In October, a University of Toronto history professor tweeted part of the result of an Access to Information request. The information, of course, was littered with the usual redacted sections, pretty much a universal experience in such endeavours.
What was peculiar in this case was what the Privy Council Office believed had to be hidden from public view. It was sections of a 1959 speech in the House of Commons by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker about the Avro Arrow.
The episode is surreal – the PCO redacted Hansard – yet it also crystallizes Canada’s widespread and continuing failings in access to information. Governments in Canada claim to believe in openness when in fact the opposite is the case. The problems run the gamut, from a recent unjustified tightening of the Freedom of Information law in British Columbia to the day-to-day workings of governments at all levels.
These problems aren’t new, but appear to be worsening. All Canadians pay the cost. A fundamental tenet of democratic governance is to be as open and transparent as possible. In Canada, only lip service is paid to this ideal. The PCO-Hansard dust-up is an extreme example but, in practice, and across the political spectrum, a culture in much of government has honed the instinct to withhold rather than to reveal.
The United States provides a ready comparison with Canada. Two stories of the mechanics of journalism in 2021 illustrate the stark divide.
Last winter, a reporter at the Fraser Valley Current sought to understand an eruption of Mount Baker, south of B.C.’s Fraser Valley in Washington State, and risks it could pose to the Canadian side. The reporter asked for comment from a relevant expert with the B.C. government, but was rejected by PR staff. Instead, several points of already public facts were sent by e-mail. The reporter at the same time easily got direct access to an official expert on the U.S. side.
The Globe and Mail found the same problems in researching the Canadian developers of the condo building that partially collapsed in Surfside, Fla., in June. Almost 100 people died. The developers had also been active in Canada, and The Globe tried to uncover possible dangers here. Records easily obtained in the U.S. took a months-long battle to dig up in Canada.
Seeking information is not just about journalism. While one can actually laugh at the PCO redacting a prime minister’s speech in the Commons, academics who work to better illuminate our history are being stymied by a system that could more accurately be called Restricting Access to Information. “This secrecy about historical events is damaging to Canadians,” argued the U of T history prof and a colleague.
In B.C. in November, while the province was beset by calamitous flooding and landslides, the NDP government rammed through changes to the province’s FOI law that were widely criticized, from journalists to Indigenous leaders. The issues included charging for access and seeming to restrict access to information from the Premier’s Office.
Some of the most trenchant criticism came from the government’s own Information and Privacy Commissioner. In an open letter to the government, the Commissioner urged numerous changes, including the plan to charge fees.
“To add another barrier of access at a time when transparency is critical is deeply troubling,” the commissioner wrote. The NDP, with a majority, were undeterred, and their changes became law.
Various governments of all stripes may believe they benefit from saying less than more, seeking to cloister information they fear could be politically damaging, even if the information really belongs to all of us. Calls for greater freedom of information don’t mean no restrictions; some information has to be redacted. But the interpretation of what should be hidden has become overly broad. Freedom of information is about making public information, on matters of public policy, public – and in a timely matter, another front on which governments across Canada fail.
Most of all, the law is only one thing. The deeper problem, and one that is more pernicious, is how government officials are operating, whether it is not allowing expert civil servants to speak with the press, or redacting reams of information that should not be redacted. It’s a culture across governments in Canada that erodes transparency in democracy. It needs a wholesale reset.
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