Category Archives: Public Relations

THE MOST UNWANTED RIGHT IN ALBERTA?

Do Albertans really care if they don't know what the politicians in this building are doing? (Photograph by WinterforceMedia)

How much do Albertans care about knowing what the politicians in this building are doing? (Photograph by WinterforceMedia)

TWENTY YEARS OF OPENNESS? “Canada’s freedom of information laws are like transplanted organs. Grafted onto our public institutions decades ago, they have been constantly at risk of rejection, with the body politic doing comparatively little to ensure their acceptance. And perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in Alberta.”

Those are the opening lines of a speech I’ll be giving Right to Know Week Forums being organized by Alberta’s information commissioner Jill Clayton.

To hear more, I encourage you to attend one of those forums, which will take place on Sept. 29 in Calgary and Oct. 1 in Edmonton.

The forums mark the 20th anniversary of Alberta’s access law.

Clayton will also be speaking, along with her staff who will give a presentation on the importance of the Magna Carta as the “foundation for access to information and the public’s right to know.“

In addition, in Edmonton, the city’s corporate and department initiatives director Wendy Gnenz will talk about her community’s Open City Initiative.

RUBIN-ESQUE Ken Rubin is one of Canada’s first and foremost access advocates and practitioners.

That’s why his upcoming mini-memoir in Ottawa Magazine is well worth the read for anyone concerned about government secrecy in this country.

In it, Rubin recounts how his fights against real estate development and for consumer protection in the seventies eventually resulted in him become a leading voice for greater freedom of information.

Here’s a taste:

Helping citizens of Centretown obtain data about its area improvement plan did not prevent my own downtown block north of Gloucester Street from falling prey to demolitions, high-rises, and parking lots. Indeed, despite my door-to-door research and activist efforts, the changing tide meant that my wife, Debbie, and I were evicted in December of 1972. I was down but not out — in fact, that battle emboldened me to become the determined investigator I am today.

The memoir is being published in the magazine’s October edition.

A FAST ONE In an interview with the Toronto Star last year, Treasury Board President Tony Clement admitted the Access to Information Act needs to be reviewed — with his government having failed to deliver on its 2006 promise to reform that law. But not everyone in the Conservative cabinet seems to think such reform is necessary.

Speaking to the Abbotsford News’s Tyler Olsen, International Trade Minister Ed Fast said, “I’m not sure the [access to information] system is in need of repair.”

A 2014 survey found Canadians have less access to government information than the five other Anglosphere countries.

When that access was measured on a scale of one to ten, New Zealand and the United States scored a nine, while Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom scored an eight.

By comparison, Canada scored a six. That puts us in the same company as Croatia, Hungary, Japan, Luxembourg and Mexico.

SUFFERING IN SILENCE Last week, I reported on how an op-ed by Medicine Hat News reporter Collin Gallant appears to have been one of only two stories published covering the launch of a national campaign to fix Canada’s broken Access to Information Act.*

Asked about why he didn’t think there was more coverage, Gallant told me, “I think people just get sort of worn down. And I think we’re sort of at the point, sadly, that they’re not going to be able to get a live quote or the information they are looking for in a story.”

As a result, “Journalists and younger journalists just feel like they are running into a situation where they are wasting their breath complaining about FOIP because it’s just so ingrained.”

* = Disclosure: I’m vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, one of the 22 civil society group supporting the campaign to reform our broken access system.  I also organized the meeting where those reforms were drafted.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Ottawa Citizen reports, “There will be more strategic leaks by the Canadian Forces/DND to journalists who are deemed ‘friendly’ to the military,” while those who are “trouble-makers” will be the subject of “phone calls to media bosses, letters to the editor, etc.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Tyee reports, “Anyone who wants to know how many temporary foreign workers have come to Canada in the first half of 2015 will have to pay to find out, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.” But the online magazine notes, “The request for payment comes more than a year after Employment and Social Development Canada, a separate department, promised it would publicly post such data each quarter in a press release detailing changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Green Leader Elizabeth May calls for greater transparency in Canadian politics by endorsing four reforms to the Access to Information Act advocated for by a coalition of 22 civil society groups. May is the only leader so far to have made that endorsement.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, “Tom Mulcair pledged Tuesday that an NDP government would lift the lid of secrecy around the federal budgetary process — providing Canadians much more information about how government spends their money.”

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that Finance Canada has audited its access to information system “without talking to any requesters & (surprise) gives itself high marks!”

• Freelance journalist Shanifa Nasser tweets that the 30 day time limit to respond to access to information requests “has lost all meaning.” That tweet comes after Nasser filed a request on July 22 that was forgotten about until Aug. 19 when the government requested a 150-day extension.

• “As International Right to Know Day on Sept. 28 approaches, it is worth reflecting on the state of access to information across Canada,” writes the Centre for Law and Democracy’s Toby Mendel, noting that our country ranks a “very poor 59th place globally from among 102 countries with right to information laws.”

• The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin writes, “The Conservatives have taken a lot of heat over information suppression. But it has had little effect. There are few signs of change. Their attitude is ‘stay the course.’ If you say too much you are dangerous; if you know too much you are a threat.”

• The Kelowna Capital News’s Kevin Parnell writes that if you ask Conservative MPs about gagging federal government researchers “you will hear denials. They don’t muzzle scientists and aren’t trying to control the flow of information. They would never! But how do we trust what a politician says when the track record of truth versus lies is a joke.”

• The Centre for Law and Democracy is hosting a panel discussion in Halifax celebrating International Right to Know Day. Panelists include Newfoundland and Labrador’s deputy premier Steve Kent, whose government recently reformed that province’s records access law.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Yellowknifer’s Shane Magee tweets that the Northwest Territories “remains one of four jurisdictions in Canada where municipalities aren’t covered by access to info legislation…That’s despite more than a decade of calls by information commish to update the law.” (hat tip: Karissa Donkin)

• “David Fraser, a lawyer with McInnes Cooper, will be representing Bullying Canada when the charity takes the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to court later in the fall over responses to two right to information requests,” reports the Daily Gleaner. “The first file relates to how [New Brunswick] spent its $700,000 anti-bullying budget, while the second file pertains to the work of the Positive Learning Environments committee. In both cases, Bullying Canada co-founder Rob Frenette said he received heavily redacted responses to his requests.”

