(Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

Governments gone wild: Municipalities in Canada are increasingly out of control

It could be worse. But that doesn’t mean it’s good

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 editor@yukon-news.com

Access to InformationtransparencyWhitehorse city council

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon RCMP are making an appeal for information in the case of Mary Ann Ollie, who was murdered in Ross River last year and whose case remains unsolved. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Submitted
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read