By Sean Holman
SIGN, SIGN, EVERYWHERE A SIGN?
There could be something happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear.
That’s what I’m thinking after the publication of yet another column excoriating the obstructionism of government communications officials.
Including my own open letter addressed to those officials, it’s the third such column written this year, winning plaudits from fellow reporters.
So to put all that activity in perspective, I’ve Storified those columns and some of the reaction to them—a collection that suggests Canadian spin doctors may be finally pushing their information control efforts too far.
You can check it out here.
ACCESS COMMITTEE PROCRASTINATES ON STUDYING REFORM
The House of Commons committee responsible for Canada’s records access law won’t be studying recommendations to fix that legislation before the upcoming election.
Information commissioner Suzanne Legault made those recommendations in a report released at the end of March.
Earlier this month, NDP MP Charlie Angus, a committee member, proposed inviting Legault to “inform us on what she found in her report and her recommendations.”
Speaking in support of that proposal, fellow NDP MP Charmaine Borg stated, “I think it is important that we have the opportunity to ask questions about these recommendations to determine what we, as parliamentarians, can do. I think it would be good to leave a legacy for the next Parliament.”
But the committee—which has a Conservative majority—unsurprisingly voted down the motion, cutting off an opportunity to discuss how secretive the Canadian government has become.
NEWSPAPER DOESN’T FOLLOW PAPER TRAIL RECOMMENDATION
Last month, the Globe and Mail joined with the Toronto Star in endorsing Legault’s report. But it’s worth remembering the newspaper’s editorial board also been somewhat equivocal in its support for one of the principle reforms in that report.
Legault has recommended new rules that would force federal officials to document their decision-making. After all, if that doesn’t happen, there will be no records for the public to request under the Access to Information Act.
Yet, when a similar recommendation was made by information commissioners in British Columbia and Ontario, the Globe and Mail wrote, “While officials should certainly create written records of actual decisions, cabinet ministers and their closest advisers should be free to talk about the reasons for a decision without making a paper or electronic memorandum. Their motives and purposes are best scrutinized in parliamentary debate, question periods and legislative committees.”
In other words, the paper seems to believe the public doesn’t need to know exactly how and why government decisions are made, so long as they can ask questions about that process—which, by the way, the government routinely refuses to answer. And whatever could be wrong with that?
Of course, the Globe and Mail isn’t alone in its equivocal support for freedom of information. As I’ve written before, the Canadian news media have sometimes appeared to be inconstant allies of this cause.
Indeed, in the 1979 book Administrative Secrecy in Developed Countries, Carleton University political science professor Donald C. Rowat offered this explanation as to why that might be:
To reporters and the news media, the lack of a general right of access to administrative documents is not directly apparent as a serious problem because their concern is with immediate news of a policy nature, and because of the huge flow of publications and information released by the federal and provincial government…
Moreover, ministers issue many news releases and may hold press conferences. They or senior officials are often willing to grant interviews in which they give background information and views which are not for quotation or attribution. All this creates the impression that there is a free flow of administrative information. Reporters tend to forget that they do not have access to the original information and documents, and that the Government releases to them only what it chooses to release.
But I wonder whether increased obfuscation by the government public relations professionals who prepare those releases are now reminding reporters about that lack of access?
FOI NEWS: FEDERAL
• Information commissioner Suzanne Legault said last week the government is setting a “perilous precedent” by retroactively changing the law to deny access to long gun registry records. On Apr. 5, 2012, government legislation ordering the destruction of those records came into force. But, before that happened, someone filed an access request for them. That meant those records couldn’t legally be destroyed until after the request was completed—something Legault reminded the government of. But the RCMP went ahead and deleted much of the electronic information it had, subsequently providing the requester with partial access to that data. A complaint was filed and the commissioner advised government charges could be laid against the RCMP under the Access to Information Act—something the government’s legal change would rule out.
• If you need a primer on that controversial change, the Canadian Press’s Bruce Cheadle has assembled a timeline of all the key dates leading up to it. Cheadle also had the story about the reason for that change before anyone else did.
• The National Post, the Montreal Gazette and the Telegram have all written editorials condemning the government’s plan to retroactively deny access to long gun registry records. And the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has penned a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper conveying the same message.
• The Toronto Star reports that, since the Conservatives took office, eight government watchdogs and three senior bureaucrats have been “stifled or impugned” as a result of being forthright. The most recent addition to that list is outspoken correctional investigator of Canada Howard Sapers. (hat tip: Murray Langdon)
• The National Post paraphrases former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh as saying there is still time to “reinstate the long form census for 2016—but that decision must be made by June, ahead of the federal election in the fall. Otherwise we lose two censuses in a row, with consequently greater harm to Canada’s statistical foundations.”
• Commenting on the government’s apparent lack of interest in evidence-based decision-making, Scientists for the Right to Know president Margrit Eichler writes, “It seems that our government likes to fly blind. The problem is, we are all sitting in the same plane. Once instruments have been as thoroughly destroyed as they have been by this government, it is not a simple matter to re-install them. And the crash will affect us all.”
