access to information

Alberta's Access to Information Problems Absent from Campaign Trail

This article originally appeared on Sean Holman's Unknowable Country.

Alberta’s freedom of information law is weak and underused. Yet, in an election where one of the most important issues is government accountability, there has been surprisingly little discussion about reforming that law — despite a proposed policy change that could further threaten the public’s right to know.

Alberta has historically been a stranger to freedom of information legislation, which allows access to internal government documents. That access is important because the public can then find out things the officials they elect and the institutions they pay for don’t want them to find out.

Access Denied: Ministry of Environment Vetoes Interview Request on Oilsands Toxins in Animals

Documents obtained by DeSmog Canada reveal that Canada’s Ministry of Environment vetoed an interview request on toxins in fur-bearing animals in the oilsands, even though the federal scientist was “media trained and interested in doing the interview.”

The Environment Canada scientist in question, Philippe Thomas, had asked members of the Alberta Trappers Association to send him samples of fur-bearing animals caught across Alberta in 2012. Thomas needed a broad range of samples to gain deeper insight into the contaminant load in animals living near the oilsands.

In late 2012, DeSmog Canada submitted a request to interview Thomas, and provided several written questions to Environment Canada to review.

Documents obtained via Access to Information legislation show that pre-scripted responses were prepared for Thomas should the interview be approved at the upper levels. The request was approved at the deputy general level, but denied in the office of former Environment Minister Peter Kent.

When Journalists Get Mad

I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

That was how some journalists seemed to respond last week to an open letter I wrote about how government communications staff are helping to kill democracy.

But, if we want to save it, we’re going to need to do more than just throw open our windows, stick our heads out and yell about the non-answers we often get from those spin doctors.

In that letter, which was published in J-Source, The Tyee, DeSmog Canada and the Yukon News, I wrote about how those non-answers are actually a refusal to “provide the public with information. And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.”

Those words were shared on Facebook and retweeted hundreds of times, with one reporter in the Yukon stating, “I think it’s fair to say the frustration levels of journalists in this country are rising.”

The Tyranny of the Talking Point

Dear government spin doctor,

I am working on a story about how the job you’re doing is helping to kill Canada’s democracy.

I know that your role, as a so-called communications professional, is to put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

That means you often don’t respond the questions I ask, you help elected officials do the same thing and you won’t let me talk to those who actually have the answers.

While this may work out very well for you, it doesn’t work out so well for my audience who, by the way, are taxpayers, voters and citizens.

So your refusal to provide me with information is actually a refusal to provide the public with information.

And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.

That just doesn’t seem very democratic to me. Does it seem democratic to you?

Canada’s Access to Information Act Doesn’t Really Provide Canadians with Access to Information

Access to Information Canada

In their recently published book Your Right to Know, journalists Jim Bronskill and David McKie have done yeomans' work explaining how Canadians can use freedom of information requests to get government secrets. But, at the federal level, it's work they shouldn't have needed to do - pointing to another problem with Canada's broken access to information laws.

Introduced in 1980 by Pierre Trudeau's Liberals, the Access to Information Act gave Canadians a limited right to request government records. The bureaucracy's filing cabinets could now metaphorically be opened by anyone - unless the records in them included 75 different kinds of information that would still be considered secret.

But, even with those limits, the Trudeau administration seemed to have little interest in telling voters about their newfound rights or how to exercise them.

Smaller Media Treated Like Second-Class Reporters?

Draft media guide for citizenship and immigration

All media requests are not equal.”

Journalists from small, alternative and independent media outlets have long believed that’s why they get no response or a delayed response when they contact the government for information. That can make it more difficult for them to break stories, frustrating the public’s right to know.

But it’s also an adage you’d never, ever expect to see the government write down — until spin doctors at the federal department of citizenship and immigration did exactly that in a document I obtained via a recent access to information request.

Was it a pique of honesty that led them to put those words in black and white, an error or just plain indiscretion?

