There's No Excuse for Stifling Information

By Ken Rubin

Trudeau isn't transparent enough; Some agencies have simply placed requests for information from the public on hold, despite this being a violation of the Access to Information Act.

On April 17, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised his government would proactively disseminate COVID-19 related information on-line. But the CBC, in its ongoing “Big Spend”series, has been reporting on the many gaps in available government information on the billions in pandemic funds going out the door.

For instance, its investigations revealed that the large trucking company, TFI International, received $63 million in wage subsidies by the end of September, while also paying out $45 million in dividends. Air Canada got $492 million under the wage benefit program. Two Ontario long-term care home companies, Extendicare and Sienna Senior Living also received millions in federal government funding while paying out a combined total of $74 million in dividends to shareholders.

Many federal agencies refused to give CBC specifics on their spending. Some, such as Export Development Canada, a Crown corporation, are exempt from revealing client financial data on the 791,884 businesses approved for Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loans totaling $31.6 billion.

Documents I obtained using access-to-information legislation reveal that, contrary to the prime minister's promise, Treasury Board, in an April 28, 2020 meeting with bureaucrats who handle such requests across departments, admitted that there is “deferral of the proactive publication of certain contracts where disclosure could compromise Canada's competitive position”  during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, a Conservative motion passed in Parliament on Oct. 26, 2020 ordered that a broad range of government pandemic documents, including spending details, be sent and posted on the health committee web site by December 7, 2020. That deadline has not been met. As of Dec. 16, only 59 pandemic records or some 2,900 pages have been posted and they are largely departmental "media lines" and PMO press releases. Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart had indicated that there were millions of pages being processed. He made no commitments to any firm dates for releasing the vast majority of remaining records.

Added to this, in a Dec. 10, 2020 report, the Parliament Budget Officer said the Trudeau government's financial premises behind the pandemic spending plans lack financial transparency.

According to weekly surveys by Treasury Board, which I also obtained under the access law, getting records processed for public viewing during the pandemic has been spotty. The majority of government agencies surveyed did not consider access to information a critical or priority service. Some agencies simply placed requests for information from the public on hold, despite this being a violation of the Access to Information Act.

Yet the senior Treasury Board official in charge of access and open government policies, Ruth Naylor, in that April 28, 2020 discussion with access coordinators, mused there could be “an opportunity to address this issue” (of placing requests on hold in certain circumstances) as part of the access legislation statutory review that is now underway of the Access to Information Act.

That act is important to all Canadians; it is meant as the way to get information and hold government accountable. It should not be shut down during emergencies.

Treasury Board's main initiative is to create an access community development corporation (COD), reportedly to facilitate better coordination, training and recruitment of access officers. It would be hosted by Treasury Board with funding and input from departments.

COD would have a budget of at least $700,000 and a staff of two, adding a layer to existing Treasury Board personnel. Its potential operation was outlined in a March 3, 2020 Goss Gilroy consultant report.

But building up internal access resources is not a substitute for an arms-length access agency where access officers' main job would be to facilitate and provide public disclosure.

What we have during pandemic times is a further breakdown of government information management and ethics. For example, a Nov. 17 information commissioner report highlighted the RCMP's systemic failures to respond on a timely basis to access-to-information requests.  In another instance, National Defence came close this spring to setting up a new operation using propaganda techniques to influence Canadians. This operational plan was exposed by Citizen reporter David Pugliese.

It's a serious problem when no one in government, from the Prime Minister down, wants full and timely public disclosure including basic pandemic payout data. It needs to follow and improve on its own access law.
 

This story was first published by The Ottawa Citizen on December 21, 2020, and is republished here with the author's 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.

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