OTTAWA — Civil society groups, journalists and members of the public are telling the federal government it is time to fix Canada’s broken transparency law.
Written and oral submissions to a federal review call for expansion of the Access to Information Act, removal of numerous loopholes in the law, strict timelines for responding to requests and more resources to make the system work.
The issue has received scant attention on the election campaign trail, but whichever party forms government will get a clear message: the 38-year-old access law, drafted in the pre-internet era of metal filing cabinets, is in desperate need of reform.
The law allows people who pay $5 to ask for a range of federal documents — from internal emails to policy memos — but it has long been criticized as antiquated and poorly implemented.
The federal review is focusing on the legislative framework, opportunities to improve proactive publication, and assessing processes to improve service and reduce delays.
The Centre for Free Expression at Toronto’s Ryerson University says in its submission that the review launched in June last year is an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability.
“Today we have an Act with exceptions and exemptions that have been stretched beyond recognition to prevent disclosures, a critically under-resourced access system not equipped to keep up with requests, and a culture of secrecy within government that views access as a threat rather than a right of all Canadians,” says the brief.
The centre is the co-ordinator of the Right to Information Alliance Canada, composed of 17 organizations including News Media Canada, the Centre for Law and Democracy, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Greenpeace Canada.
In its submission to the review, the group World Press Freedom Canada says that during the COVID-19 pandemic — a moment when Canadians required access to a stream of government information for their safety — the pipelines were rusted and clogged from years of deliberate neglect.
“The numerous flaws in Canada’s access-to-information regime can be reduced to just two: the law provides far too many reasons to keep information secret, and releasing information takes far too long.”
A shift in culture is also needed, says Vincent Gogolek, former executive director of the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.
“When estimated time to complete an ATIA request is measured in years, when records either disappear or are never created, and when officials seek to prevent requesters from exercising their rights on the flimsiest of pretexts, these are signs that the problem is not just with laws and regulations, but with policies and with the basic culture of the institutions subject to the Act,” says his submission.
“That has to change.”
During a series of public consultation sessions this year as part of the review, attended by a total of about 200 people, participants advocated:
— Expanding the right of access under the Canadian law to anyone in the world;
— narrowing exceptions in the law with the guiding principle of releasing as much information as possible; and
— a requirement that government information be disclosed in all cases unless there are valid reasons not to publish it.
A report from the government review is to be submitted to the Treasury Board president by Jan. 31 next year — perhaps a reason the Liberals are not binding themselves to any Access to Information promises in their platform.
The NDP platform is also silent on the access law, though leader Jagmeet Singh expressed a need for more openness when asked about it this week.
“I think transparency is incredibly important and we’ve seen for a while that it’s been difficult to obtain information, and it’s something we absolutely believe in,” he said in Montreal.
The Conservatives promise to review the access law and to give the information commissioner, an ombudsman for users, the power to order departments to “release information promptly” to end “the current government’s practice of endless delays that makes a mockery of the law.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2021.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press
Djokovic leaves Australia after losing deportation appeal
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic left Australia on Sunday evening after losing his final bid to avoid deportation and play in the Australian Open despite being unvaccinated for COVID-19. A court earlier unanimously dismissed the No. 1-ranked tennis player’s challenge to cancel his visa.
Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling but respected it.
A masked Djokovic was photographed in an Melbourne airport lounge with two government officials in black uniforms. He left on an Emirates flight to Dubai, the same United Arab Emirates city he flew to Australia from.
He has won a record nine Australian Open titles, including three in a row, but this time won’t even get the chance to try.
“I respect the Court’s ruling and I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country,” he said in a statement.
Djokovic said he was “uncomfortable” that the focus had been on him since his visa was first canceled on arrival at Mebourne’s airport on Jan. 6.
“I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love,” he said.
The national federation that runs the tournament, Tennis Australia, said it respects the decision of the Federal Court. “We look forward to a competitive and exciting Australian Open 2022 and wish all players the best of luck,” it said in a statement.
A deportation order also usually includes a three-year ban on returning to Australia.
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic said the hearing was “a farce with a lot of lies.”
