Three Trudeau ministers among those stalling access to information requests

The ministers overseeing Health, Justice and Innovation departments must do a better job of living up to the prime minister's promises of transparency.

By Ken Rubin

June 17, 2019 - There comes a time, as the 2019 election looms, that the Trudeau government's handling of access to information requests of public importance needs to be more specifically exposed.

Such is the case with excessive delays and unacceptable access to information practices of the ministries of Health, Innovation and Justice . They make a total sham out of Prime Minister Trudeau's November 12, 2015 instructions to them to maintain the highest bar of openness and transparency in government.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor leads the list, with her department preventing for years key health and safety access to information requests from being answered.

Among those requests delayed, some of which are not even assigned, are my requests for Health Canada's actions on:

  • Purdue Pharma's misleading aggressive advertising of Oxycontin;
  • exposure to hazardous asbestos products that are still on the market;
  • licensing of a controversial iron overload blood transmission third-line therapy Apotex drug, Ferriprox;
  • handling of pesticide companies' violations problems;
  • acting on excessive salt and sugar in foods;
  • lax regulation of personal care products and responses to personal care products industry lobbying efforts;
  • dealing with the top ten legal drugs causing deaths.

Letting go some 20 access to information consultants on April 26, 2019 did nothing to help the hundreds of late and unattended health and safety information requests languishing in the system.

Explanations offered of "it's simply a budget investment business-case problem" and that "we will get more person-years to do band-aid help" do not account for a tremendously ineffective access to information administration that needs shaking up.

The department's release system operates cynically under long delays and puts companies' vested interests and legal objections up front. It allows the application of many broad exemptions to the disclosure of information, with no pro-consumer public interest override mechanism in place.

Meanwhile, the above health and safety requests remain stalled. That's despite the issues involved having generated much public interest concern and media attention, including criticisms over Health Canada's handling of these issues.

Minister Navdeep Bains, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada also makes a mockery of access to information - as reported in an April, 2019 Postmedia story - by asking for a ridiculous time delay of threeand half years. The February, 2019 request detailed by Postmedia sought the job or offset benefits to be derived from the biggest procurement project in Canadian history, the $60 billion dollar Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) naval frigate program.

You would think that the government and Irving and Lockheed Martin would want the public to know the facts about how many jobs or offset benefits the project will create,?? including for Canadian subcontractor firms and for Canadian companies.

Yet the Innovation department is reluctant to make those figures public, perhaps because in reality, there may nor be quite as many jobs or valid offsets as claimed, perhaps because the ministry agreed with the companies to keep everything secret.

The validity and looseness of the regional industrial offset program has been in the news recently when the Globe and Mail sought to find out more about an Alberta French fry plant being used as an industrial offset claim by the Irvings in its government-awarded contract to build patrol ships.

Justice Minister David Lametti has also been found wanting. Instead of wanting fuller and swifter disclosure, his officials have stalled replies or made excessive exemptions to important files that I and others have made.

A prime example of this is Justice Canada's handling of my file requests on behalf of Hassan Diab, who was extradited from Canada and spent over three years in a notorious Paris jail.

So far, excessive exemptions have been applied to the little data released. Key data on the handwriting analyses done for his case, on its Charter implications, and on the handling of the Diab file remains outstanding.

Nothing has been released on lessons learned from the Diab case, about the limited Murray Segal's limited internal review of the case, or on the reform needed to Canada's Extradition Act.

Amnesty International and other groups have recently written Lametti about the lack of transparency on the Diab extradiction case findings and on needed reforms.

By putting such important access requests on the back burner, those three ministers have defaulted on the prime minister's promises about transparency. They have revealed just how broken Canada's access to information regime is, and how much of a failure Trudeau's transparency promises have been.

Unfortunately, his government's Bill C-58, an act amending Canada's Access to Information Act, does nothing to correct such access barriers. If anything, Bill C-58 can make possible more obstruction, yet longer delays, and greater secrecy.

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This story was first published by The Hill Times on June 17, 2019, and is republished here with the author's and The Hill Times' 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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