It's Time to Put the Spotlight on Government Secrecy

#cdnfoi, transparency in government, sean holman, freedom of information

Partisans may not believe it, but Canada’s “culture of secrecy” existed long before Stephen Harper moved into the prime minister’s office. And it’ll be around long after he moves out, unless Canadians do more than just cast their ballots in the next election.

That’s why four groups concerned about freedom of information, one of which I’m part of, are launching a campaign encouraging Canadians to take a small but vital step on social media that would raise more awareness of just how much is being hidden from us: spotlighting examples of government secrecy with the hashtag #cdnfoi.

Such secrecy has its roots in our political system, which has a tradition of strict party discipline. Because of that discipline, decisions made by the government behind closed doors – in cabinet meetings, for example – are rarely defeated in the House of Commons, making secret forums the principle arbiters of public policy.

To be sure, the Harper administration has done more than its share to cultivate a backroom state, frustrating access to government records and officials, as well as failing to fix our broken freedom of information system. But Canadian society is an especially fertile ground for the growth of policies that violate our right to know.

In part, that’s because our country doesn’t have any groups that exclusively and routinely advocate for greater freedom of information at a national level. Probably the closest we have to that is the small BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

Oil and Gas Industry Resists New Emissions Standards, Calls Oilsands Opposition "Ideological," Documents Reveal

oilsands pollution in Canada

The oil and gas industry in Canada claims opposition to the oilsands, the world’s second largest reserve of oil and Canada’s fastest source of greenhouse gas emissions, is merely “ideological,” according to new internal documents released under Access to Information legislation (attached below).

In the documents the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Canada’s largest oil and gas lobby body, suggested that because “the objection to the oil sands is ideological” and “not a concern that Alberta’s current framework is not stringent enough,” there is no guarantee that a stricter regulatory regime for the development of the oilsands will “’secure’ social license and forestall negative policy action.”

Alberta, required to renew its oil and gas emissions regulations in 2014, is proposing a new greenhouse gas target that would see a reduction of 40 per cent per barrel of oil produced and a maximum penalty price of $40 per tonne of CO2 above that level by 2020. Currently Alberta enforces a reduction of emissions by 12 percent with a max price of $15 per tonne.

According to the newly released documents CAPP is fighting for a weakened regulatory position, one that requires a 20 per cent reduction with a $20 penalty fee.

CN Rail, Natural Resources Eye Oil By Rail Export Plan to Match Northern Gateway Capacity

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver

CN Rail is considering shipping crude oil by rail from Alberta to Prince Rupert, BC, for export to Asian markets in capacities matching Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

According to the Canadian Press, “internal memos obtained by Greenpeace under the Access to Information Act show the rail carrier raised the proposal last March with Natural Resources Canada.”

A briefing note for the March 1 meeting reportedly states that China-based Nexen Inc. is “working with CN Rail to examine the transportation of crude oil on CN's railway to Prince Rupert, B.C., to be loaded onto tankers for export to Asia.”

A CN presentation paper attached to the briefing note assures that “CN has ample capacity to run seven trains per day to match Gateway's proposed capacity.”

Surveillance in Canada 101

surveillance in canada

This article originally appeared on

The information leaked by Edward Snowden about the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)’s data collection programs is driving a nation-wide debate in America over the future of privacy and national security. Americans, however, are not the only ones who should be considering the consequences the NSA’s activities. Other countries, including Canada, operate similar surveillance programs and participate in national security data sharing partnerships that crisscross the globe. Given this reality, and the fact that much of Canadians’ online data flows though servers located in the U.S. where it is not subject to any Fourth Amendment protection, we think the tenor of the privacy-security debate within Canada is too quiet. Expanding the debate will require engaging more Canadians with what we know and don’t know about surveillance in Canada. To this end, here is a modest exploration of what we’ve learned since the Snowden story broke.

What kind of data is the Canadian government collecting?


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