Governments fail to provide Canadians with required transparency and accountability

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

By Arnold Amber

In the wake of World Press Freedom Day (Saturday, May 3), Canadians should know that over the past year they’ve lost even more ground in one of the essential parts of free expression – the ability to find out what their governments have done and why.

On the federal level, the RCMP, the national police force whose job it is to make sure that everybody else obeys the law, has for years failed to follow the regulations of Canada’s Access to Information system by refusing to respond to requests from the public and journalists for information. The Mounties have been so abusive of the process that they no longer even acknowledge requests for information within a mandated 30 days, making it impossible for the federal Information Commissioner to investigate complaints against the RCMP. Those complaints, which concern a lack of access to information, have tripled in the past three years.

In Ontario, we have the bizarre, and possibly illegal, situation where a government outsider was brought in to wipe clean 24 computers that may have had important information concerning the gas plant scandal. That was one transgression, but testimony by senior government bureaucrats to a Legislative Committee has revealed the lack of a proper security system to ensure important government documents are kept secure (and prevent them from being erased).

Meanwhile, thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the federal government’s Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) operation has been snooping on ordinary people through Wi-Fi connections at a Canadian airport, and is allowing foreign security agencies to monitor Canadian citizens. Here again the issue of government records comes into play–the outgoing independent commissioner in charge of keeping CSEC’s operations within the boundary of the law says he was unable to because of incomplete files–meaning there is no effective oversight of the massive agency despite its enormous budget and upcoming move into an immense new $1-billion building.

Recordkeeping has been important to many stories involving governments and politicians in Canada during the past year. Who did what and when, and who knew about what was done has been front and centre in everything from the Senate financial scandal to the Charbonneau Commission’s probe into corruption in Quebec. Government records are also on the minds of Canadians, a fact we discovered recently after commissioning a public opinion poll of free expression topics for use in our 5th annual issue of CJFE’s Review of Free Expression in Canada.

Conducted by Nanos Research for CJFE, the poll found that 75 per cent of respondents agreed (54 per cent) or somewhat agreed (21 per cent) that federal employees should be required by law to create a permanent, retrievable record of their deliberations and decision-making even when these take place using non-written forms of communications.

An even larger majority (89 per cent) agreed (75 per cent) or somewhat agreed (14 per cent) that federal employees should face penalties for the destruction of work related emails or other records of government deliberations.

What is most surprising both about our inability to access (or even create in the first place) proper government records is that Canada has had 66 years to get it right. The principle and direction are firmly lodged in the Declaration of Human Rights passed in 1948 by the U.N. General Assembly, which affirms not only that all people have a right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also the right to seek and receive information about what their governments are doing through the media.

It is time for governments and politicians across Canada to live up to both ends of the U.N. Declaration. Canadians do not deserve the frigid curtain of secrecy that shrouds so much of our government’s actions and motivations. Today, with the internet and social media amplifying the calls for more transparency and accountability from our governments, the present approach is reprehensible.

Arnold Amber is the President of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, an organization devoted to defending and promoting free expression in Canada and around the world. You can follow CJFE at @CanadaCJFE or and find CJFE’s Review of Annual Free Expression at