centre, said the changes will make the province a world leader when it comes to access to information.”

• The Leader-Post reports Saskatchewan’s privacy commissioner is “investigating the premier’s office over the release of a Saskatoon care home aide’s personnel information.” According to the newspaper, “On April 20, Kathy Young, chief of operations and communications for the executive council, sent an email to reporters saying Peter Bowden, a care aide at Oliver Lodge in Saskatoon, had been suspended with pay. Bowden had appeared at the legislative building in March to raise concerns about his workplace, after which Premier Brad Wall guaranteed he would not be disciplined for speaking out.”

• The StarPhoenix writes that the government’s actions toward Bowden “highlights a problem that afflicts politicians who are in office for a long time.” According to the newspaper, Premier Brad Wall “like many others before him, has begun to equate what’s in the best interest of his political party and what’s in the public interest, and has taken moral umbrage at anyone who dares to question his actions.”

• CBC News’s Charles Rusnell tweets he’s receiving letters every day about extensions the Alberta government is taking on providing responses to his freedom of information requests. “Embarrassing to govt.,” he writes, adding, “It’s an election tradition in Alberta.”

• In response to calls by the NDP to create a lobbyist registry, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski was quoted by CBC News as saying, “This government is not going to make it harder for people to talk to the government.”

• Privacy and Access Council of Canada president Sharon Polsky is running as the Wildrose’s election candidate in Calgary-Varsity. In the Calgary Herald, she has been quoted as saying she’s running because “through my career I have worked to protect Canadians’ democratic rights and freedoms, so accountability and transparency are very important to me. I know that under the PC government ‘accountability’ has become a meaningless buzzword and freedom of information isn’t free.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Metro reports, “Calgary spent more than $320,000 handling 197 freedom-of-information requests in the last six months of 2014, according to a new city report, prompting one councillor to renew his call to raise the fees of such requests.” That $25 fee is currently among the most expensive in the country.

• Calgary Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart has suggested the city could cut those costs by making the result of all freedom of information requests immediately public. According to Metro, the following exchange took place between her and Mayor Naheed Nenshi:

“I raise this because … a lot of the inquiries are generated by the media,” Colley-Urquhart said. “And they want an exclusive on the story but the minute that it’s going to be simultaneously released and become public information…”

“…They lose their scoop,” Nenshi said, finishing her sentence.

“Yeah,” Colley-Urquhart continued. “And there’s a decrease in the number of these things. So I just want to know if this is possible and what the merits of this would be.”

• “The head of Ontario’s school bus association says his Toronto members should disclose their collision records,” according to the Toronto Star. The statement comes a day after the newspaper published a story showing those numbers were being kept secret. The Toronto Star has also published an editorial calling for such a disclosure.

• London, Ont.’s new integrity commissioner “will be directed to examine whether the city needs a lobbyist registry,” according to Metroland News.

• Commenting on a proposal to create a lobbyist registry in Collingwood, Ont., town clerk Sara Amas stated it could impact how member of council interact with residents. The Collingwood Connection has quoted her as saying, “Not only does it capture developers and contractors, it could include ratepayers and how they interact with council and it could get quite complicated.”

• The Hamilton Spectator reports two rookie Hamilton, Ont. politicians have won their colleague’s approval to study the rejected idea of recording the city council’s closed-door meetings.

• Brampton, Ont. “wants residents to weigh in on proposed lobbyist and gift registries,” according to the Brampton Guardian.

• “The University of Guelph’s senior administration and its board of governors should be ashamed of how they resolved to carry out one of the most important meetings at the institution this year,” according to the Guelph Mercury. “After a student protest spurred a shut down of an April 16 meeting to settle the university’s next operating budget, these parties arranged a closed session last Sunday to conclude the process.”

• In response, the university’s association vice-president of student affairs Brenda Whiteside writes that “the board had no option but to hold this meeting in closed session” because protesting students “made it clear that they had no intention of engaging in a dialogue; rather, their intent was to shut down the board.”

