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Opinion: Canada’s secretive political culture is a disservice to democracy

 piquen dec 2
The federal government is currently undergoing a review of Canada’s Access to Information Act, which both media and advocates for public transparency have called archaic and overly onerous.

Transparency is one of those softball subjects that officials at every level of government usually try to crank over the fence if given the chance. They’ll probably tell you something about how the free flow of information and an engaged and critical press are crucial to the health of a functioning democracy, but in reality, that philosophy looks much better on paper than it does in practice. 

As the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) put it, “As a result of a political culture and structure that favours secrecy over openness, Canada is not and has never been a global leader in freedom of information—a value parties of all political stripes claim to embrace in Opposition but abandon if they form government.” 

That comes from CAJ’s submission to the House of Commons calling for a complete overhaul of Canada’s notoriously onerous and cagey Access to Information laws and practices, part of a review that was initiated last summer. 

Here’s hoping Ottawa’s final report, expected in January, doesn’t fall on the slush pile, because the cost of a political culture aimed at protecting those in power versus those they serve is far too high to bear. Just look at the devastating flooding that has wreaked havoc on B.C. and left several dead. Fraser Valley Current reporter Tyler Olsen wrote in a recent Twitter thread about how he sought an interview with B.C’s inspector of dikes Mitchell Hahn nine months ago to discuss the flood risk at the Nooksack and Sumas rivers (the latter is the nexus of Abbotsford’s recent flooding), and specifically what would happen in the event of an eruption at Mount Baker. It took weeks of back and forth and continued denials from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations to get a canned statement back, not the interview he had originally asked for. Meanwhile, an interview he requested to discuss the same issue with Whatcom County in neighbouring Washington State took all of 60 seconds to arrange. He still has yet to interview Hahn. 

As someone who has reported in this province for close to a decade, Olsen’s thread hit close to home. Over the past few years, it’s become clear that the provincial government generally follows the same communications playbook no matter the agency: 1) Reporter requests interview with a real, flesh-and-blood spokesperson on a particularly prickly issue. 2) Communications lackey responds in cheery tone saying they are diligently working on your request. 3) Somehow, some way, nobody is available for an interview. Aw shucks! 4) Get back a prepared statement full of tepid bullet points that are easily findable from a quick Google search and which may or may not address your actual questions.

It’s part of a culture so deeply entrenched in this country that it’s going to require actual policy change to force government to open up, and Canada’s archaic Access to Information Act is as good a place to start as any. 

Writing recently in Policy Options, University of Victoria professor Sean Holman says the act governing Canadians’ access to information was actually “built to be broken” by relying on the notion that confidentiality is necessary for good decision-making and “honest discussion won’t take place if the public can see and hear what’s happening.” 

What that translates to is a piece of legislation bogged down by loopholes—75, to be exact—that public institutions use to censor records before they are released; months- and even years-long delays in getting back requested records, and a whole schwack of administrative costs bore by a press already facing shrinking revenues and slashed budgets, proving that freedom of information is by no means free. (This was something Pique came up against recently when trying to determine the legal costs of the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s lawsuit against the newspaper for its coverage of this spring’s cyber attack; as it turns out, knowing how much your local government spent on suing the town paper in the middle of a pandemic is not easily accessible information. Excuse me while both my eyes roll completely out of my skull.) 

Removing those exemptions was one of five recommendations the CAJ put forward in its recent submission to Ottawa, along with requiring officials to document their decision-making (because there’s not much use in an access to information law if there’s no information to access); requiring public institutions to regularly release broad categories of records in a machine-readable format; providing Canada’s Information Commissioner with order-marking power; and permitting and encouraging federal employees to freely communicate with the media and public. 

Given our government’s track record, I’m not going to hold my breath.