• Ontario’s information commissioner Brian Beamish marked Right to Know Week in Sault Ste. Marie, delivering a speech that also talked about “important issues surrounding health privacy.”

• British Columbia’s information commissioner encourages citizens to participate in the review of their province’s access law as part of Right to Know Week.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “The Vision Vancouver majority on council may be violating the province’s open meeting laws by conducting caucus meetings before their regularly-scheduled council sessions,” according to a veteran lawyer quoted by the Vancouver Sun. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)

• The Telegraph-Journal reports New Brunswick’s “faculty associations are taking St. Thomas University’s administration to court over its refusal to disclose the amounts of three employee severance packages.”

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

CENSORS BLACK OUT MORE USING WHITE-OUT

Does blanking out information hide more than blacking it out? (Image by Shutterstock.com)

Does blanking out information hide more than blacking it out? (Image by Shutterstock.com)

WHITEWASH Unlike many of Canada’s provincial governments, British Columbia blanks rather than blacks out the information it censors from records released under its freedom of information legislation — a practice that could threaten the public’s information rights.

During a recent review of New Brunswick’s own access law, that province’s government found concerns about public bodies using white for redactions, stating:

…white-out makes it exceedingly difficult to know where something has been redacted or how big the redacted section may be. This can be important information when seeking to understand what has and has not been released, and this can infringe on the applicant’s right under the Act to challenge redactions.

In addition, blanked out records are much less telegenic than those that have been blacked out, reducing the impact of showing them during video news reports.

The British Columbia government ministry responsible for handling freedom of information requests didn’t respond to either of those concerns.

But a spokesperson did state in an email that, “Using white for redaction is a long-standing practice in B.C. for optimal readability for applicants.”

The spokesperson added that white “saves on printing costs (photocopies) for both government and applicants.”

SELF-HELP? Last week, a coalition of 22 civil society groups called on political parties to help reduce government secrecy by fixing the country’s broken records access law.

But, even though those repairs are in the public interest and journalists’ self-interest, that announcement got little coverage.

The groups, which included some of the country’s most prominent freedom of information advocates, asked political parties to endorse four reforms to the Access to Information Act.*

Those reforms included making significant changes to the exclusions and exemptions in the Act — loopholes that our public officials use and abuse to hide even the most basic information about their decisions from Canadians.

Such changes are especially important for journalists since access requests are one of the few means reporters still have of obtaining information that hasn’t been spun by the government.

That’s because, in the words of Medicine Hat News reporter Collin Gallant, “Long gone are the days when a simple phone call could put a reporter in touch with the person they needed in the federal government, be they anyone other than a communications handler.”

But despite those frustrations being shared by journalists across the country, Gallant’s op-ed supporting the recent call to fix the Access to Information Act was, according to the Canadian Newsstand database and Google News, one of just two stories published by news outlets about that reform effort.

* = Disclosure: I’m vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, one of the 22 civil society groups calling for freedom of information reforms. I also organized the meeting where those reforms were drafted.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Maclean’s magazine has published a cover story investigating the crisis in government data.

• “The information commissioner is taking the Prime Minister’s Office to court, accusing it of refusing to release documents about four senators embroiled in scandal,” reports the Canadian Press.

• The Ottawa Citizen reports Health Canada has repeatedly refused to say why it paid a “dodgy” Website in Croatia to publish some of its food safety science documents. The department also hasn’t responded to two 10-month-old access to information requests about that arrangement.

• Burnaby Now’s Jennifer Moreau demonstrates the frustration of dealing with Conservative media handlers by publishing a transcript of her conversation with one of them.

• This Magazine reports on the urgent need to reform Canada’s information legislation, quoting the Centre for Free Expression’s Jim Turk.

• Reuters investigative resources correspondent Mike De Souza tweets that, in response to a recent access request, “the Canadian government censored part of a published media article.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• British Columbia’s Interior Health Authority won’t say how much it is spending on a new residential care facility, with a spokesperson claiming that information can only be disclosed via a freedom of information request. The Kelowna Capital News also reports the “health authority has even gone so far as to tell the winning bidder not to reveal the figure either.”

• “The Nova Scotia government passed legislation last spring giving Halifax the green light to release a ‘sunshine list’ of the municipality’s top earners,” reports the Chronicle-Herald. “But several months later, city hall is still refusing to release the salaries of senior bureaucrats, citing privacy legislation.”

• Halifax Media Co-op reports, “A group of organizations in Nova Scotia is calling on the provincial government to implement improvements to the access to information framework – improvements they say are both essential and long overdue.”

• “The Alberta government released its list of sole-sourced contracts Thursday, in a publicly searchable database,” reports Huffington Post Alberta.

According to the Hamilton Spectator, Ontario MPP Monique Taylor’s private member’s bill, which would require the province’s children’s advocate to be notified when a child in-care dies or is critically injured, has passed second reading.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “Two months after a deadline to produce race and ethnicity data for people stopped by Peel police in 159,303 street checks — a practice known in Toronto as carding — the force has not produced the information requested [by the Toronto Star] under access to information laws.”

• Concordia University’s student newspaper reports the McGill University had previously tried and failed to have access requests for information about its military research classified as frivolous or vexatious. Such a classification would have allowed McGill to not respond to those requests.

• The Winnipeg Free Press reports Mayor Brian Bowman has fulfilled one of his campaign commitments by announcing that, beginning on Sept. 30, council records will be “produced in a format known as machine-readable, which will allow for easier online searching, record-keeping and management.”

• The Winnipeg Sun reports city councillors have voted to spend $30,000 to establish an online submission system for freedom of information requests, something that could save the city $122,000 a year.

• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association will be celebrating this year’s Right to Know week by hosting a Vancouver workshop on filing freedom of information requests.

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

A TRANSITORY PROBLEM?

How many of these files will be saved and how many will be deleted? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

How many of these files will be saved and how many will be deleted? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Freedom of information should give the people the power to know what decisions their governments are making, as well as how and why those decisions are being made. But Canada’s records access laws often curtail the public’s right to those hows and whys – a restriction that has been broadened in British Columbia, thanks to the use and alleged abuse of the province’s document destruction legislation.

