Somebody with the Department of Economic Development really, really doesn’t want you to know about the precise terms of its recent agreement in principle with Northwestel to build the Dempster Highway fibre optic line.
So desperate are they to keep secret the terms of the $64-million deal — which forks over public funds for the construction and maintenance of a fibre optic line the government will own, but Northwestel will manage and profit from — that a department spokesperson won’t even say who’s responsible for the decision.
The department’s exact motivations for doing so are unclear. But the fact that it is digging in its heels to prevent the release of these documents doesn’t exactly do much to ease fears that the deal contains elements the general public would find objectionable.
We’ve asked repeatedly for copies of the agreement in principle, expressions of interest from the unsuccessful bidders, and briefing notes on the project prepared for the project for Economic Development Minister Ranj Pillai. We’ve been stonewalled at every turn. High-ranking cabinet officials have told us they’d try to get the documents released and still those documents remain secret.
For the record, we also asked Northwestel to the release the agreement in principle and it too refused. It is a private company, of course, so it’s within its rights not to release the document. You could argue Northwestel has a moral obligation to do so, but that kind of appeal won’t pull much weight.
And indeed, the Dempster agreement is likely to include highly technical and specific proprietary information. That stuff can be redacted. Instead of just doing that, EcDev is going to require an access to information request, which, likely as not, will return a document of mostly blacked-out pages.
On the other hand, who cares about the impact on Northwestel? This is public money being spent on a public project. If the choice is between transparency and corporate trade secrets, the former should win out. Again, the Dempster line is owned by the public, who should get to see the terms under which Northwestel has access. If would-be competitors happened to learn information that would make it easier to enter the Northern market, that would be an unadulterated social good.
The broader problem is that Yukon’s Access To Information And Protection Of Privacy Act allows this. The Yukon is not alone here: other jurisdictions permit keeping contracts secret. The Yukon’s act relies on the premise that disclosure of business information automatically equals harm to that business.
But as governments everywhere rely more and more on private companies to provide public goods, says Sean Holman, a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, the more these laws will limit public access to details about how the government spends your money.
“We’ve seen this used in other jurisdictions as well to essentially hide information that’s in the public interest,” Holman says, pointing to examples in British Columbia — where he used to work as a reporter — such as inspections of mines and casinos, which the government keeps off limits.
“The problem with this particular exemption, and it is common across Canada, is that compromising business interest is often necessary to serve the public interest,” he says. “That’s what we need to realize as a country and governments need to realize as servants to the citizenry.”
In the meantime, the Yukon government is drawing up a new access to information act, which is to be tabled in the legislative assembly this fall. To its credit, the government is surveying the public on its views, and even reached out to news outlets a few weeks ago, to seek input on what changes the new bill will include.
I am sad to report that the Yukon News was the only media outlet to show up. Here, in very broad strokes, is what we asked for in the new legislation:
An end to the ludicrous 10-year period where advice to cabinet ministers is secret. It should be zero, or at minimum one or two years, so sitting governments can’t hide behind it;
An end to the ban on releasing cabinet briefing notes which are available almost everywhere else in Canada;
Fewer access exceptions, including the rules protecting trade secrets;
Order-making power, which gives the Information and Privacy Commissioner the power to force the government to abide by the commissioner’s rulings;
Extend access to information rules to municipalities, starting with Whitehorse and gradually extending to smaller municipalities.
It’s an interesting time to be a fly on the YG wall right now. The only people with the power to pry the government’s steely fingers off government information are in the government. They literally have zero incentive to make it easier to find out what they are up to. Sandy Silver’s Liberals campaigned on a promise to reform access to information rules, which were actually clawed back in a round of thuggish changes implemented by the Yukon Party in 2012.
Access to information about why governments make the decisions they do is notoriously difficult in Canada, Holman says. Access laws have generally served to codify reasons why public servants help themselves to the ability to conceal information, he adds.
“We should be able to get this kind of information as a matter of course but the attitude of governments in Canada is often a father-knows-best approach … and that attitude has shaped our freedom of information laws,” Holman says. “It’s why they’re written the way they are.”
We will soon see if the Liberals have the gumption to enact real and substantive changes to the access to information laws, so that Yukoners know why decisions are really made and who whispered in which minister’s ear.
Sandy Silver and his government will have a chance to show that they truly serve the public. Or that they spinelessly serve the secretive bureaucrats and corporate operators who prefer to work in the shadows and don’t want you to know why.
Contact Chris Windeyer at firstname.lastname@example.org