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

POLL CLAIMS SECRECY A BALLOT BOX ISSUE

How many of these Canadians actually care about government transparency (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

These Canadian protesters seem to care about government transparency. But how many actually do? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

What does the latest polling tell us about the importance of transparency issues in Canada?

Why did the British Columbia government claim it didn’t have records that actually exist?

And should the public have a right to know the circumstances behind the firing of senior public officials?

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

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Forum Research Inc. reports, “When presented with five major issues facing the Canadian government now, two thirds of voters say ethics and transparency in government has ‘a great deal of influence’ on their vote.” (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The Canadian Food Inspection Agency attempted to charge La Presse $104,050 for statistics on how often the organization has verified the nutrition facts on food labels over the past four years. (hat tip: Leslie Young)

• In response to CBC News’s request for records about food labelling. Health Canada provided a package of 400 documents. But one of those documents, an issue summary, had a “curious” redaction: “Review of serving size (deleted word) guidelines.” According to reporter Kelly Crowe, that word was deleted because it’s a cabinet secret.

• The Haisla Nation had to wait “nearly four years” for Environment Canada to respond to a request for records related to proposed consultation process for the Northern Gateway Pipeline.

• CBC News reports Ontario Superior Court Justice Herman Wilton-Siegel will decide this week whether a “secret settlement made between the Canadian government and U.S. Steel will be unsealed…While lawyers for U.S. Steel argue the deal is privileged and protected information, lawyers for the steelworkers union and City of Hamilton say it would be ‘fairness 101’ to disclose the deal during bankruptcy protection and amidst the potential sale of the Hamilton steel plant.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• “The federal government has decided to stop publishing contact information for all of its departments and agencies in the blue pages section of telephone directories,” reports the Canadian Press. “A spokesman for Shared Services Canada says the department has yet to receive any complaints about the dropped blue pages listings.”

• The University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension is hosting the 2015 Access and Privacy Conference on June 11.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Tyee reports that, last week, the BC NDP raised three examples of documents the provincial government claimed did not exist after the party filed freedom of information requests for them. But it turns out those documents actually did exist, with the BC NDP having obtained them through other means.

• The Times Colonist’s Les Leyne’s writes that those revaluations are “not exactly news. A national survey a year ago turned up a similar conclusion. And FOI law is a background issue that doesn’t really move too many people.”

• Reader Merv Adley counters Leyne’s claim, writing, “The Freedom of Information and [Protection of] Privacy Act protects our democratic institutions by forcing governments to inform us of what they are up to. It’s a damn shame Leyne doesn’t find a government routinely evading the act more appalling.” Adley’s letter was published, in part, by the Vancouver Courier.

• Freelancer Bob Mackin has been successful in his four-year quest to obtain the BC Lions’ rent contract with the BC Pavilion Corp.

• CBC News reports, “Sherry Jeffers and Charlene Pitre are suing the [New Brunswick] government for allegedly breaching their confidentiality as informants to a Department of Social Development investigation into the Saint John special care home where they once worked.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Newfoundland and Labrador government has introduced a new bill implementing the recommendations of an independent committee that reviewed the province’s access to information legislation. According to CBC News, “The new law remains on track to come into effect June 1.”

• Ontario’s new information and privacy commissioner will be coming to Brock University on May 6 to “meet with regional stakeholders and talk about the trends and future direction of access to information and protection of privacy.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Kevin Kaardal, the superintendent for Burnaby, B.C.’s school district, was given a golden handshake worth close to $430,000. But the district isn’t saying why Kaardal left by “mutual agreement,” prompting Burnaby Now to ask, “What do taxpayers have the right to know, or need to know, when top brass in city positions are shown the door?”

• “A year after it was asked to disclose detailed ridership studies for the Union-Pearson Express, Metrolinx has released some of the reports,” according to the Toronto Sun. “But key financial information is blacked out from the documents.”

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

ACCESS WATCHDOG MAKES VEXATIOUS REQUEST?