The absence of that access is often difficult to appreciate amidst the volume of information routinely released to the public. For example, so far this year, the federal government has published 4,447 news releases and at least 708 other records.

But that’s usually information the government has chosen to make public – stuff it wants us to know about.

By contrast, freedom of information laws should allow access to information government doesn’t want us to know about.

Yet those laws, as they’ve been written in this country, often keep government policy advice secret – with the same privilege being afforded to cabinet and caucus meeting records. It’s these records that could best help Canadians understand the decisions made by their elected representatives.

To make British Columbia’s records access law even more impotent, provincial employees also delete information they define as “transitory” but others might not.

Consider this: on Feb. 26, cabinet minister Andrew Wilkinson appeared on a radio show to respond to criticisms that government communications officers have been frustrating media access to public servants.

A day later, I filed a freedom of information request for:

Any and all records, emails and communications materials Q&As, briefing notes, etc. connected to Andrew Wilkinson’s February 26, 2015 appearance on CBC Kelowna and preparations for that appearance…

In response, I received just nine pages of information which included media clippings, a four-page issue note and an email requesting the preparation of that document.

The note also included a list of public servants from several ministries who had spoken to the reporters in the past. So right then and there, I knew Wilkinson’s staff would had to have been in communication with those ministries to assemble that list.

The issue note would also have gone through an often extensive approval process before it was finalized. Those approvals, along with the communications to other ministries, may have included information that wasn’t in the issue note, helping further explain the whys and hows of its making.

Rodney Porter, the communications director for Wilkinson’s ministry, assured me that’s not the case. But I can’t make that determination for myself because the approvals, as well as any communications with other ministries, were deleted.

“As you know yourself, there would have been back-and-forth like, ‘What are you looking for? Why are you looking for this?’ And then, at the end of the day, what we keep is the final. Everyone’s happy with it. Send it to the minister’s office and that’s what you got.”

Everything else was wiped because, according to Porter, there was “no need” for that back-and-forth to “be kept as permanent records.”

Indeed, under the Document Disposal Act, government employees are allowed to delete transitory records but the definition of what constitutes such a record can seem ambiguous.

On one hand, for example, employees are advised they can trash “drafts and revisions that are not needed to document decisions and associated approvals,” as well as “routine correspondence about drafts and decisions.”

On the other hand, they are advised they have to save “drafts or revisions with information about a decision or associated approvals that is unavailable elsewhere (e.g., directions to change a proposal and recommend a different course of action).”

They are also advised to save “useful information that helps explain the history of a relationship, decision or project” – as well as “any transitory records that are relevant to a FOIPPA request.”

However, the interpretation of that advice is left with the employees themselves, which is more than a little like letting a half-starved fox guard a henhouse of well-fed chickens – especially given last week’s passage of legislation that eliminates penalties for improperly destroying documents.

And, if Tim Duncan – a former executive assistant to the province’s transportation minister – is to be believed, the government’s political staff have been abusing that liberty.

Speaking with the Times Colonist last week, Duncan said the “big joke” around the legislature was, “Well, everything’s transitory for us. So, we keep nothing.”

Moreover, when Duncan expressed concern about such practices to a superior, he was allegedly told, “It’s like in the [TV show] West Wing. You do whatever it takes to win.”

But secrecy, as the late United States senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote, is actually for losers.

It means our governments believe their decision-making is so suspect that it can’t withstand opposition, press or public scrutiny.

That’s the way our freedom of information laws were written.

That’s the way they’ve been repeatedly abused.

And that’s why the public right’s to know continues to be more honoured in the breach than the observance.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Times Colonist’s Jack Knox asks, “How goofy has the control-freak chokehold on the flow of information become in Ottawa? So goofy that placing a simple meeting notice in a community newspaper became a months-long process requiring the stamp of approval of the prime minister’s office.”

• The Globe and Mail reports, “The Canadian government is refusing to make public the assessments it conducts to determine whether Ottawa’s $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia is compatible with foreign policy or poses a risk to the civilian population in a country notorious for human-rights abuses.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Criticism of the government’s decision to retroactively deny access to long gun registry records continues, with the Law Times calling it an “outrage” and the Chronicle-Herald describing it as an “Orwellian attempt to change history.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• According to the Canadian Press, Treasury Board President Tony Clement has dismissed those criticisms saying, “You know, now we’re getting into angels dancing on the head of a pin, which lawyers are very good at and Ms. [Suzanne] Legault is a lawyer.” Legault is Canada’s information commissioner.

• “The federal government is using students and temp workers to bolster overwhelmed access to information offices,” according to the Toronto Star.

• CBC News’s Charles Rusnell tweets the University of Alberta’s upcoming access and privacy conference has “zip for FOIP/ATIP users.”

• OHS Canada quotes Rob Creasser, spokesperson for the Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada, as saying, “We have RCMP members that, literally, are too afraid to tell the Canadian public about their workplace.” Creasser told the magazine criticizing the RCMP is a “career-ending move.”

• Commenting on the muzzling of government scientists, the Chilliwack Progress’s Margaret Evans writes, “Without sound, peer-reviewed science, evidence-based policy decisions for the benefit of Canadians can’t be made. Canadians have a right to know what that science is.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• Tim Duncan, a former executive assistant to British Columbia’s transportation minister Todd Stone, has alleged, “Abuse of the Freedom of Information process is widespread and most likely systemic within the [Christy Clark] government.” That allegation, which was included in a letter sent to the province’s information commissioner, has been covered by the Canadian Press, CKNW, the National Post, the Times Colonist and the Vancouver Sun, among other. It was also the subject of commentary by CBC News’s Jason Proctor, the Georgia Straight’s Charlie Smith, the Times Colonist’s Les Leyne and the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, as well as the North Shore News.

• According to a poll conducted by Insights West Marketing Research Inc., just 15 percent of British Columbians think the province’s governing party has done a good job handling the issue of government accountability. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)

• The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons reports the Alberta body that reviews police-involved shootings has investigated nearly a dozen deaths in five months but won’t be releasing the names of any of the victims.

• Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has told reporters she is “concerned” about that policy, having “asked officials within the public service to put together a briefing for us on the issue and bring it back to us.”

• The Edmonton Journal reports Notely has also “asked for a full review of rules that dictate how high-ranking government officials document their work, and how the resulting records are stored and accessed by regular Albertans…She started the most recent review after Alberta access-to-information and public interest commissioners launched a joint investigation into allegations of illegal shredding in the dying days of the Tory dynasty.”

• Speaking of those allegations, the Canadian Press reports Notley believes that shredding may have been justified. The wire service quotes her as saying, “It’s important to understand that there are a lot of circumstances in which shredding is entirely appropriate and, in fact, failing to shred, in and of itself, can breach the legislation.”

• The Canadian Press reports, “The Manitoba government has spent public money conducting opinion polls and focus groups on its Steady Growth, Good Jobs advertising campaign, but the results are being kept secret under the province’s freedom of information law.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Winnipeg Free Press reports Manitoba Opposition Leader Brian Pallister has “accused Premier Greg Selinger of hiding behind the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act” in refusing to disclose severance payments made to former NDP staff members.

• CBC News reports, “The Manitoba government appears to have financial forecasts that outline when the province might return to a fully balanced budget as required by provincial law, but it is not making them public.”

• Ontario’s information commissioner is calling on the provincial government to “immediately” implement the recommendation of the Open Government Engagement Team’s Open By Default report.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Freelancer Bob Mackin reports the media relations department for Vancouver’s regional transportation authority told him to file freedom of information requests to get a response to “easy-to-answer” questions about its “consultants and the values of their contracts.” Mackin also discloses records showing a communications consultant telling an authority staffer not to return his messages.

• The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy writes, “I attended last Thursday evening’s [Toronto Community Housing] building investment, finance and audit committee hoping to get a copy of TCHC’s 2014 audited financial statement.” But Levy’s hopes were dashed.

• The Winnipeg Free Press reports, “Winnipeg city hall is moving ahead with plans to establish a lobbyists registry. Council unanimously supported a plan to instruct the administration to prepare a report outlining the required legislative amendments that would need to be made to the City of Winnipeg Charter Act.”

• The Frontenac Gazette reports Frontenac County, Ont. councillors and staff seem to have a lot of questions about the province’s new public sector accountability and transparency legislation. The newspaper quotes chief administrative officer Kelly Pender as saying, “Records management is now mandatory. I’m not sure what that means but you’ll have to keep records of emails.”

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

Author’s note: Publication of this column was delayed due to illness. Its regular publication will resume next week.

COME SEE THE DICTATORSHIP INHERENT IN THE SYSTEM?

Help! Help! We're being repressed! (Photograph by Python (Monty) Pictures)

Help! Help! We’re being repressed! (Photograph by Python (Monty) Pictures)

Since coming to power, Stephen Harper’s administration has made headlines for undermining government opennesses and accountability, introducing divisive if not outright unpopular laws and ignoring or intimidating critics, including the fourth estate.

On such foundations, dictatorships are built, leading to concerns about the state of our democracy. But how much of that brickwork was actually laid by Harper and how much was there before he even became prime minister?

Two recent books on the Conservative leader appear to have somewhat different answers, with our country’s future dependant how citizens respond to that question.

In Party of One, author Michael Harris recounts a 1997 speech in which a younger Harper essentially described our system of government as a dictatorship run by the Prime Minister of Canada.

For Harris, that description was “inept,” ignoring the “opposition’s role in bringing out public information,” as well as the work of all-party committees in “holding the government to account.” Given such context, many readers might assume the speech was instead simply a foretelling of Harper’s approach to government – an approach Harris appears to frame as anomalous.

Harris didn’t respond to an email I sent requesting comment. But Mark Bourrie, the author of Kill The Messengers, confirmed he thinks the future prime minister’s description of our political system was simply truthful.

In that book*, which was released about three months after Party of One, Bourrie acknowledges the prime minister “harnessed the [political] system to suit his own agenda and personality” and has created a “new, undemocratic way of ruling Canada.”

Yet that system, as well as our society, is suited to being harnessed. After all, according to Bourrie, “Once we install a new regime, usually to punish the last bunch of rogues, most Canadians feel the country is in the hands of the winners until the next election.”

Our political system then turns that feeling into fact, with the biggest winners of them all being the country’s prime ministers who have often worked to fortify and expand their magisterial powers over both the citizenry and its representatives.

Indeed, I would go further and suggest the principal difference between Harper and many of his predecessors may be that he has simply been more likely to use the iron fist of his office and less likely to cover it with a velvet glove.

But it’s Harris’s somewhat decontextualized portrait of Harper – standing mostly alone rather than against a backdrop of societal deference and slow-drip authoritarianism – that understandably appears most often in the news.

After all, in politics as in sports, teams, players, politicians and parties are easier and more appealing to cover (and read about) than the rules of their respective games.

Think about it: just how many Canadians actually think a treatise on the perils of party discipline pairs well with their Cheerios and a cup of coffee at 7:00 in the morning?

The consequence is that citizens may believe that, if Harper is defeated, a Party of One will be replaced by a Government of the Many.

But the best we can probably hope for is a Government of the Few. And, in any case, the rules that have made it, in most cases, completely legal for Harper to do what he has done, will remain – something Canadians might not find out until his successors almost inevitably exploit them.

What’s really needed then isn’t an election but rather a national conversation about what we want from our political system rather than the politicians within it.

Otherwise, our democracy will continue to crumble and, in the process, burying what little say we will stay have in this country between elections.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• On Tuesday, information commissioner Suzanne Legault will table a special report entitled Striking the Right Balance for Transparency – Recommendations to Modernize the Access to Information Act. (hat tip: Dean Beeby and Kirsten Smith)

• Former federal government communications manager Christopher Neal writes that, when the Harper administration came to power,  “I was first baffled, then alarmed, and finally outraged at orders from ‘the centre’ (i.e., the Prime Minister’s Office, or PMO) on how to deal with media questions. Before Harper, most journalists’ queries were routinely referred to the appropriate government official, that is, someone with the expertise to address the topic raised, and an interview would be set up. This practice was outlined in the Government of Canada’s Communications Policy (effectively ignored under Harper), and was seen as a kind of self-evident obligation, consistent with life in a democratic society. This practice was now forbidden.”

