The Unknowable Country: Shine a light on government secrecy with #cdnfoi
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 principal 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 is the small B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.
But, as its name implies, the association’s two staff members toil on information and privacy issues in British Columbia and the rest of Canada from a tiny office above a beauty salon and spa in Vancouver.
Meanwhile, other organizations that care about our right to know have even more multiplicitous mandates. For example, Ottawa’s DemocracyWatch stands on guard for democratic reform and corporate responsibility. Meanwhile, Halifax’s Centre for Law and Democracy also deals with other human rights issues abroad.
By comparison, the United States has three umbrella organizations that exclusively safeguard Americans’ right to know.
They include: OpenTheGovernment.org, representing 94 groups; the National Freedom of Information Coalition, representing 30 dues-paying groups and the Sunshine in Government Initiative, representing nine groups.
Such umbrella organizations have always been few and far between in Canada.
In the 70s, a coalition called ACCESS: a Canadian Committee for the Right to Public Information was established to lobby for greater freedom of information.
Reports from the Globe and Mail back then described the committee as having the backing of groups such as the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Daily Newspapers Association.
But long-time right-to-know researcher Ken Rubin stated in an email that ACCESS, which played a key role in the creation of Canada’s current freedom of information law, was actually “primarily a group of diverse individuals” that included academics, activists and lawyers and had some “paper” affiliations with other organizations.
Despite that key role, by the 80s the committee had folded. According to Rubin, during the same decade, a “loose coalition” came together under the auspices of the Canadian Federation of Civil Liberties and Human Rights Associations to “monitor and improve” freedom of information. That coalition also “went by the wayside” once the federation “faded away.”
Then, in January 2000, investigative reporter Robert Cribb announced the formation of Open Government Canada—a “national forum for FOI networking, education and advocacy pushing for legislative changes that grant greater access to public information.”
More than 25 groups were represented at its founding conference in March of that year. However, in an email, Cribb stated the coalition “died a regretful death.”
The reason: “It proved to be impossible to lure financial support for such an endeavour—part of the perplexing lack of concern, engagement or righteous indignation in Canada around issues such as freedom of information and the public’s right to know.”
Those concerns aside, in 2011, DemocracyWatch launched the Open Government Coalition. So far, the coalition is made up of three groups—not counting DemocracyWatch and an affiliated charity, although founder Duff Conacher stated in an email he plans to expand it this fall.
In the meantime, the New Democrats and the Liberals have proposed laws and policies that would open up government. They should be applauded for doing so. And, if the past is a predictor of the future, they may even act on some of those proposals if they win power—just as the Conservatives did.
But eventually the expediency of secrecy seems to seduce every government, regardless of its political stripe. Which means a New Democrat or Liberal administration will likely become just as tight with information as the Conservatives—albeit, perhaps, with more of a velvet glove covering that clenched, iron fist.
Don’t believe me? Well, look no further than the U.S. where Democrat President Barack Obama swept into office promising an “unprecedented level of openness in Government.”
Five years later, an Associated Press analysis found that in 2013, his administration “more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.”
More recently, the agency also listed “eight ways the Obama administration is blocking information.”
Meanwhile, for his part New York Times reporter James Risen has called Obama “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”
Just as neither the right nor the left has a monopoly on the truth, neither has a monopoly on secrecy.
As a result, it’s vital for Canadians to start paying better attention to our information rights so we can better safeguard them.
That’s why the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists, DeSmog Canada and IntegrityBC are encouraging Canadians tweet about threats to their right to know using the hashtag #cdnfoi.
Those threats include everything from backroom government meetings and frustrated freedom of information requests to inaccessible officials and nonexistent public records, whether they are at the federal, provincial or local level.
At present, the use of that hashtag isn’t widespread, making it more difficult for Canadians to know about such threats.
So, just by tagging stories about government secrecy with #cdnfoi, you can help your fellow citizens know about what they aren’t being allowed to know.
And you can encourage others to take up the fight by sharing these graphics promoting #cdnfoi—and helping change Canada’s culture of secrecy in the process.
Sean Holman writes The Unknowable Country column, which looks at politics, democracy and journalism. He is a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, an award-winning investigative reporter and director of the documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline.