On Feb. 10, Vic Toews, Canada’s minister of public safety, convened a working dinner at a Milestones restaurant in Ottawa. One government employee and three other people were in attendance. The total bill was $85.04, including tip. We’re not sure exactly who was at the table, what was discussed, or even whether the minister’s tastes run toward classic fare like Prime Rib Beef Dip, or the menu’s internationalist offerings à la Spicy Thai Chicken Drummettes. But thanks to a policy enacted by the previous Liberal government mandating the “proactive disclosure” of hospitality expenses for ministers and senior staffers—the amount, the number of people, sometimes the venue, but nothing else—Toews’s fondness for chain eateries is now on the record. Interesting, but a minimal contribution to the public interest.
Coincidentally, on that same day, it was reported that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the spy agency Toews oversees, had stepped up its Federal Court fight to block the release of a dusty RCMP dossier on Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier and leader of the NDP. Thanks to an enterprising Canadian Press journalist, the fact that the federal police force, which was responsible for intelligence gathering until 1984, spent close to three decades tailing the father of medicare and eavesdropping on his private conversations has been known since 2006. What CSIS objects to is the idea that it might be forced under Access to Information (ATI) laws to disclose who was helping the Mounties as far back as the dirty thirties. “The passage of time and the age of information cannot be used to conclude that its release will not cause damage,” the spy agency said in an affidavit. “Sources may still be active, despite the passage of time. Subjects of investigation would learn much about the scope of the information available about them and about service methods of operation.” Although in this case, the stoolies must at least be superannuated. Douglas died in 1986, at the age of 81.
This may well be the Information Age, but you didn’t hear it from anyone in Ottawa. From the controversy over Parliament’s right to documents about the treatment of Afghan detainees, to gag orders on bureaucrats, to allegations that Tory political staffers are routinely intervening in access requests, paring down, or “unreleasing” files, it has never been harder to pry pertinent details about the inner workings of our democracy out of the federal government. Stephen Harper, who came to power in 2006 pledging a new age of transparency, has failed to deliver on promised reforms like forcing public officials to create records of their actions, lifting the veil of secrecy on cabinet documents, and adding more teeth to freedom-of-information legislation. The recent annual report from Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault—rapidly coming to the end of her second six-month “interim” appointment as the country’s access watchdog—gave D or F grades to 12 of the 24 federal departments she examined, citing long delays and subpar efforts. (There wasn’t a letter grade low enough to adequately capture the incompetence of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which was given an “off the chart” designation.)
And the longer-term trend is hardly encouraging, regardless of which party is in power. In fiscal 1999-2000, the feds processed 15,047 access demands, disclosing all the requested information 49.8 per cent of the time. By 2005-06, when 21,158 files were dealt with, only 35.8 per cent of requesters were getting everything they were seeking. In 2008-09, full disclosure fell to just 22.6 per cent on 26,429 processed requests.
You may still get what the government calls “partial disclosure”—which these days tends to mean a document with more redactions than original text. In the last fiscal year, 13 exemptions under the ATI act were applied 44,858 times on 19,366 files.
“Things are hitting rock bottom pretty good,” says Ken Rubin, an public-interest researcher from Ottawa who styles himself as “Canada’s Information Warrior.” In the quarter-century since the country’s ATI laws came into force, it has never been easy to get the bureaucracy and government to disclose sensitive, or potentially embarrassing information, he notes. But now, it is next to impossible. When it comes to hot-button issues like climate change or Afghanistan, Rubin says, it seems Ottawa has perfected the ability to generate black holes—nothing escapes. “There are literally 500 ways of saying no.”
Michel Drapeau, an Ottawa lawyer who files freedom of information requests for a mostly corporate clientele, offers an equally bleak assessment: “The Access to Information regime for all intents and purposes is dead in the water.” Delays, which used to stretch a month or two past the mandated 30-day response time, now regularly push the half-year mark. Bureaucrats, taking their lead from a government that seems averse, if not hostile to all forms of disclosure, are increasingly refusal-happy, he says. And the Crown corporations brought under the law after the Tories took power—one transparency promise Harper kept—are equally adept at playing the system. Drapeau points to the CBC, which is currently in Federal Court tussling over requests he made for copies of audits of the network’s Olympic coverage expenditures, and the costs of running the contest to find the new Hockey Night in Canada theme song. The publicly funded broadcaster has invoked an exemption allowing it to deny access to data that might harm its “journalistic, creative or programming activities.”
Perhaps it’s the fact that relatively few people have first-hand experience with the system, or the widespread misconception that access is mostly used and abused by the media. (In 2008-09, 43.9 per cent of federal requests came from business, 34.2 per cent from the public, and 14.1 per cent from news organizations.) But Drapeau, who teaches a course on ATI at the University of Ottawa, wonders why the public seems so blasé about such issues. “Basically, government tells us what they want us to know,” he says. “We don’t even scratch the surface anymore.”
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