• DeSmog Canada’s Carol Linnitt has obtained records showing the office of Canada’s environment minister scuttled her request for an interview with a federal government scientist. Linnitt had wanted to speak with the scientist, Philippe Thomas, about toxins in fur-bearing animals in the oilsands.

• In his submission to the standing committee on public safety and national security, freedom of information researcher Ken Rubin writes the government’s anti-terrorism bill would “extend government secrecy much further.” (hat tip: Canadian Association of Journalists Ottawa Chapter)

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that he’s finally received response from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development to an access to information request he filed on Nov. 2, 2012. “There are no full-page exemptions,” Rennie writes. “But [there are] plenty of section 19(1), 21(1)(a)(b) and 23 exemptions throughout.”

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that he filed an access to information request for briefs prepared for the prime minister about the doubling of Canada’s child fitness tax credit. Five months later, the pages he received were “all blacked out as [cabinet] confidence!”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons reports on a “surreal practice by Alberta RCMP” that “seems to have come into effect, in earnest, this January.” According to the columnist, the Mounties are withholding the names of homicide victims to protect the privacy of their families. “When or if someone is eventually charged with a crime, the name of the victim will come out in court records. But the RCMP won’t release it, without the family’s permission.”

• The Consort Enterprise’s Dave Bruha writes that recently introduced amendments to Alberta’s Municipal Government Act seem “like a huge step backwards for a government trying to promote a new era of openness and accountability. The sketchy legislation, which was quickly given first and second reading last week, will essentially allow local municipal governments to hide public business from residents.”

• In response to a freedom of information request filed by freelancer Bob Mackin, the office of British Columbia’s premier reports it has no records of who was invited to attend the province’s recent throne speech.

• British Columbia’s Private Career Training Institutions Agency had earlier refused to disclose the identity of its legal counsel and payments made to that firm in response to a freedom of information request filed by Mackin. But the province’s information commissioner has ruled against that refusal.

• CTV News reports, “Legal advocates for a group of homeless people in B.C.’s Fraser Valley say they won’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to access police documents after a court ruling.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• The Daily Gleaner is backing a call by the leader of New Brunswick’s Green Party to have the government to release the terms of reference for a reference for a commission reviewing the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in that province.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• InfoTel News’s Marshall Jones is asking Okanagan and Kamloops, B.C. readers to “be [the] eyes and ears for your communities for your communities and share what you see or hear about police activities” on two Facebook pages he’s setup. The reason: InfoTel’s police scanner doesn’t pick up the RCMP’s digital radio transmissions. And the RCMP has been unwilling to fill that information gap by giving the more more information about what they are up to. (hat tip: Deborah Jones)

• The Journal reports Queen’s University has denied access to statistics on animal testing practices at the institution, “citing the safety of its staff and researchers as a major concern.” But the student newspaper points out other universities release similar information.

• The Province reports TransLink’s media office was “unable to make someone available” for a story about the Vancouver’s regional transportation authority’s long-delayed smart cards, even though the newspaper provided a four-day window to respond to that request.

• TransLink has turned down Mackin’s request to observe its upcoming board of directors meeting. Mackin notes the authority “has a $1.4 billion-a-year budget half of which is from taxation, but its board meets behind closed doors four times a year after allowing a short time for registered members of the public to ask questions.”

• Portage la Prairie, Man.’s council has introduced a new policy that will see a communications coordinator “act as the initial point of contact when media are looking to interview an elected official.” The city’s local newspaper reports that means the media “would only be able to contact elected officials during city hall office hours. Prior to this policy the media was unrestricted in its access to the mayor and council.”

• Journalist Trudy Beyak writes that British Columbia Mayor Henry Braun is setting a “dangerous precedent” by directing “the public to his private email on his Facebook page where he posts as a politician promoting the City of Abbotsford.”

• SooToday.com reports Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.’s search of a new chief administrative officer “began in blazing openness, but has now retreated squarely behind closed doors.”

• The Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan takes a dim view of a city council motion “that could cut the number of accountability officers in half – combining the auditor-general and Ombudsman into one job, and the Integrity Commissioner and lobbyist registrar into another.”

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

* = Disclosure: I provided Bourrie access to an online copy of my documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline, which is mentioned in his book. My name is also mentioned in the acknowledgements section of Kill the Messengers.

PRIVATE INTERESTS SEEK PUBLIC RECORDS

 

Guess who is filing more access requests than the media. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Guess who is filing more access requests than the media. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

FOI FOR ALL? Journalists may make the biggest headlines for using Canada’s access law. But, as is the case in the United States, federal government estimates suggest most of information requests don’t come from those reporters – potentially compromising our right to know.

Between fiscal 1997/98 and 2013/14, the number of requests received by the Canadian government went from 12,206 in fiscal 1997/98 to 59,947 in 2013/14 – a 391.1 percent increase.

But the media’s share of those requests has remained relatively the same.

On average, during that period, 42.2 percent of requests came from business, 11.9 percent came from the media, 8.8 percent came from organizations and 1.3 percent came from academia.

By comparison, in  2013/14, 38.6 percent came from business, 12.3 percent came the media, 4.8 percent came from organizations and 3.2 percent came from academia.

The American government doesn’t compile similar estimates.

But, in that country, a Coalition of Journalists for Open Government analysis of requests filed with 11 cabinet-level departments and six large agencies in Sept. 2005 found that media accounted for just six percent of the total.

At the time, the coalition suggested that was because “many reporters say it takes too longer to get information through FOIA to make it a meaningful tool for news gathering.”

In a recent feature published during Sunshine Week, McClatchy reporters Kevin G. Hall and Kevin Johnson warned a comparative lack of media requests means “information obtained under FOIA may reach the public in a raw, less contextual form…Or it may not reach the public at all, remaining in the hands of the private interests that sought it out.”

And, in Canada, pretty much the same thing can happen – unless our struggling media uses the government’s list of completed access requests to obtain their own copy.

