Too often, in too many different contexts and for utterly indefensible reasons, the position of official Canada is that Canadians are delicate children who can’t be trusted with information of clear public interest.
The spectre of Beijing meddling in our elections – and the prim scolding aimed at those impertinent enough to raise serious questions about the issue – is only the latest and perhaps the weightiest example.
More than a culture of secrecy, myriad Canadian bureaucracies seem to have willingly pledged allegiance to a cult of confidentiality. Citizens, and the media who ask questions on their behalf, are often deprived of basic public information that people in other jurisdictions simply expect to get as a matter of course – and have every right to.
The immediate result of this is to deny Canadians information to which they’re entitled. But the deeper effect is to cultivate a sense of scarcity and paternalism, as though anything more is an unreasonable expectation and people should be grateful for whatever crumbs they can pry out of the tightly clutched fists of the bureaucracy.
Enough with treating Canadians like children. The public should not have to approach their governments, their police agencies or any other public institutions with their hands cupped beseechingly like Oliver Twist, begging for more of the public information that rightfully belongs to them in the first place.
Most recently, in response to the swirl of reporting on Chinese interference in the last two federal elections, Canadians have been treated to a mind-boggling array of deflections and tsk-tsking.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested that questioning details was effectively “anti-Asian racism.” He split hairs on semantic points rather than engaging with the substance of the issue, and even nodded at the idea that we have nothing to fear but questions themselves. “When we lean in on partisanship around this,” he said, “we’re actually helping them in doing their work of sowing confusion and mistrust.”
In a committee examining the issue, Liberal MP Greg Fergus asked the deputy minister of foreign affairs whether the news coverage itself posed a threat. “Is it possible that unconfirmed and unverified leaks could be in themselves a form of foreign interference?”
These are obvious political tactics that lump the legitimate questions of the public in with partisan games. And this is neither a particularly Liberal trait nor a symptom of partisan politics; it strangles too many aspects of Canadian public life.
In late February, it emerged that one of Canada’s nine Supreme Court justices had been quietly placed on leave. This came to light only because a reporter noticed an asterisk next to Justice Russell Brown’s name on a case – denoting that he participated in arguments but not the decision – and pressed the court to explain. The leave results from a complaint against Justice Brown to the Canadian Judicial Council relating to an altercation at a resort in Arizona.
The complaint is being investigated and no charges have been laid. Why the court could not simply have announced that Justice Brown was on a leave while a private matter was looked into is hard to fathom.
Following complex, chaotic horrors like mass shootings, American police routinely hold press conferences in which they freely offer up more details than Canadians manage to pry out of their own law enforcement, even after protracted court battles. This evidently doesn’t harm their investigations or judicial proceedings, or American police wouldn’t keep doing it.
Even on public spending, lips are zipped. Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne has excitedly touted Volkswagen’s new battery plant in St. Thomas, Ont., while refusing to say what it will cost taxpayers, citing commercial sensitivity.
Meanwhile, Canada’s access-to-information system – supposedly the mechanism by which citizens can push government toward disclosure – is buckling under its own inefficiency, as The Globe and Mail continues to examine in Secret Canada, a continuing research project into Canada’s hamstrung freedom-of-information systems.
Asking questions about the safeguarding of our democracy and demanding sensible amounts of disclosure from public institutions does not weaken them. Pull back the curtain, show your work, and treat your citizens like grown-ups who are capable of processing the information that does, after all, belong to them.