Yes, it could always be worse, but is that something to be proud of?
The state of Canada’s democracy is, to be sure, healthier than Russia’s or Turkey’s or Hungary’s, countries where democratic advances in the last two decades are being clawed back by strong-man rulers.
But democracies can’t be judged on a pass-fail basis. They exist on a spectrum, and in both Canada and the Yukon, they are sliding.
Nowhere is this more apparent in two areas: municipal governments and access to information laws.
Many municipal governments in this country are, put simply, out of control. Across Canada, cities and towns appear to be increasingly run by thin-skinned control freaks who are desperate to conceal information and quash media coverage that is anything besides glowing reviews or barebones transcription.
In at least one instance, they’ll sic the cops on reporters who refuse to comply.
That was the case in Ontario’s Niagara Region, where a St. Catharines Standard reporter had his computer seized by municipal staff and was escorted out of city hall after wrongly being accused of secretly recording an in-camera meeting.
In nearby Pelham, town officials removed a media table from council chambers, stopped responding to requests for interviews, stopped sending out news releases and started throwing copies of the town newspaper, that were delivered as usual to town hall, in the trash.
In Witless Bay, NL, town council voted to spend public money to hire a lawyer to pursue criminal charges against residents who were criticizing politicians on Twitter. It’s not clear what exact penalties councillors expected they could drum up against unruly residents, because nobody bothered to answer the phone when a Globe and Mail reporter called to enquire.
It’s also worth noting one of that same council’s first acts was to rescind a suite of transparency policies implemented by the previous council.
This is a just a small sample of Canadian municipalities behaving badly in recent years. Across the country, more and more local governments are regarding municipal affairs as the private fiefdom of the politicians and small-time unelected bureaucrats who run things as they flout basic, accepted norms of transparency.
In Whitehorse, it could be worse, but that’s not saying much. The city is in the process of drafting a new communications policy, but won’t say what’s in it. “The city’s communications draft policy is an internal document and we do not solicit feedback from the public at large about how we handle our own internal work,” the city’s acting communications director, Myles Dolphin wrote in an email.
Good to know that the city does not care what anyone has to say about about how it communicates with the public.
The city has begun directing all media enquiries to their communications director, and forbidding city staffers from taking cold calls from media, even though a) the new policy is still being drafted, and b) the current policy, adopted in 2010, says that’s okay.
It’s not clear what problem the city thinks this will solve. There’s simply no reason why a reporter who wants to talk about, say, transit, shouldn’t be able to just call the transit director.
But it’s implied that the problem is “answering questions we don’t feel like answering.” Dolphin (full disclosure: a former city hall reporter for the News) has already developed a bad habit of ignoring or heel-dragging on media requests that might not be flattering for the city.
Communications staffers have their place: they can clarify which staffer is the right person to talk to for a story, and they have a vital role during public emergencies, when those staff are understandably busy and getting information out quickly is of the utmost importance. Some of them are very good at their jobs, and involve themselves only as much as is necessary.
But all too often, they take the role of gatekeeper, deflecting interview requests, demanding questions in advance, ignoring certain questions and responding with meaningless, marketing-grade spin.
Or, sometimes, outright falsehoods. Vice reporter Hilary Beaumont recently found that a comment from from an Indian and Northern Affairs spokesperson directly contradicted information in a briefing note to the minister.
Beaumont, writing about a house fire in the Mushuau Innu First Nation in Labrador, was told that a fire hydrant near the burning home was working. A briefing note provided to the minister, which Beaumont obtained through an access to information request, said the department had been told by the First Nation that the hydrant was broken.
Only because of Beaumont’s diligent work and use of the access to information system did the public become aware of this.
When it comes to city affairs in Whitehorse, that’s not an option for your friendly neighbourhood reporter. The city is exempt from the territory’s toothless access to information act (which will be the subject of a future editorial).
That means that should a city gatekeeper decide to lie or mislead, it is exceedingly difficult for reporters to catch them in the act.
The harder the city makes it for journalists to hold local government to account, the harder it is for citizens to make informed decisions as voters and taxpayers. The city argues that this new policy is fine because, hey, the feds and territorial governments already do it.
We’ve already seen the result of that: legions of professional spin doctors, who, more often than they help, spin, delay, obscure and work to deflect the work of journalists to keep political elites accountable.
It could be worse. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.
Contact Chris Windeyer at firstname.lastname@example.org