FEELING USED The frustration of dealing with government communications staff has pushed one Vernon, B.C. reporter over the edge…into editorial commentary.

Earlier, I wrote an open letter about how the non-answers those staff give reporters is actually a refusal to “provide the public with information. And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.”

That letter was shared on social media by journalists across the country and resulted in coverage of the issue by CBC Vancouver, CBC Kelowna and, most recently, Halifax’s News 95.7.

Now, in a column entitled “Why I didn’t go to your government press event,” InfoTel News’s Charlotte Helston writes that its communications officials are not quoted in her stories because:

Either they didn’t call me back by deadline, they didn’t call at all, or they sent me a useless email statement that avoided every single one of my questions. I get better and more direct and courteous responses from organizations that don’t pay a designated entity to be available for media calls and to facilitate interviews (i.e. a communications officer).

The one exception to that rule is “when a press event is happening.” But Helston states, “Feeding government PR to the public is not what I signed on for. My job is to ask the tough questions about subjects you don’t buy cake and balloons for.”

The Vernon reporter didn’t respond to an interview request by deadline.

LATER BUT NOT NEVER Earlier, I reported on how British Columbia reporters didn’t pay much attention to a BC NDP proposal to fix the government’s broken freedom of information law – even though it would be in their self-interest to do so.

But Kamloops This Week’s Dale Bass and 24 hours Vancouver both picked up that story a few days later, with Bass cataloguing several reasons why the long shot legislation should be passed.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• “Treasury Board guidelines give bureaucrats free rein to wipe any non-work-related instant messages from their government-issued mobile devices,” the Canadian Press reports. “They are supposed to hold on to texts or PINs that mention government business for record-keeping purposes.” But, according to records obtained via an access to information requests, newer generation BlackBerry devices don’t allow users to forward PIN-to-PIN messages to email accounts for later archiving, leading to suggestions to abandon the use of that communication method altogether.

• A spokeswoman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement has told the Toronto Star that the minister “believes the Canada Revenue Agency should not have deleted any instant messages if they were related to government business.”

• University of Winnipeg criminal justice professor Kevin Walby is in the middle of finalizing an edited volume entitled Access to Information and Social Justice in Canada. Walby, who worked on the volume with Jamie Brownlee, expects it will be published by ARP Books at the end of October.

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets a photograph of the Bank of Canada’s recent communications guide which advises new directors to “be transparent – up to a point.”

• CBC News reports consumer advocate Gábor Lukács has launched a constitutional challenge against the Canadian Transportation Agency, claiming that the regulator’s “failure to disclose evidence received while reviewing passenger complaints is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ open court principle.”

• The Politics of Evidence Working Group has launched a campaign that provides Canadians with letters asking “federal scientists and Ministers about the results of the government’s environmental monitoring and scientific research programs.” The group aims to send out over 1,000 letters by March 27.

• On March 25, Toronto-based think tank Samara will release a “report card that grades key areas of Canada’s democracy.” That report card will include public opinion data that “captures citizens’ perceptions of politics, as well as their political knowledge and behaviour.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• According to the Montreal Gazette, the Quebec government has released a 191-page discussion document that could lead to a potential reform of the province’s freedom of information system. That system is “known for being slow, secretive and over-protective of government.”

• “The commission of inquiry into Quebec’s construction industry received precise allegations of illicit political donations to former premier Pauline Marois’s husband,” reports the Globe and Mail. However, it “never brought them to the public’s attention, according to newly released documents.” (hat tip: Bruce Gillespie)

• CBC News reports the Newfoundland and Labrador government plans to pass new access to information legislation by June 1. That legislation will implement “90 recommendations contained in a comprehensive report presented earlier this month by an independent review committee.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Vancouver Sun reports the “issue of using personal emails for government business” hasn’t just be controversial for presumed Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton. It’s also “proven problematic for some B.C. MLAs, cabinet ministers and staff in Premier Christy Clark’s office.”

• The Toronto Sun reports it has obtained records showing Pan Am Games officials were “expecting some difficult questions” on the “lavish spending” revealed in “5,000 pages of expense documents” that were released to the media.

OpenNWT founder David Wasyclw writes that the Northwest Territories government “can, and should, take immediate action” on a proposal to create a lobbyist registry.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “The City of Hamilton is refusing to release the surveillance video that shows Councillor Lloyd Ferguson shoving independent journalist Joey Coleman to CHCH news.” The station “requested a copy of the tape under the Freedom of Information Act. Officials cite the ongoing police investigation as the reason for refusing to release the tape.”

• CFAX 1070’s Ian Jessop reports that, earlier this year, he sent in “sent in a number of freedom of information requests to the Municipality of Saanich regarding the spyware put on Richard Atwell’s computer the day after he was sworn-in as mayor.” That spyware monitored keystrokes and captured what was on Atwell’s screen. But the British Columbia municipality has claimed it has no documentation responsive to those requests. (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

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

WHEN JOURNALISTS GET MAD

Are Canadian journalists having a Howard Beale moment? (Photograph by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Are Canadian journalists having a Howard Beale moment? (Photograph by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

“I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

That was how some journalists seemed to respond last week to an open letter I wrote about how government communications staff are helping to kill democracy.

But, if we want to save it, we’re going to need to do more than just throw open our windows, stick our heads out and yell about the non-answers we often get from those spin doctors.

In that letter, which was published in J-Source, The Tyee, DeSmog Canada and the Yukon News, I wrote about how those non-answers are actually a refusal to “provide the public with information. And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.”

Those words were shared on Facebook and retweeted hundreds of times, with one reporter in the Yukon stating, “I think it’s fair to say the frustration levels of journalists in this country are rising.”

That frustration has been well-earned.

Compared to the United States, Canadian governments release fewer public records that reporters can use to find stories that don’t come from a news release or news event.

Our governments also confound access to the records they don’t release by having weak freedom of information laws.

And many public bodies have policies that restrict or prohibit their employees from speaking with reporters.

That means communications departments (the spin factories and propaganda shops of government) can be one of the only sources journalists have for timely information.

