Out of sight, but not out of mind: Laying bare the RCMP’s efforts to evade public transparency
For its persistent efforts to impede the free flow of information to the public, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has been selected as the 2021 recipient of the Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy in the law enforcement category.
The Mounties received an unprecedented double-citation this year. The first citation was bestowed on the RCMP for their efforts to impede journalists from covering public opposition to the logging of an old-growth forest at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island. In particular, their efforts to obstruct journalists' access to the area through the use of illegal exclusion zones and other methods of obstruction.
“This summer multiple journalists, equipped only with pens, notebooks and camera equipment, were treated like criminals by the RCMP as they did their job, which was to document police activities and to tell a story of significant public interest,” said Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ).
“This year’s Code of Silence jury agreed that the efforts demonstrated by the RCMP to suffocate press freedom and the public’s right to know about events taking place at Fairy Creek deserves the spotlight.”
Late last year, Fairy Creek surpassed Clayoquot Sound as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, as nearly 1,200 arrests have been made. Reports from December 2021 reveal the RCMP has spent more than $6.8 million enforcing a court injunction at Fairy Creek — enforcement which saw journalists erroneously obstructed from accessing the area to report on the story.
In July, the CAJ, in partnership with a coalition of news organizations, applied to modify the injunction instructing the RCMP not to interfere with journalists’ access absent a bona fide operational reason for doing so. The request was granted by the B.C. Supreme Court, with the presiding justice reminding the RCMP of the media’s “special role in a free and democratic society, and the necessity of avoiding undue and unnecessary interference with the journalistic function.”
This year’s Code of Silence award to the RCMP also cited its outstandingly poor performance with respect to adhering to the rules of Canada’s federal Access of Information Act.
According to the materials provided, the RCMP ranked among the worst federal agencies in fulfilling access to information requests in accordance with mandated timelines. In its deliberations, sponsors of the Code of Silence awards reviewed multiple examples of requests that exceeded the legislated 30-day time limit and where the agency failed to provide notice of time extensions, in direct contravention of Canada’s Access to Information Act.
“The unwillingness of the RCMP to meet basic requirements of transparency—to which they are legally obligated—is sadly nothing new,” said Jolly.
The force was recognized for its excessive secrecy in 2017, after failing to respond to a single request for information filed under the Access to Information Act.
“The opportunity that lies at the feet of users, however, is to work together to re-imagine what a better, functional, and more transparent system, with teeth, would look like — and to push those plans forward is long past due,” said Jolly.
The Code of Silence Awards are presented annually by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University (CFE), and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The intent of the awards is to call public attention to government or publicly-funded agencies that work hard to hide information to which the public has a right to under access to information legislation.
This award completes this year’s Code of Silence program. In addition to the RCMP, Stratford City Council(municipal), the government of British Columbia (provincial), and Indigenous Services Canada (federal) headlined this year’s “winners.”