Has the commissioner accidentally handed the government another potential weapon in its fight against openness? (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Has the access commissioner accidentally handed the government another potential weapon in its fight against openness? (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Canada’s access commissioner Suzanne Legault thinks the federal government should have the power to disregard “frivolous, vexatious or otherwise abusive” record requests. But that power could be dangerously easy to abuse, as was recently demonstrated in Alberta.

Legault made that recommendation in her recent report on modernizing Canada’s decrepit Access to Information Act, the law that allows the public to obtain internal government documents.

But past commissioners have described frivolous or vexatious requesters as rare, with John Reid writing in his 1998/99 annual report, “There are, happily, none in the system” – despite government claims to the contrary.

Similarly, Legault recently told the committee that reviewed Newfoundland and Labrador’s access law that out of the around 9,000 files she’s seen “there may be one case where I would have considered whether that would be frivolous or vexatious.”

The commissioner is away from her office and, as a result, was unable to personally explain why she still recommended government have the power to dismiss such requests, a decision that could be appealed to her office.

Instead, in a response to a series of written questions, a spokesperson stated in an email that power would “ensure more efficient use of limited public resources and protect the access rights of other requesters.” But it could also violate those rights.

That recently happened in Alberta, where the government can disregard frivolous or vexatious requests with the approval of the province’s independent information commissioner – a weaker version of the power Legault has proposed federally.

Last May, Service Alberta, the ministry that administers the government’s records, asked for that approval when an opposition party researcher requested a summary of the living allowances and benefits given to employees over a three-year period.

The ministry claimed the researcher, James Johnson, had submitted “up to five times” more requests than other freedom of information applicants and that he had been using them in a “repetitious and systemic nature that unreasonably interferes with the operations of the public body.”

Johnson countered that he had only filed around 26 requests with Service Alberta over 25 months, adding that it’s his public duty to research the ministry on topics the public is concerned about.

In the end, the commissioner decided there wasn’t enough evidence for his newest request to be disregarded. But that process ended up taking three months, delaying Johnson from obtaining the information he had requested.

I suspect if officials in Ottawa had an even stronger power to disregard record requests, it might be abused in the same way, beaten into the service of secrecy.

After all, since the Access to Information Act came into force over 30 years ago, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have done the same thing to every exception in that law, without respect for public and press opinion.

Of course, Legault isn’t the first commissioner to recommend government should have the power to disregard frivolous or vexatious access requests. For example, John Grace did so in his fiscal 1993/4 annual report, as did Reid in his 2000/01 annual report.

But when those recommendations were made, they were chained to proposals to do away with the $5 fee to file an access to information request. The rationale was that if those proposals were accepted, government would need some means of discouraging trivial requests.

Legault’s recommendation for dealing with such requests doesn’t seem to make a similar linkage. That could make it easier for the Harper administration or its successors to take that piece of advice while ignoring others that would result in more transparency.

Asked about such opportunities for cherry picking, a spokesperson for the commissioner’s office stated Legault’s report – which also proposes eliminating freedom of information charges, needs “for the most part, to be read together.”

But the history of freedom of information in Canada has repeatedly demonstrated that any ambiguity becomes an opportunity for opacity.

The commissioner’s modernization report should have taken that into account by, at a minimum, recommending government seek her permission before disregarding frivolous or vexatious requests – a system similar to the ones used in Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The commissioner must also ensure this recommendation is not acted on unless government makes freedom of information requests free.

Her report may have been, in the words of its title, attempting to strike the “right balance.” But when the scales of governance in this country are so tipped in favour of secrecy, achieving that balance requires a heavy counterweight of openness – something that doesn’t appear to have happened here.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The World Justice Project has released a report ranking Canada as the seventh most open country out of 102 examined. But the same survey also puts Canada behind 20 other countries when it comes to our right to information. Those countries include all the other Anglosphere nations that were part of the survey.