Opacity is winning the war against transparency. And if Canadian journalists want to turn the tide, they must do more in the fight against that secrecy – something some American news outlets expressly allow their reporters to do.

For example, in a recent statement to Politico, a New York Times spokesperson stated the newspaper is “not neutral on the issue of press freedom. We have vigorously opposed actions that inhibit legitimate reporting.”

Meanwhile, National Public Radio’s ethics handbook, which prohibits political activities, makes an exception for “issues directly related to our journalistic mission (e.g. First Amendment rights, the Freedom of Information Act, a federal ‘shield law’).”*

Here in Canada, I simply recommended in my open letter that journalists should let our audiences know when spin doctors don’t respond to our questions, provide non-answers or interfere with attempts to interview public officials.

Perhaps journalists should even include that protocol in the emails we send to government spokespeople, letting them know that we also won’t be using their non-answers for the sake of false balance?

In some way ways, that would be similar to David Carr‘s approach to reporting. Speaking to National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, the late New York Times media critic explained:

If it’s going to be a hard story, one of the things I always say is, ‘This is going to be a really serious story and I’m asking very serious questions and it behoves you to think it through and really work on answering and defending yourself…And if they don’t engage, I just tell them, ‘Well you know what, you better put the nut cup on because this isn’t going to be pleasant for anyone.’

If we did the same thing with government communications staff and their tactics, they won’t surprised when a reporter such as the Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick thinks about writing a sentence such as this: “A [Canadian Border Services Agency] spokesperson repeatedly ignored questions and read unrelated bullet points written by an anonymous spin doctor.”

And that way, maybe we won’t hear those unrelated bullet points at all.

Postscript: Last week, CBC Daybreak South succeeded in getting Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for British Columbia’s spin doctors, to address complaints about the state of government communications (including my open letter).

Provincial flacks “initially declined” to respond to those complaints. But Wilkinson made an appearance on Daybreak South after the program tried contacting “each and every MLA” in its listening area about that issue.

You can listen to the interview for yourself on Soundcloud. But suffice it say Wilkinson, somewhat appropriately, appeared to have his own talking points for that conversation. So, just as appropriately, I’ve filed freedom of information requests to obtain them.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Canadian Press reports a new government policy requires all possible breaches of cabinet confidentiality – “however slight” – to be “immediately reported to the Prime Minister’s Office or officials in the Privy Council Office, the government’s bureaucratic nerve centre.”

• In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette said he wants a “coercive baseball bat” that will force government departments to provide him with economic and legislative data “on a timely and free basis.”

• CBC News reports, “A former top adviser to then-Employment Minister Jason Kenney has had his knuckles rapped by the federal ethics watchdog for accepting gala tickets from companies and interest groups registered to lobby his own department.” During that investigation, Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson also found the adviser, Michael Bonner, “could not provide me with any emails related to my examination because he had deleted them, as his usual practice was to delete emails every two weeks. He added that deleted emails of ministerial staff remain on the server for about four weeks, but are then lost forever as they are not ‘archived.'” (hat tip: Mike de Souza)

• Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaign Keith Stewart has two suggestions for the bureaucrats running the system that allows Canadians to file access to information requests online. First: “Why not let us set up accounts so we don’t have to re-enter all my deets each time?” Second: “It’d be awesome if the receipt for the $5 fee included the text of our ATIP request.”

• The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin writes that even though Stephen Harper “may well hold some sort of record for prime ministerial secrecy and attempts to stifle access,” many of his predecessors have also “held the fourth estate in low regard.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Harper isn’t known for “being terribly accessible to journalists,” reports the Huffington Post. Nevertheless, he sat down for an interview with Costco Connection, the “lifestyle magazine for Costco members” – something that “raised some eyebrows on Twitter.”

• Vice Canada reports the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has denied an access request for the amount of money it paid to cellphone and Internet providers to informally obtain customers’ personal information. Such informal requests were deemed unconstitutional following a June 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling. (hat tip: CJ Ciaramella)

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that a recent access to information requests yielded 15 pages from the Privy Council Office. But the only page that wasn’t exempted was the one with the Government of Canada’s logo.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Toronto Star reports Ontario still lacks a “standard notification system” to alert journalists when court-ordered publication bans are being considered.

• The Vancouver Sun reports, “Poultry marketing boards are refusing to release biosecurity audits of farms after the avian flu outbreak in the Fraser Valley citing, in part, the potential for farmers to be targeted by animal rights activists.”

• The BC NDP has introduced a Whistleblowers Protection Act that would safeguard “people reporting government mismanagement, negligence or wrong-doing. It also calls for more routine public disclosure of government operations.” As an opposition private member’s bill, the Act has almost no chance of passing the province’s legislature.

• CBC News reports New Brunswick’s access commissioner Anne Bertrand has launched one of two investigations into “controversial trips to Larry’s Gulch, the government-owned fishing lodge…The controversy started when a newspaper editor accepted a free trip to Larry’s Gulch in 2013 with Daniel Allain, the chief executive officer of NB Liquor.” Bertrand is looking into whether documents related to that trip were “deliberately altered before being released.”

• “Ontario’s independent budget watchdog is finally being unleashed – 21 months after the New Democrats forced the Liberals to create the post,” according to the Toronto Star.

• In response to a freedom of information request by freelancer Bob Mackin, the British Columbia government writes there were no briefing notes or issue notes prepared for the province’s transportation minister when he announced the delay of a major transit project.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• The City of Winnipeg’s administration is refusing to “make public any of the reports” that justify the need to “expropriate 20 acres of land it sold to a developer four years ago,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press.

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

* = I am indebted to an article by The Atlantic’s David Graham which cites NPR’s impartiality policy, as well as the New York Times spokesperson’s quote. All the credit for finding that article goes to my department’s librarian Margy MacMillan.

THE TYRANNY OF THE TALKING POINT

Government spin doctors control what information government does and doesn't release. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Spin doctors control what information government does and doesn’t release. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Dear government spin doctor

I am working on a story about how the job you’re doing is helping to kill Canada’s democracy.

I know that your role, as a so-called communications professional, is to put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

That means you often don’t respond the questions I ask, you help elected officials do the same thing and you won’t let me talk to those who actually have the answers.

