By Sean Holman
Last week, much ink continued to be spilled about the Harper administration’s plan to retroactively deny access to long gun registry records and its muzzling of federal scientists. But those were just two of many freedom of information stories that made headlines and twitter posts in Canada.
FOI NEWS: FEDERAL
• In response to federal government legislation that would retroactively deny access to long gun registry records, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has released a satirical Back to the Future movie poster criticizing Stephen Harper for creating the “greatest Parliamentary time machine ever built.” The RCMP had earlier deleted many of those records, despite a pending request for them. The government’s proposed law would make that deletion legal.
• The Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey takes a similar sarcastic approaching in commenting on the proposal.
• Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Free Press writes, “As usual, the Tories will be counting on their belief Canadians are more interested in pocket-book issues than matters of democracy and due process.”
• And, for its part, the Toronto Star states, “The Conservatives have just declared open season on rewriting history, by saying ‘Presto! Your right to lawful access never really existed!’ That can only embolden future governments to retroactively rewrite laws to erase their own wrongdoing. Playing by the new Tory rules the Liberals could have absolved themselves of wrongdoing in the sponsorship scandal. Or a government could absolve itself of electoral fraud.”
• However, according to the Canadian Press, legal and parliamentary experts say there’s “nothing to stop the Harper government” from doing such rewriting – even as Ontario Provincial Police investigate the RCMP’s deletion of long gun registry records. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)
• The Rebel’s Brian Lilley criticizes the media’s “selected outrage” over the government’s move to amend its records access law. Liley notes such outrage wasn’t present when the CBC was “flouting” that legislation nor when the Ontario government exempted information about abortion from being requested in that province.
• Recently retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist Steve Campana has told CBC News the “muzzling of federal government scientists is worse than anyone can imagine.” According to Campana, “We have very strict directives of what we can say and the approval steps we have to go through, and very often that approval seems to be withheld for totally arbitrary reasons.”
• Canada’s three largest unions organized demonstrations last week protesting the muzzling of government scientists. Evidence for Democracy has put together a roundup of the resulting coverage and commentary. The unions are also looking to add language their collective agreements that would allow those scientists to publicly discuss their findings.
• “Stephen Harper skipped out on answering opposition questions in the House of Commons more often in 2015 than in any other year he has been prime minister,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. “Harper has attended only 35 per cent of the daily question periods in 2015, his lowest rate for any year since 2006, a Citizen analysis found.”
• “Canada Post is refusing to disclose any information related to complaints about mail delivery last year or the end of door-to-door home delivery,” according to the Toronto Star.
• The Globe and Mail reports that, even though many diplomatic missions produce annual reports evaluating the state of human rights for most countries, no such records appear to exist for the Saudi Arabia. That omission is notable because Canada recently signed a $15-billion arms deal with the Middle Eastern country. (hat tip: Dean Beeby)
• “The federal Public Works department kept documents secret about an Ottawa building where concerns have been raised about employees being exposed to asbestos,” reports the Ottawa Citizen’s Jordan Press. Press later added on Twitter that the department “took issue” with that story.
• Suspended Senator Mike Duffy’s defence lawyers, Donald Bayne and Peter Doody, “want a copy of an internal report from 2013 on the Senate’s rules for figuring out whether senators actually live in the provinces they represent. They also want minutes from a closed-door meeting discussing what it found,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. But the “Senate is refusing to honour a subpoena asking for all that stuff” because, according to a court filing, it would imperil the institutions’s “freedom of speech, exclusive cognizance and control over debates and proceedings, control by the Houses of Parliament over their internal affairs, and disciplinary authority over its members.”
• The Ryerson Journalism Research Centre recaps some of the discussions that took place at the recent Flying Blind conference in Toronto, which examined the increasing lack of transparency in Canada.
FOI NEWS: PROVINCIAL
• CBC News asked the Yukon government for a “list of people, job titles and salaries, where salaries were more than $100,000”—information that is routinely released in many other Canadian jurisdictions. But, according to the broadcaster, “the Public Service Commission would not release specific salaries, names or even titles with specific salaries.” The president of the union representing those employees says such as sunshine list would be a “complete invasion of privacy,” while the province’s acting deputy minister of finance says it could pose a “real security risk” to civil servants. (hat tip: John Thompson)
• The Times Colonist’s Les Leyne reports that, thanks to a six-month backlog of complaints waiting to be investigated, British Columbia’s information commissioner will be exercising her legal discretion to turn down cases. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)
• The Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia is expressing concern about recent amendments to Nova Scotia’s Fisheries and Coastal Resources Act. The amendments make “information on the health of farmed fish even less available by exempting veterinary records from the ambit of Nova Scotia’s access to information laws.”
• “Premier Kathleen Wynne insists she and her aides are not trying to suppress a controversial new behind-the-scenes documentary about her,” reports the Toronto Star. “As first disclosed by the Star, TVOntario has cancelled plans to broadcast Premier: The Unscripted Kathleen Wynne after the film’s director quit in protest.”
*• The Calgary Herald criticizes the Alberta government for taking almost three years (and counting) to release the expenses of Calgary Health Region chief executive Jack Davis.
• The Telegraph-Journal reports New Brunswick’s education and early childhood development departments “won’t disclose any details about a daycare that had a worker on staff last year who failed a criminal and social background check” for legal and privacy reasons.
• Commenting on the alleged improper shredding of documents by Alberta government ministries, the Mountaineer’s Bernadine Visotto writes that such actions reflect the outgoing Tory government’s “way of doing things.”
FOI NEWS: LOCAL
• Sudbury, Ont.’s Bob Daigle has “scored a major victory in a long-standing battle with city hall.” The Sudbury Star reports the province’s division court has ruled in favour of his five-year-old request for the “salaries, leaves of absence, severance, vacation, pension benefits and other benefits” of senior city employees.
• Brampton, Ont. councillors “voted unanimously on a motion Wednesday to have all closed municipal meetings electronically recorded and kept on file,” reports the Brampton Guardian.
• Grey County, Ont. is “joining many of its major municipal peers across the country by creating opportunities for anyone to dive into government-created data through an Open Data portal,” reports the Meaford Express.
Sean Holman writes The Unknowable Country column, which looks at politics, democracy and journalism. He is a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, an award-winning investigative reporter and director of the documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline. Have a news tip about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email him at this address.