If you have a question about a government policy in this country, odds are fairly good that the government’s response will amount to: “Get bent.”
At every level of government, the cloistered mandarins who really run our government still treat public policy like their own personal domain, and information like it must be jealously guarded from the public, because, well, the reason must qualify as advice to cabinet, so it’s exempt from access to information rules.
Writing shortly after Justin Trudeau’s Liberals took power, veteran CBC scribe Neil MacDonald wrote that Trudeau’s cabinet ministers swore an oath that included secrecy as the prime directive.
“[T]he oath-takers also swore something much more serious: to ‘keep secret all matters committed and revealed to me’ during the discussions of Privy Council, ‘or that shall be secretly treated of in Council.’
“Which means pretty much everything they’re told. In Canada, the Privy Council is an abstruse concept that can stretch to encompass whatever the prime minister wants it to.
“The last PM (Stephen Harper) took a view that would have made the mutton-chopped mandarins and ministers of 19th-century Whitehall grunt their approval.”
This paranoid obsession with secrecy is a longstanding feature of British-style parliamentary government, which we have allowed to spread throughout the country, to every level of government.
The territories, which for most of their time in Confederation were ruled by distant and opaque federal bureaucrats, appear to have gleefully adopted Ottawa’s heavy-handed taste for secrecy. Some recent examples from the Yukon:
1) The government may recommend sheep and goat owners put up fencing to reduce the risk of transmitting disease between farm animals and wild sheep. The exact course of action is still under discussion. A member of a public board called this newspaper, incensed that we published a story about the issue.
The reason? The caller said there were no factual errors in the story. He was upset because various government departments are still talking about possible solutions to this problem. It was, he alleges, irresponsible of us to publish a story about a matter of public interest — that was already published in one agricultural newsletter — because his board wasn’t ready to discuss the matter yet. “You can’t control the outcome,” he said.
That’s not our problem. One of the roles of the press is to discuss contentious policy issues outside the halls of government, whether the government wants to discuss them or not.
2) We recently asked the Yukon Hospital Corporation to tell us how much funding it requested from the Yukon government. The Yukon Party alleged in the house that the government gave the hospital corporation less than it asked for. Health Minister Pauline Frost said in the house that the difference was $5.2 million.
Yet hospital corporation refuses to confirm what it asked for. Instead it responded to our question with a block of obfuscatory bullshit:
“YHC asked for funding that it felt was required. In fact, we are working with the government on a number of fronts at the moment — and discussions are on-going. This includes taking a more collaborative, system-wide approach to health delivery, so we and our health system partners are aligned to serve the health needs of Yukoners. We also address our top priority which is providing safe and excellent hospital care to all Yukoners, recognizing that our hospitals must live within our means, while meeting significant and growing pressures.”
In other words: none of your business. It would have been less insulting if the response had been to simply invite us to go to hell.
3) The City of Whitehorse withheld, at the Yukon government’s request, the text of a memorandum of agreement between the two publicly elected governments outlining the 2020 Arctic Winter Games, which Whitehorse will host because nobody else wants to. The YG will cover any cost overruns, but Whitehorse city councillors were originally to vote on a document that was not available for the public to examine.
The YG released the text, which had to be vetted by lawyers, after we complained. A better solution would be to ensure the lawyers have their work done before such a document goes to a vote. It is not acceptable for the territorial government to ask the city to vote on a document the public isn’t allowed to see.
Some other examples: Writing in March, the CBC’s MacDonald outlines the “sclerotic ineptitude” of the federal commission on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The commission employs a communications advisor who can’t speak to the press. Families who want to testify have been systematically ignored by commission staff. The Native Women’s Association of Canada waited months to learn if they would receive standing. No inquiry meetings, apart from next week’s hearing in Whitehorse, are scheduled.
And the CBC this week reported that the Privy Council Office and Communications Security Establishment are sitting on more than a million pages of classified documents, some as much as 70 years old. Foreign Affairs, CSIS and the RCMP won’t even say how many secret historical documents they have. Matters of national security are justifiable grounds for state secrecy. Suffice to say decades-old wiretaps of hapless Marxists are not.
There are few areas the territorial government deals in where such secrecy is justified. The government absolutely should keep your health records secret, as it should most information about its employees. The government has the same right as you and I to receive legal advice in private. Sealed tender documents, for obvious reasons, should remain secret until the winning bid is selected.
The business of government is the business of the people. This should seem self-evident, but many decades of bureaucratic creep have seen the development of an elaborate lattice of justifications why information should be kept secret. At the territorial and municipal levels, beyond a precious few exceptions, every memo, every email, every report should be a matter of public record. We, after all, paid for all of that material. It’s our property.
Both the Trudeau and Silver governments have promised badly needed overhauls of our obsolete access to information rules. They should hurry up and introduce those changes, even if the smart money is on that legislation never seeing the light of day. The reasons why will be spelled out in a memo you’re not allowed to read.
Contact Chris Windeyer at firstname.lastname@example.org