• “The Federal Court says the government can no longer charge people fees for the search and processing of electronic government documents covered under access to information legislation,” reports the Ottawa Citizen. “The government has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling and is reviewing [Justice Sean] Harrington’s decision in order to determine the most appropriate next steps, according to a spokesman from the Attorney General’s office. (hat tip: Joshua Sohn)

• The Canadian Press reports, “The genesis of the Harper government’s ‘Strong Proud Free’ slogan that is currently bombarding Canadian television viewers is considered a cabinet confidence and will be sealed from public scrutiny for 20 years.” (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• The federal government has invoked a clause usually used in terrorism trials to keep information about the prime minister’s family from being made public, according to the National Post.

• The Canadian Press reports lawyer Jack Gemmell filed an access request for legal opinions and memos spelling out why the government believes its anti-terrorism bill is consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But, according to the wire service, “Gemmell was disappointed when the Justice Department asked for $4,772.80 in Access to Information fees just to get his written request to the next step.” (hat tip: Althia Raj)

• “Spokesmen for federal whistleblowers are crying foul after the Harper government appointed a judge with a Conservative background to a key panel,” according to CBC News. “Peter Annis, a Federal Court judge, was appointed in late February to the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Tribunal, effective March 3 for a four-year term, serving part-time.”

• The Globe and Mail reports on attempts to block its investigation into the friendly fire death of Sgt. Andrew Doiron.

• The Guelph Mercury predicts information commissioner Suzanne Legault’s call to modernize the Access to Information Act is “unlikely to become a hot public talking point for the federal government as it readies for a re-election bid. But Canadians should press for Legault’s report becoming a catalyst for political action and legislative reform.”

• CBC News reports, “Canada’s pipeline regulator took a ‘big step forward’ on a promise to be more transparent with the release of a map of spills and other incidents. But gaps in the data still exist.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has organized an event at Ryerson University in Toronto that will “look at the current challenges to creating, accessing, and sharing information in Canada, and work to create a path forward.” The event will take place on May 8.

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that he asked for the Treasury Board’s plans to “deal with surges” in the number of access to information requests. “Got blank back, cuz it’s a secret!”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Calgary Herald reports new Alberta government rules requiring the disclosure of government contracts that aren’t tendered contain an apparent loophole allowing the Tories to “keep details of large-dollar deals secret from taxpayers.”

• As part of its bid to form government, the Wildrose Alliance Party of Alberta is promising to expand the province’s sunshine list – which discloses the salaries departmental employees earning six-figures – to include government agencies, boards and commissions.

• The Alberta New Democratic Party is promising to “create a public Infrastructure Sunshine List to show how school and hospital projects are prioritized.” The list would include the “standards used to make the decisions, and will identify when and how changes are made to those priorities.”

• The Montreal Gazette reports a series of coming hearings connected to the Charbonneau Commission’s final report will be subject to a blanket publication ban. The commission has “spent more than three years examining corruption and collusion in Quebec’s construction industry.”

• “The B.C. government has made a funding agreement to ensure that 33,000 boxes of important documents will finally be archived,” reports the Times Colonist. “The deal with the Royal British Columbia Museum means court records, executive correspondence and documents about commissions of inquiry can be archived.”

• “The Centre for Law and Democracy has praised Newfoundland and Labrador’s amended Right to Information legislation, saying the province has done ‘a major about-face’ and has taken ‘bold steps’ to improve the law,” according to CBC News.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• The Toronto Star reports that Mayor John Tory promised to “maintain a weekly, easily accessible schedule.” But “one year and an election victory later, his staff instead email daily itineraries to the media, which occasionally say only ‘There are no public events scheduled’ and provide no information about the mayor’s activities.”

• The Montreal Gazette reports, “The number of complaints is mounting about a lack of transparency at city hall. Access to public information appears to be controlled, delayed or blocked by the mayor’s office, said Lise Millette, president of the Federation professionnelle des journalistes du Quebec, representing close to 1,800 journalists in the province. She pointed to several complaints in recent weeks from journalists and news groups, particularly from a broad range of weekly newspapers on Montreal Island, about the Coderre administration.”