“They think that they humiliated Djokovic with this 10-day harassment, and they actually humiliated themselves. If you said that the one who was not vaccinated has no right to enter, Novak would not come or would be vaccinated,” Vucic told reporters.
He said he told Djokovic after talking to him “that we can’t wait to see him in Serbia, to return to his country, to come where he is always welcome.”
He did not say whether Djokovic said he would first go to Serbia after his deportation.
Chief Justice James Allsop said the ruling came down to whether the minister’s decision was “irrational or legally unreasonable.”
Hawke welcomed the decision. His office did not immediately provide detail of how or when Djokovic would leave.
“Australia’s strong border protection policies have kept us safe during the pandemic, resulting in one of the lowest death rates, strongest economic recoveries, and highest vaccination rates in the world,” Hawke said.
“Strong border protection policies are also fundamental to safe-guarding Australia’s social cohesion which continues to strengthen despite the pandemic,” he added.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed what he described as the “decision to keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe.”
But opposition spokesperson on the home affairs portfolio, Kristina Keneally, said Djokovic was being deported for what he said and did publicly overseas before the government gave him a visa in November.
“This mess isn’t a failure of our laws. It’s a failure of Morrison’s competence & leadership,” Keneally tweeted.
The pandemic response has become politically charged with Morrison’s conservative coalition seeking a fourth three-year term at elections due by May.
Infection rates have soared across much of Australian since December when Morrison’s government relaxed what had been some of the democratic world’s toughest restrictions on international travel.
“I will now be taking some time to rest and to recuperate, before making any further comments beyond this,” he said.
The court process that Djokovic had hoped would keep his aspirations alive for a 21st Grand Slam title was extraordinarily fast by Australian standards.
Within three hours of Hawke’s announcement on Friday afternoon that Djokovic’s visa was canceled, his lawyers went before a Federal Circuit and Family Court judge to initiate their challenge to the decision. The case was elevated to the Federal Court on Saturday and submissions were filed by both sides that same day.
The three judges heard the case over five hours on Sunday and announced their verdict two hours later.
There was evidence that Djokovic was to be deported based on Hawke’s assessment that he was considered a “talisman of a community of anti-vaccination sentiment.”
Hawke’s lawyer Stephen Lloyd took aim at Djokovic’s anti-vaccination stance and his “history of ignoring COVID safety measures.”
Lloyd raised the example of Djokovic giving a French newspaper journalist an interview last month while he was infected with COVID-19 and taking off his mask during a photo shoot. Djokovic has acknowledged the interview was an error of judgment.
The minister canceled the visa on the grounds that Djokovic’s presence in Australia may be a risk to the health and “good order” of the Australian public and “may be counterproductive to efforts at vaccination by others in Australia.”
Djokovic’s visa was initially canceled on Jan. 6 by a border official who decided he didn’t qualify for a medical exemption from Australia’s rules for unvaccinated visitors. He was exempted from the tournament’s vaccine rules because he had been infected with the virus within the previous six months.
Vasek Pospisil, a Canadian who won the 2014 Wimbledon men’s doubles title and has worked with Djokovic to form an association to represent players, tweeted: “There was a political agenda at play here with the (Australian) elections coming up which couldn’t be more obvious. This is not his fault. He did not force his way into the country and did not ‘make his own rules’; he was ready to stay home.”
Pospisil wrote that Djokovic wouldn’t have tried to go to Australia at all and “been home with his family” had he not received the medical exemption.
Djokovic has won nine Australian Open titles, including three in a row, and a total of 20 Grand Slam singles trophies, tied with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis.
Djokovic’s dominance of late has been particularly impressive, winning four of the last seven major tournaments and finishing as the runner-up at two others.
The only time he did not get at least to the final in that span was at the 2020 U.S. Open, where he was disqualified in the fourth round for hitting a ball that inadvertently hit a line judge in the throat after a game.
Because Djokovic has withdrawn from the tournament after Monday’s schedule was released, he has been replaced in the field by what’s known as a “lucky loser” — a player who loses in the qualifying tournament but gets into the main draw because of another player’s exit before competition has started.
That player is Italian Salvatore Caruso, who is ranked 150th in the world.
