The news over the past month has told a clear story about Canada and your right to know. Governments and institutions don’t want to tell you much.
From Hockey Canada’s secrecy to the federal government’s lack of transparency into why it invoked the Emergencies Act, we have seen foot dragging and worse from those who prefer to keep information private.
Journalists work with interviews, documents and sources to answer questions. But when stonewalling continues, it can take long and expensive appeals to the federal access to information or the provincial freedom of information programs to get answers.
Unfortunately, as the number of journalists shrinks across Canada and budgets tighten, the number of outlets that can afford the time and money for these investigations has diminished.
So early this month, The Globe and Mail announced a plan to investigate the country’s broken access to information systems. Reporters with the Secret Canada project are looking to speak with former analysts, researchers or advocates who have been stymied by the system to understand the scope of the problem and explore solutions.
The article noted that “during the 2015 federal election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau vowed to make sweeping changes to access to information. These included making government information ‘open by default,’ allowing requests to be filed to ministers’ offices, undertaking a review of the law every five years, eliminating filing fees and giving the Information Commissioner the power to order institutions to disclose documents.
“Seven years on, several changes have yet to materialize. While legislative reviews, eliminating fees and giving the commissioner order-making powers have come to pass, the Treasury Board’s review is overdue, ministers’ offices are still exempt from access requests and government information is still routinely locked away.”
And what we are left with is a system costing $90-million a year that can’t keep up with the requests and complaints.
As columnist Campbell Clark aptly described it, one reason is that the government has become a denial machine. Perhaps a more open system of sharing information would cost much less and be more transparent.
This is important for you as a citizen. Some of your tax dollars have gone to Hockey Canada, and of course your taxes fund provincial and federal governments and their institutions.
A Canadian Press article from last year said an international study of five parliamentary democracies by British academics “ranks Canada last in an international comparison of freedom-of-information laws – a hard fall after many years being judged a global model in openness.
“Above all, an effective FOI regime requires strong government commitment and political will. Officials cannot do it on their own,” said the paper, published in the journal Government Information Quarterly.
So why does it matter?
Last month, Ashley Okwuosa reported in The Narwhal on toxic chemicals at a former auto plant: “Staff at the City of St. Catharines, the environment ministry and the Ministry of Labor were discussing the strong likelihood that such chemicals were leaking into the land and water as early as 2018. The information, which came via a freedom of information request made by a citizens group called the Coalition for a Better St. Catharines …”
This summer, Globe health reporter Kelly Grant wrote about an Inuit group in Nunavut pressing for transparency on tuberculosis outbreaks.
“The president of a major Inuit organization has reiterated her call for transparency after The Globe and Mail published an investigation of a major tuberculosis outbreak in Pangnirtung, a hamlet of about 1,500 people on Baffin Island.”
Aluki Kotierk, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., urged Health Minister “John Main to heed a ruling by the territory’s Privacy Commissioner calling for TB case counts to be released for all of Nunavut’s 25 fly-in communities. She wrote that the government’s refusal has ‘jeopardized the health’ of residents and acted as an impediment to signing a crucial TB action plan.”
As you can see, much of the work done around access to information is about public interest, public health and safety.
Some provinces have references in their legislation to allow for more openness on public interest. Ontario, for example, says: Obligation to disclose: 11 (1) Despite any other provision of this Act, a head shall, as soon as practicable, disclose any record to the public or persons affected if the head has reasonable and probable grounds to believe that it is in the public interest to do so and that the record reveals a grave environmental, health or safety hazard to the public.
This is a good principle that should be followed everywhere.