• Kamloops This Week reports, “Data collected during a review of president Alan Shaver won’t be released to faculty at Thompson Rivers University. Brian Ross, chairman of TRU’s board of governors, said a request by journalism assistant professor Shawn Thompson to release the information has been denied. Ross said Thompson was asking the university to violate an employee’s right to privacy.”

• A London, Ont. councillor is pushing the city to create a lobbyist registry. But, in an interview with the London Free Press, Martin Horak, the head of the University of Western Ontario’s local government program, wondered whether such a registry worthwhile in a city of London’s size.

• The Tribune paraphrases Dalhousie, N.B. Mayor Clem Tremblay as saying the Restigouche Regional Service Commission is not “open enough” because it doesn’t allow for a question period for journalists and the public after the conclusion of its regular monthly meeting.

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

GOVERNMENT PAPER TRAIL GOES COLD

Even a detective can't find records that don't exist (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Even a detective can’t find records that don’t exist (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Canada’s information commissioner Suzanne Legault wants new rules that would force federal officials to document their decision-making.

But concerns about their lack of documentation began long before recent investigations revealed some of the highest levels of government in this country have been strangers to the printed word, shielding them from scrutiny.

And it’s likely those concerns will remain long after Legault, who has about two years left in her seven year term, leaves office.

The commissioner’s “duty to document” recommendation is included in her 108-page report on modernizing Canada’s aging Access to Information Act.

In the report, which was released earlier this month, Legault states “no federal statute or regulation” currently includes such a “comprehensive legal duty.”

The commissioner also wants to see penalties for ignoring that duty.

After all, if officials aren’t recording their decision-making, there will be no documentation for the public to request under the Access to Information Act.

Those recommendations follow a 2013 investigation by Ontario’s then information commissioner Ann Cavoukian that found a “verbal” culture within the offices of that province’s former premier and energy minister.

Cavoukian stated it was unclear if records weren’t kept “to increase efficiency or to prevent any of these materials from seeing the light of day and forming the subject of a freedom of information request.”

But the result contributed to a lack of documentation about a controversial and costly government decision to cancel the construction of two gas plants.

Similarly, British Columbia’s information commissioner Elizabeth Denham found the “general practice” within Premier Christy Clark’s office has been “to communicate verbally in person.”

As a result, “email communications usually consist of requests to make telephone calls or meet in person” and staff “do not make substantive communication relating to business matters via email.”

But the tendency for officials to not record their decision-making was also being reported shortly after the Access to Information Act came into effect on July 1, 1983.

Less than a year later, the Globe and Mail paraphrased federal official Don Page as saying the law is causing government employees to “use the telephone more and not put a full record of conversations and meetings on file.”

Speaking to a session of the Canadian Historical Association at the annual meeting of the Learned Societies conference, Page, the deputy director of the Department of External Affairs’s historical division said, “There is no way to document how extensive the changes are but you can sense a different atmosphere.”

That’s why, in 1994, Canada’s second information commissioner John Grace recommended a duty to create records be imposed on the federal government.

“These rules would rebuke the disdainful practice of some officials who discourage the creation and safekeeping of important records in order to avoid the rigours of openness,” Grace wrote in his annual report.

That recommendation was then repeated by his successor John Reid.

And since Legault has been doing the same thing since at least 2013, you can probably guess what happened to those recommendations, like so many others from the commissioner’s office.

Perhaps, though, you may think the accumulated weight of that advice will be enough to finally force our politicians to act.

But what’s more likely is that accumulation has taught Canadian politicians that recommendations from the commissioner carry little weigh with the voting public.

After all, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper all won re-election despite accusations of opacity.

And that culture of secrecy will continue so long as the oh so Canadian culture of passively accepting such disregard for citizens continues.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Long-time right to know advocate Ken Rubin writes that information commissioner Suzanne Legault’s recent recommendations for fixing Canada’s broken access law “barely stops the erosion of the public’s right to know and does not open Ottawa to a large changeover in record disclosures.”