Associated Press writers John Pye in Melbourne, Australia, Howard Fendrich in Washington D.C., and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.
More AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Rod Mcguirk, The Associated Press
YouTuber funds escape from Taliban of 170 Hazara filmmakers, activists to Canada
OTTAWA — A YouTuber who gives investment tips helped fund the escape of 170 Afghans from the Taliban to Canada.
David Lee, an investor who lives in Texas, helped a large group of stranded Afghans get to the Pakistan border after the Taliban took control last August.
The Hazaras, who arrived in Calgary earlier this week, included filmmakers, members of Afghanistan’s artistic community and human-rights activists.
They fled Kabul last summer when the Taliban took control but were stranded in Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan, with no funds to get to the Pakistan border. They had days to get to a border crossing before it closed but had spent all their money fleeing Kabul.
Lee, who had previously funded the escape of a group of 38 Hazaras to Pakistan, as well as emergency food shipments to Afghanistan, was contacted by an Afghan from an aid organization in the United States to see if he could urgently help.
Members of the 170-strong group do not want to be identified for fear of Taliban reprisals against friends and family.
Taliban fundamentalists have targeted democracy and women activists, as well as musicians, smashing their instruments and beating them up, according to Sen. Salma Ataullahjan, who was born in Pakistan and has contacts with many Afghans. She said one professional Afghan musician she knows buried his instrument for fear of persecution.
The Taliban has also imposed harsh restrictions on what Afghans can watch and banned women from appearing in television dramas, according to a report by the BBC. The Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has instructed broadcasters not to screen movies or programs that are “against Islamic or Afghan values.”
With some of his YouTube followers, Lee raised around US$12,000 within hours to fund taxi fares and other costs to enable the refugees to get to a crossing into Pakistan before the border closed.
Lee, who gives investment education via YouTube, had previously helped a group of 38 Afghans, including the family of a student at the University of British Columbia, to cross the Pakistan border. He warned the contact who asked him for help that the group had just days to get out of the country before the Afghan-Pakistan border near Quetta closed.
But local bus services that could have got them to the border ceased after the Taliban took power.
“They wanted to cross the border but they were stuck. They had used up all their money to get to Kandahar. Taxis were charging prices ten times higher than usual. I had helped 38 others cross the border and I said, ‘Your group needs to move as soon as possible,’” he said.
“I tapped my network and a bunch of people who watch investors’ videos, and within a few hours we got the fees — it was about $12,000 for their costs, most of it for transportation. They made it out just in the nick of time. A couple of days later the land border shut.”
The money was wired to Pakistan where a go-between managed to arrange transportation for the group of Hazaras.
Hazaras are one of Afghanistan’s largest minorities and speak Hazaraqi, a dialect of Persian. They are also found in parts of Iran and Pakistan, with a large population in Quetta. Historically they have faced persecution in Afghanistan, including by the mainly Pashtun Taliban.
The border, near Quetta, closed within days of the refugees crossing. Some of the group almost did not make it across, Lee said. One man spent three days at the border trying to persuade the guards to let him cross. At the border, the refugees had their luggage taken away from them and then returned on the Pakistan side.
From the border they journeyed to Quetta where they ended up sleeping on the floor of an unheated marriage hall.
In Islamabad, with the help of human-rights groups, they were referred to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which referred them to Canada’s “special humanitarian program” — one of two set up to help bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada. The program is intended to help vulnerable groups including human-rights activists, women leaders, persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people and journalists.
In Islamabad, Lee said, Canadian embassy staff interviewed the refugees and took biometric data before approving immigration to Canada.
The Hazaras were part of a group of 252 Afghan refugees welcomed to Canada by immigration minister Sean Fraser on Tuesday, and the first admitted through the special humanitarian program.
The day after their plane touched down in Calgary, the leader of the group messaged Lee to tell him the entire group was now on Canadian soil and safe and well.
The group is now in isolation in a Calgary hotel and will travel to Edmonton when they emerge from quarantine, Lee said.
Lee, who lives in Texas, is hoping to travel to Edmonton to meet members of the group when the pandemic wanes.
“I was so delighted personally when they arrived,” he said. “Their lives and those of future generations will be changed forever.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2022.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press
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