Freedom of Information

Christy Clark Worried Mount Polley Spill Would Harm New Mine Construction, New Docs Show

Mount Polley Mine Disaster

By Jeremy J.Nuttall for The Tyee.

In the hours after the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster, authorities were already concerned laws had been broken and the premier’s office was worried fallout from the tailing pond breach would “get in the way” of other planned mines, documents provided to The Tyee reveal.

Almost three years after the disaster, and weeks away from a deadline to lay charges under B.C.’s environment act, no charges have been laid and no fines levied.

The government’s initial reaction to the dam’s collapse is revealed in hundreds of pages of emails and other communications obtained through a freedom of information request and provided to The Tyee by Jessica Ross, an independent researcher and member of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

Ross said she filed the FOI request almost three years ago and only received the documents July 4.

Revealed: Inside the B.C. Government's Site C Spin Machine

BC Hydro officials and members of Premier Christy Clark and Energy Minister Bill Bennett’s offices were all involved in a coordinated attempt to discredit DeSmog Canada’s reporting on the $8.8 billion Site C hydroelectric dam, according to documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

The documents detail a flurry of e-mails following a DeSmog Canada story that quoted former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen saying that Site C was proceeding without due diligence, would lead to escalating hydro rate increases and was “scheduled to become a big white elephant,” a story later referenced by the New York Times.

BC Hydro officials were concerned that major B.C. media would pick up on the DeSmog Canada story, based largely on a BC Hydro progress report to the B.C. Utilities Commission. That report noted that Site C had fallen behind on four out of seven key milestones and outlined project risks and reasons why Site C had spent more money than anticipated by the end of last March, while saying that the project’s overall forecast still remained on track.

When Coal Companies Fund Public Health Research: The Case of TransAlta and the University of Alberta

The University of Alberta and TransAlta, a major Alberta utility company and coal producer, struck an agreement for the company to pay the university $54,000 to research the health impacts of coal-fired power plants near Edmonton, according to documents obtained by DeSmog Canada.

When TransAlta published the research — a study entitled Investigation of Fine Particulate Matter Characteristics and Sources in Edmonton, Alberta — on its website last spring the company initially stated it had sponsored the work, co-authored by Warren Kindzierski and fellow University of Alberta professor Aynul Bari.

But that sponsorship disclaimer was abruptly scrubbed from the company’s website.

Documents released to DeSmog Canada through Freedom of Information legislation show TransAlta did indeed enter into a sponsorship agreement with the University of Alberta that provided Kindzierski, as principle investigator, $54,000 to conduct the research.

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?

Dear Harper, You Know the Rules: It’s Three Strikes You’re Out

This is a guest post by Michael Harris, author of Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada's Radical Makeover. It originally appeared on iPolitics

In politics, as in baseball, the rule is simple: Three strikes and you’re out.

When Stephen Harper finally shambles towards the showers, head down, bat in hand, I’ll be thinking of Mighty Casey. For much of his career, Harper has umpired his own at-bats. But that role will soon — if briefly — fall to the people of Canada. Election Day is coming to Mudville.

Strike one against this government of oligarchs and corporate shills comes down to this: They have greedily championed oil and gas while doing nothing to protect air and water. Consider the piece of legislation with the Orwellian name — the Navigable Waters Protection Act. NDP house leader Nathan Cullen said it as well as anyone could:

It means the removal of almost every lake and river we know from the Navigable Waters Protection Act. From one day to the next, we went from 2.5 million protected lakes and rivers in Canada to 159 lakes and rivers protected.”

Canadian Government: This Reporter's Question About ALEC 'Undeserving of Response'

ALEC light brigading

This article is re-published with permission from mikedesouza.com

As some of you may know, I’ll be starting a new role in January 2015 as an investigative resources correspondent for Reuters.

Getting access to records about government decisions and policies has long played a key role in the work of many journalists around the world. It will also be a key element for me in the weeks, months and years to come.

So to end off 2014, here are a few examples of some of my recent experiences with government efforts to either release or hide information.

Canada’s information watchdog has noted that the Supreme Court of Canada recognizes access to information as a quasi-constitutional right of all Canadians.

Obtaining access to information is an extension of freedom of expression since it allows the population to be informed and speak about government policies and decisions on how these governments spend public money.

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.

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