• University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus Paul Thomas takes an opposing position, writing, “There is much to applaud in the commissioner’s rigorous analysis of the weaknesses of the access regime, and her recommendations provide a valuable starting point for debate on how to ensure it serves Canadians better in the future.”

• The Globe and Mail’s editorial board appears to have a similar opinion, describing the commissioner’s report as “excellent.”

• Former Sun Media Ottawa bureau chief David Akin writes about  Canada’s “rotted” freedom of information law, noting that “University of Laval political scientist Anne Marie Gingras published a paper in 2012 in which she reviewed the then-thirty year-old Act and found the Harper government and all of its predecessors – Liberal or PC – have failed to live up to the spirit and, too often, the letter of the Act.”

• The Hill Times reports that, according to Legault, “Journalists are self-censoring their access to information requests to avoid being denied on the grounds of Cabinet confidences.”

• “You’re kidding me.” According to the Canadian Press, that’s how former CIA agent John Kirakou reacted when he heard that Canada’s opposition “doesn’t get to see or scrutinize national-security intelligence files.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Telegraph-Journal reports New Brunswick’s government has started publishing the annual inspection reports for the province’s licensed daycares online. But “the new online reports do not contain all of the information included in the paper copies” nor will the government post details from older inspections. The newspaper earlier had to fight the government to release those copies.

• The Telegraph-Journal reports it has “filed several Right to Information requests over the past several months with the goal of building a [province-wide] Sunshine List. Requests for salary disclosure are still outstanding from the Saint John Police Department and the Town of Rothesay. When asked, the City of Saint John provided a list of employees making more than $100,000. The Town of Quispamsis declined to provide names, but offered the titles of employees making more than $100,000. A quick Google search reveals the names of those employees.”

• Prince Edward Island’s Progressive Conservatives have promised to turn the province into an “Open Island” if the opposition party forms government in the upcoming election. That commitment includes promising to publish online all government loans, grands, write-offs and contracts over $1,000. It will also make research and background documents “digitally available so that the public can view the same information being used by government to address issues and make decisions,” among other measures.

• The Calgary Herald reports a Royal Tyrell Museum researcher wasn’t able to speak to the newspaper about his work “because there’s a protocol restricting provincial employees from doing interviews during the Alberta election campaign.” (hat tip: Erika Stark)

• Vice reports the Government of the Northwest Territories isn’t requiring natural gas companies to “disclose the toxic ingredients contained in their tracking fluids and chemical additives.” Instead, those companies can decide for themselves “whether or not they will divulge the chemical makeup of the substances used to drill, fracture the shale bed and extract oil or gas to the surface.”

• The Globe and Mail reports, “British Columbia’s Ministry of Justice says a ruling that ordered its Civil Forfeiture Office to disclose the names of its employees did not properly consider the safety risks and should be discarded.” The agency has “faced questions of fairness and transparency.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• The Mississauga News reports Peel, Ont. regional police wouldn’t reveal the name of a 22-year-old Toronto man who died after being “brutally assaulted with a compressed air horse on March 6 at his Mississauga workplace.” The victim’s family had requested that lack of disclosure. But the newspaper reports it “simply delayed the eventual release of his name, and in the end served no real purpose.”

• Earlier this month, Surrey, B.C.’s mayor refused to speak to News 1130 about a dozen shootings that have taken place in her city, instead referring questions to the RCMP. In a subsequent interview, with the Vancouver radio station, the mayor explained, “I am not the sheriff. I can’t do more than that which we are doing, which is getting those police on the ground, responding to the events, and actually doing some significant preventative work.”

• British Columbia’s information commissioner has found it was “inappropriate” for a city councillor to mention “by name a citizen who had made a number of requests for information to the city. The disclosure led to several references to the requester in the local paper…” (hat tip: Bob Mackin)

• The Toronto Star reports, “Ontario’s privacy commissioner has ruled that the City of Markham needs to reconsider its reasons for keeping documents related to the failed NHL arena project under wraps.” But the city is now asking the commissioner for more time to re-examine those reasons.