While this may work out very well for you, it doesn’t work out so well for my audience who, by the way, are taxpayers, voters and citizens.

So your refusal to provide me with information is actually a refusal to provide the public with information.

And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.

That just doesn’t seem very democratic to me. Does it seem democratic to you?

I understand you’re just doing your job.

I did that job before myself before I became a journalist, working as a communications officer for the British Columbia government.

So I don’t think you’re a bad person.

But you should know a few things about me.

My job isn’t to help you put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

My job is to tell the truth.

And, because that’s my job, you should know a few other things about how I’m going to report this story.

First, if you don’t respond to my questions, I’m going to let my audience know that.

Second, if you respond to my questions with non-answers, I’m going to let my audience know that too.

Third, I’m not going to put those non-answers in my story for the sake of false balance.

That’s because me asking questions about what the government is doing wrong isn’t an opportunity for you to simply tell the public about what government is doing right.

You have a big advertising budget for that.

Instead, it’s an opportunity to explain to the public why the government is or isn’t doing that thing I asked you about.

And, finally, if you refuse, ignore or interfere with my requests to interview public officials, my audience will also find out about that.

This may sound like hardball at best and blackmail at worst. But it’s actually the last and only defense I have against you and your colleagues.

Public relations professionals outnumber journalists more than four to one in this country – and for good reason.

It pays to promote and protect the powerful but it doesn’t pay to hold them to account.

My hope is that more journalists will also start routinely telling their audiences about the strategies and tactics you use to frustrate the public’s right to know.

If that happens then the public might start caring about the damage that’s doing to our democracy.

And, maybe, just maybe you might start rethinking what you are doing.

After all, there was a time when journalists could actually talk to public officials without having someone like you always watching over their shoulder and telling them exactly what to say.

I know it’s a long shot.

But it’s the only shot I can take against the tyranny of your talking points.

Sincerely,

Sean Holman, Journalist

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Maclean’s magazine reports the Department of National Defence is withholding information from the Parliamentary Budget Officer about Operation IMPAC – Canada’s mission in Iraq – on the grounds of cabinet confidentiality. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The National Post reports a Federal Court judge has ruled “media fighting for access to Omar Khadr have failed to show a prison-interview ban was politically motivated and violated their constitutional rights.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• CBC News reports, “Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has personally ordered that documents from all general freedom of information requests be publicly posted, despite serious concerns from the civil servants responsible for implementing the new policy. Critics say the plan – if implemented – represents a major policy change that will seriously undermine the ability of opposition parties and the media to hold the government accountable.”

• “The province is not tracking how many inmates are overdosing in jails across Ontario,” according to the Hamilton Spectator.

• The Vancouver Sun reports, “Soon-to-be mandatory ‘independent’ review boards for tailings dams at B.C. mines may not be answerable to government or open to scrutiny by the public.” The boards were recommended by a government-appointed panel that was struck following the breach of a tailings pond at the Mount Polley Mine.

• The Telegram hopes a committee reviewing Newfoundland and Labrador’s controversial right to know law will recommend a “much needed laissez-faire approach to the release of information.” That committee, led by former premier Clyde Wells, “has missed a couple of promised deadlines. At last check, it was supposed to release its report by the end of January.”

• Kinder Morgan Inc., the company that is looking to expand a pipeline that carries crude oil to the West coast, “has engaged in a protracted fight with the province of British Columbia in an effort to keep its oil spill response plans a secret.” But, according to DeSmog Canada, Kinder Morgan has “willingly disclosed” such plans “south of the border for portions of the pipeline that extend to Washington State.”

• The Globe and Mail reports, “B.C.’s Ministry of Health is withholding the results of scientific research on how oil and gas operations in the province’s northeast communities are affecting human health.” Independent MLA Vicki Huntington’s freedom of information request for that research was denied because its release could be harmful to the financial interests of a public body.

• CBC News reports Saskatchewan’s information commissioner has ruled a 15-page proposal to create a premier’s library in that province can stay secret because it would disclose a cabinet confidence.

• Saksatchewan NDP MLA Warren McCall has told the Regina Leader-Post that the creation of lobbyists registry in that province as proceeding “slower than molasses, uphill, in February.”

• Manitoba’s “Opposition Progressive Conservatives say they’re getting the runaround in finding how much taxpayers have paid to put up at-risk youth in hotels,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News reports DemocracyWatch founder Duff Conacher’s concerns that “New Brunswick’s right to information law is weak and the fines for breaking the laws are so low, they are meaningless”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Winnipeg’s interim chief administrative officer has resigned after the mayor claimed he had lost confidence in the bureaucrat. But, according to the Winnipeg Free Press’s Dan Lett, no further details have been provided because the resignation is a personnel matter – a “trump card” that is “played way too often in situations in which government doesn’t want people to know what happened.”

• 24 hours Vancouver’s Kathyrn Marshall writes that White Rock, B.C.’s city council has “voted to scrap question period. Just like that, White Rock has obliterated a hallmark of liberal democracy. White Rock residents will no longer have the opportunity to pose public questions to their elected representatives following council meetings.”

• In October, TransLink – Vancouver’s regional transportation authority – began “re-examining current [freedom of information] practices and exploring options for easing the burden on staff.” That review, which was expected to take three months, was announced in a memo signed by the authority’s then-chief executive officer Ian Jarvis and obtained by freelance journalist Bob Mackin.

• The Vancouver Courier reports, “When the provincial government set the rules for the non-binding plebiscite on a sales tax hike for TransLink expansion, it didn’t include any campaign fundraising or reporting regulations.”

• “Toronto police met the mandated [freedom of information] response deadline of 30 days in 52 per cent of requests last year,” according to the Toronto Star. “That’s nearly a 30 per cent drop from 2005 – when 80 per cent of FOI requests were completed within the 30-day timeframe – and down almost 15 per cent from 2013, which saw a compliance rate of 65 per cent.”

• Alberta’s information commissioner has ruled Cold Lake, Alta. was right to release records that disclosed unit prices and hourly wage rates for the companies responsible for a highway twinning project. According to the Cold Lake Sun, a third party had argued that disclosure was harmful to business interests.