• The Toronto Star’s public editor Kathy English praises the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s sixth annual report, writing that it is “packed full of such eloquent, thoughtful articles and essays that speak loudly and clearly to the many threats to freedom of expression and the right to information—and why we should care.”
• Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has posted the top takeaways and talking points from its full-day conference on the problems plaguing our access to information system.
• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association had its annual general meeting last week. The meeting featured a talk by civil libertarian Carmen Cheung on the federal government’s anti-terrorism legislation.
FOI NEWS: PROVINCIAL
• Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark thinks the province’s freedom of information law is in need of reform. He tells the Calgary Herald, “Provisions intended to provide a shield to protect people’s privacy, are being used as a sword by governments and powerful individuals to prevent the release of information to which Albertans are entitled.” Clark was reacting to news that “the expenses of a former chief executive of the Calgary Health Region remain shrouded in secrecy nearly three years after media outlets and opposition parties requested their release.”
• CBC News reports Alberta’s information commissioner and public interest commissioner have announced a joint investigation into the allegedly improper destruction of documents by the province’s outgoing Progressive Conservative government. Following that announcement, at the request of premier-designate Rachel Notley, the deputy minister of executive council ordered Alberta’s ministries to stop any shredding. (hat tip: Keith Stewart)
• The Calgary Herald writes that Alberta’s new government should act on provincial information commissioner Jill Clayton’s recommendation to put in place a law that “compels public bodies to ‘document their decisions, actions, advice, recommendations and deliberations’ and ‘ensure that all records are covered in records retention and disposition schedules.’ If her advice is heeded, it will be much less likely that public records are imperilled as politicians change seats and the reins of power are handed over to a new crew.”
• The Vancouver Courier’s Geoff Olson writes that “journalists, activists and engaged citizens” still have no way to access the 33,000 boxes of British Columbia historic government documents that, until recently, were simply being stored in four warehouses. "This has been more than a major case of Vaulzheimer’s,” states Olson. “It’s been classification by default. In July, B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham expressed shock that the situation had gone on unaddressed for 10 years.”
• The Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer reports that BC NDP MLA Adrian Dix questioned why government lawyers said last year that records related to controversial firings at the province’s health ministry couldn’t be released because the matter was under police investigation. The reason: in early 2015, the government advised the wrongly-dismissed employees that the ministry wasn’t seeking such an investigation and “leaving the impression that the matter had been dropped some time earlier.” (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)
• The Toronto Star reports that Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services spent three years fighting the release of information about when DNA was collected and tested in connection with the sexual assaults and killings committed by air force colonel Russell Williams. Those dates raise questions about whether faster testing could have saved the life of one of Williams’s victims.
• A CBC-Michener-Deacon investigation has revealed De Beers Canada paid just $226 in royalties on diamonds mined from the province’s only diamond mine. But that royalty information has previously been a "closely guarded secret" – something that has "baffled many experts consulted by the CBC, including accountants, and auditors." (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Winnipeg Free Press reports that when it asked for details of a new five-year contract between Manitoba’s chiropractors and the provincial Health Department, “a cabinet spokeswoman advised a reporter to file a freedom-of-information request. When the newspaper did, Manitoba Health refused to release any details of the contract. The Free Press then filed a complaint with the provincial ombudsman. A few days ago, with the ombudsman’s help, the government released many of the contract details. Missing, however, was any financial information, including the government’s per-visit contribution this year and in subsequent years.”
• The New Brunswick government will “soon post nursing home and special care home inspections online” after a “lengthy push by the Telegraph-Journal to see the documents.”
FOI NEWS: LOCAL
• “One of the secret documents related to Markham’s failed NHL arena project has been made public,” reports the Toronto Star. “But it doesn’t show much, and a dozen other documents still remain secret.”
• The Penticton Herald reports Competition Bureau officials have denied the paper’s access to information request “seeking copies of complaints and reports from investigations into alleged [gas] price-fixing in the region over the past four years. What came back was a document that appears to show the existence of 75 pages, each of which was withheld under the Competition Act.”
• The Toronto Star reports the video footage captured by Toronto Police Service body cameras “will be subject to Freedom of Information legislation, meaning citizens can make a request to access a copy.” (hat tip: Allan Pollock)
• Vaughan, Ont. Mayor Maurizo Bevilacqua is “pushing ahead with his pledge to regulate lobbyists at city hall,” according to the city’s local newspaper. “But it appears he might face opposition from some of his council colleagues.”
• The Chronicle-Guide reports, “Documents related to the Town of Arnprior’s computer system may not have to be released to a private citizen after all. An Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of Ontario adjudicator has accepted a town request to reconsider the order.” Earlier, the newspaper reported the Ontario town has been withholding those documents for about 10 years.
• The News reports Maple Ridge, B.C.’s citizen’s representative committee is holding two public input nights where participants will be asked two questions. Is the information that is currently available easy to find and easy to understand—in other words, is it useful? And is there any information that is currently not available that should be?
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.
Photo by Jon S, via Flickr.