• The Telegraph-Journal reports Saint John Coun. Greg Norton is “proposing the city create a Sunshine List, which will detail exactly how much city employees make on an annual basis, and post those documents online for anyone to see.”

• The Windsor Star reports the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corp.’s chief executive officer’s salaries wasn’t on Ontario’s Sunshine List, which discloses the salaries of public employees making more than $100,000 a year. It didn’t have to because the corporation’s $1.9 million in core funding comes from Windsor and Essex County taxpayers rather than the province.

• The Woolwich, Ont. citizen committee “tasked with overseeing cleanup of the township’s polluted water supply is boycotting a secret meeting Thursday on the committee’s future organized by Mayor Sandy Shantz,” according to the Waterloo Record.

• The Toronto Sun reports the number of people asking the city’s local government for access to their own personal records is increasing, while the number of general access requests continues to decrease. According to the newspaper, “The city has been trying to be more proactive in disclosing run-of-the-mill information without people having to pay $5 to file an access to information request.”

• The Montreal Gazette’s Bill Tuerney, the former mayor of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., asks, “What can and cannot be shared with the general public? The main rule I remember is that you should be careful with all information that is “nominal.” That is, it has people’s names attached. Everything else should be public. All you can do, if it is time-sensitive, is time its release.”

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

BC NDP ACCESS REFORM EFFORT TAKES PLACE OFF-CAMERA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such is the nature of Canadian politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That news was first reported by the Gananoque Reporter.

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

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

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

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

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

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

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

TORY MPS PROPOSE HIGHER WATCHDOG TAX

MP Erin O'Toole led a Conservative charge to increase the application fee for access to information requests. (Photograph by Erin O'Toole)

MP Erin O’Toole led a Conservative charge to increase the application fee for access to information requests. (Photograph by Erin O’Toole)

TO FEE OR NOT TO FEE? Three Conservative MPs have proposed hiking the cost of using Canada’s already broken access to information system. But it’s uncertain if those proposals will be acted on by government or how they would affect those filing record requests in the public interest.

The MPs made those proposals last week during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. At that meeting, information commissioner Suzanne Legault told members her office was in a financial crisis because of budget cuts and the need to investigate a growing number of access complaints.

While questioning Legault about that crisis, MP Erin O’Toole proposed that crisis could be adverted if the $5 fee for filing an information request was changed, even though that money goes into the government’s coffers rather than the commissioner’s.

Under that proposal, citizens would pay nothing if they were just asking for information about “their life.” But citizens asked for something else there would be a “nominal charge” that would be “a lot more” than the present amount. And “commercial entities” could pay $200.

By comparison, MPs Ed Komarnicki and Joan Crockatt’s proposals for fee increases were less detailed.

Crockatt told the commissioner, who is opposed to such an increase,  that “a lot of people, particularly in business” pay a “great deal” for information. She also said those same people were “anxious to receive the information that you have,” seemingly forgetting that it’s government rather than Legault’s office which holds those records.

For his part, Komarnicki proposed increasing fees for everyone “to bring it more in line with inflation.”

Following those recommendations, NDP MP Murray Rankin asked Treasury Board President Tony Clement whether he agreed with his more junior colleagues that “jacking up fees” was a good way to fix the access to information system.

Clement — whose government last considered such an increase in 2011 — didn’t answer that question. Instead, he stated, “If the information commissioner has a problem with her budget she knows where to go.”

O’Toole was somewhat more forthcoming in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, telling the paper he pulled the $200 fee for commercial entities “out of thin air” and that the media could be excluded from that category.

Meanwhile, Crockatt told National Post Calgary correspondent Jen Gerson that she “never suggested” such a fee for journalists. Indeed, she considers the “mass media to be an extension of the public.” Crockatt is the former executive editor of the Calgary Herald.

