Troubled Times for Transparency Call for Change
By Ken Rubin
Shocking revelations and events can stir the public. But that does not mean officials want to give up systemic secrecy practices and bring in wholesale corrective changes.
So it was refreshing then for a change to see the Canadian military's medical team under Operation Laser acting as whistle blowers raising public attention about the dismal conditions and the on-going plight they found in long-term care homes. The data they provided about these homes would normally have been withheld.
But now, the Ottawa Citizen is reporting that National Defence is checking out if DND employees are leaking more unclassified data on its pandemic work.
Recent public opinion polls like one conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies are showing that half of respondents do not think they are getting sufficient and accurate COVID-19 information.
Veteran FOI user and now independent journalist Dean Beeby, in a submission to the Senate Finance Committee, reinforced just how difficult it is going to be to get data on the millions of COVID-19 funds going out the door.
He cited his past efforts of being unable to get the details about the write-offs against the multi-billion 2009 auto bailouts, funds that went through the Canada Account via Export Development Canada (EDC); that included not getting elementary information, such as the exact amount of the loans, the loan rates and the repayment terms and actual repayments made or written off.
The Globe and Mail recently found, as well, that the government is not sharing more specifics on the Canada Account. The Globe sought, unsuccessfully, more details on the estimated $650 million Canada Accounts loan to US General Dynamics, reputedly provided because Saudi Arabia has not been paying enough for the LAV armoured vehicles they purchased from General Dynamics.
Considerable COVID-19 funds are to go through the Canada Account and EDC with little known about the influences and back room dynamics. The Canada Account is just one of numerous black holes where basic information is hidden by Canadian authorities.
All Treasury Board president Jean-Yves Duclos has said so far in a letter to federal agencies during pandemic times is not to shut down access-to-information units.
Most federal agencies, however, are having problems functioning. I Politics, for instance, reported that Canadian Heritage was unable to respond to requests as it had limited access to the needed web servers. Canadian Border Services Agency is telling requesters like me they can only look at trying to collect electronic records only but with no firm response dates.
Something as simple as requesting records on the Canadian Transport Agency's fumbling consumers' wishes for refunds from cancelled air flights is being met with a 260-day time extension, with COVID-19 thrown in to rationalize the long delay period.
All signs point to the one year statutory Bill C-58 review originally scheduled to start this month, as not being an occasion that the government will willingly give up its many exemptions and delay-causing powers. But there are those in the public who want drastic change for real disclosures.
The Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group, an ad hoc group of journalists, academics and activists, wants full health inspection reports released within 15 days of their completion which would cut out the normal several months or longer wait-times and the many exemptions applied. They want whistleblowers to be better protected and come forward to bring out government agency problems, and advocate establishing a special COVD-19 ombudsman to probe public and private sector pandemic-related health problems.
They also want much greater transparency and accounting of the billions of dollars in new spending during the pandemic that has received little parliamentary scrutiny.
But now, with a protest movement spurned on by George Floyd's murder in the United States and Indigenous deaths in Canada at the hand of police, more is wanted, especially greater police accountability and transparency. Shining a light on the underlying racial and social injustices and how public safety is funded and carried out has become a dominant issue.
Racism, misogyny, corruption, and health threats are some conditions that you'd expect some movement on.
But in Canada to date, it's still a time of officials wanting more backward steps. Access to information has already been reeling from regressive steps implemented under Bill C-58 which put in a defensive system of selective releases to head off substantive disclosures.
Canadians deserve more than lacklustre and limited data in changing times.
This story was first published by The Hill Times on June 22, 2020, and is republished here with the author's and The Hill Times' permission.
Ken Rubin has championed greater transparency for over five decades and is reachable at kenrubin.ca. He is an investigative public interest researcher, author and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Free Expression.