TRIBAL POLITICS To some members of the media (including myself), Crockatt’s proposal to hike access to information application fees seemed at odds with her background as a journalist. Among them was Toronto-based reporter Saleem Khan:

Crockatt, who acknowledged during the committee meeting that the newspaper industry relies “a lot on access to information to get our information,” didn’t respond to Khan’s tweet.

But it’s notable that Crockatt might not have had much opportunity to use Alberta’s equivalent of that law. By the time it came into force in October 1995, Crockatt had already moved on from her job as the Edmonton Journal’s legislature bureau chief to become the Calgary Herald’s editorial page editor.

Alberta was the second to last jurisdiction in North America to pass a freedom of information law.

THANKS FOR NOTHING The Liberals have done a lot of chest beating about their Transparency Act, which they claim would “raise the bar on openness and transparency in government.” But information commissioner Legault has essentially said a major selling point for the bill is meaningless.

Liberal MP Ted Hsu asked the commissioner if she agreed the purpose section of the Access to Information Act should be changed so all government data and information must be made open by default in a machine readable format, with exceptions to the release of records being rare. Coincidentally, just such a change is proposed in the Transparency Act.

But Hsu was likely disappoint with the Legault’s response: “In my opinion, that’s the way the Act is constructed as it is…The purpose clause has been interpreted quite well by the courts in the last 30 years. I am somewhat leery of amending a purpose clause for that Act.”

Indeed, according to the commissioner, the current access to information system is “supposed to be based on open government by default. I looked at the Hansard for 1982-83 when our current legislation was put forward and it was put forward on the basis of open government. Open government is a 30-year concept.”

PRICE DROP Legault told MPs at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics that the cost of filing a federal access to information request was “low compared to other jurisdictions — certainly compared to Ontario.” That statement likely gave comfort to Conservative MPs, who were pushing for an increase to that fee. But, in actuality, the federal government charges more for those requests than many of the provinces. Here’s the breakdown:

British Columbia – $0
Saskatchewan – $0
Manitoba – $0
Quebec – $0
New Brunswick – $0
Yukon – $0
Ontario – $5
Newfoundland and Labrador – $5
Nova Scotia – $5
Prince Edward Island – $5
Alberta – $25
Northwest Territories – $25
Nunavut – $25

SQUIBS

• The Vancouver Sun has published a tick-tock on how the Canadian Border Services Agency dodged questions about an in-custody suicide.

• CBC News reports the government went to Federal Court to try to prevent public sector integrity commissioner Mario Dion from tabling a report about wrongdoing within the Ottawa air section of the RCMP. (hat tip: Chris George)

• Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Paul Davis has suggested the province’s freedom of information law should be changed so that emails sent to legislators can only be released if the writer gives their permission, according to the Telegram.

• Ontario’s auditor general has asked legislators to restrict the investigative authority of that province’s ombudsman, reports the Toronto Star. (hat tip: Mark Bourrie)

• Manitoba’s ombudsman has said there’s “no plausible explanation” why freedom of information requests didn’t reveal an email showing one of the province’s cabinet ministers was behind a plan to use civil servants for apparently partisan purposes. (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• The City of Vancouver has relaxed its media relations policy, according to the Vancouver Sun. Its communications department has issued a a list of nearly 30 senior staff who will now take direct calls and emails from journalists.

According to the Windsor Star, the Ontario Public School Board Association’s guidelines state that “once a motion has been voted upon by the board, trustees are required to support the decision — and the board chair becomes the only member who can offer public comment.” But the newspaper reports newly-elected local public school board trustee Alan Halberstadt won’t necessarily be following those guidelines.

• Last week, the Brandon Sun reported a longtime paediatrician in the community had been publicly censured by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba “following the death of one infant and an unnecessary liver transplant in another.” But fellow doctor W.E. Meyers objected to the paper’s front page coverage of that story and its use of an anonymous sources, writing that Eves was now “being re-censured in a more public forum” and that his reputation had been “savaged” by the Sun.

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