OTTAWA — “The changes announced today enhance the transparency and accountability of Canadian democratic institutions by ensuring that Canadians can easily view the most often requested documents without having to file an access to information request.”
— Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, June 21, 2019
Federal cabinet ministers were patting themselves on the back last week after Bill C-58 received royal assent. The bill updates Ottawa’s oft-criticized access-to-information regime, which the Liberals had promised during the last election to strengthen.
The bill faced heavy criticism during the two years it took to wend its way through Parliament. One of the beefs was that the Liberals did not fulfil their promise to expand the act to include ministers’ offices.
The government said it needed to balance transparency with parliamentary privilege.
Largely overlooked was a section of the bill ordering the regular release of information about expenses incurred and contracts signed by senior government officials, members of Parliament, senators, ministers and federal judges.
It also requires the disclosure of certain briefing notes for ministers and deputy ministers.
So is it true that the changes to the access-to-information regime introduced by the Liberals ensure Canadians can easily view the most requested documents without having to file an access to information request?
The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).
Spoiler alert: Gould’s remark earns a rating of “some baloney.”
The provisions on what is known as the “proactive disclosure” of certain government information are in Part 2 of Bill C-58.
That includes setting down in law a practice started in 2004, which saw ministers, their staff and senior departmental officials regularly publish their travel and hospitality expenses over the previous quarter.
Bill C-58 also expands the requirement to MPs, senators, their staff, parliamentary employees and Federal Court officials, all of whom must also provide lists of contracts signed for taxpayer dollars.
The law also directs departments to publish lists of briefing notes provided to ministers and the heads of departments as well as the transition binders prepared for them when they take over their positions. Briefing packages prepared for ministers for question period and for them and senior officials for committee appearances must also be disclosed. These are favourite targets for journalists’ access-to-information requests, since they often lay out in plain language the bureaucracy’s biggest problems and worries.
Before any of the material is posted on a government website, it is first vetted.
Bill C-58 lays out several scenarios in which information about expenses and contracts can be withheld, while departments are still required to scrub briefing notes for potentially sensitive information — like any normal access-to-information request.
The access-to-information law requires departments to respond to most requests within 30 days but Bill C-58 applies different deadlines for proactively disclosed records — in some cases up to 120 days.
Proactively disclosed records are also excluded from the federal information commissioner’s ambit, meaning Canadians cannot file complaints about them.
What the experts say
Experts on open government and the access-to-information system generally agree that ordering the release of more information is positive.
Many nonetheless had questions and concerns about how the new obligations would play out — and whether Canadians will truly be able to more easily access what Gould described as “the most often requested documents.”
That included why she described the records covered by Part 2 of Bill C-58 as “the most requested.”
“If you look at the departments that get the most requests, (Immigration, Refugees and Citizen Canada) is number one,” said Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy in Halifax.
“And I don’t think this is going to make those sorts of documents that are being requested from Immigration available.”
The Immigration Department received more than 64,000 access-to-information requests in 2017-18, according to government figures. The Canada Border Services Agency came in second with nearly 7,500.
The border agency reported processing more than 15.6 million pages in response to those requests; Immigration handled 3.7 million.
“I think they are important documents that they’re covering,” Mendel said of the proactive-disclosure provisions, “but that’s not quite the same thing as the most-often requested documents.”
Experts also had concerns about the amount of time departments now have to disclose records, which in some cases is far longer than the 30-day deadline for responding to normal access-to-information requests.
“That delay is important to think about,” said Teresa Scassa, a Canada research chair in information law at the University of Ottawa, of the longer timelines.
“If you need the information faster, you’d have to file the access-to-information request because it may not be up in time.”
Even then, the access-to-information law has a provision letting departments deny requests because the desired documents are to be published soon.
There were also questions over how departments’ compliance will be policed.
“The government will still continue to apply these exemptions and exclusions,” said Sean Holman, an expert on open government at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “It’s not as if we’re getting an unredacted view of these records. We’re getting a redacted view of these records.”
Yet while Bill C-58 lets the government withhold potentially sensitive information from proactively released documents as it does with normal requests, it specifically prevents the federal information commissioner from investigating such documents.
The only likely way around, said Duff Conacher, co-founder of transparency activist group Democracy Watch, would be to formally ask for the same document once it is published and then file a complaint to the commissioner on that request.
“Records could easily be kept hidden by exploiting these loopholes and exemptions (in the act),” he said.
Thanks to Bill C-58, parliamentarians and the federal government will begin releasing more information to Canadians — some that is regularly requested through the access-to-information system and some that was never previously covered by the law.
Yet aside from uncertainty about how often such information is requested, experts say the long timelines under which documents will be produced and the lack of oversight of the process raise questions about Gould’s statement.
“It’s not completely full of baloney, but it’s excluding so much information,” Holman said. “It’s saying that this one change is going to enhance transparency and accountability. And it’s saying that (people) can easily view them. And those aren’t actually true statements. They’re very seriously shaded truth.”
“I think there’s going to be more that’s available through proactive disclosure eventually,” said Scassa. “But these are cautious steps and it’s a matter of how it’s going to play out, how much will actually be made available and under what circumstances.”
For those reasons, Gould’s statement is deemed to contain “some baloney.”
The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:
No baloney — the statement is completely accurate
A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required
Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing
A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth
Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
151st Cowichan Exhibition includes new category: best home-grown pot
VICTORIA — One of Canada’s oldest fall fairs is putting a new twist on its annual showcase of local livestock, produce and fruit by adding a new category for best home-grown marijuana.
The Cowichan Exhibition in Duncan, B.C., which dates back to 1868, has created a best cannabis category to embrace legalization and celebrate local pot growers, said exhibition vice-president Bud James.
The fair starts Friday and the cannabis entries will be on display in the main hall at the Cowichan Exhibition Grounds along with the region’s top vegetables, fruits and baked goods. First prize is $5, second is $3 and third place gets a ribbon.
“We just decided this year, because it’s an agricultural product, and it’s been grown in the valley for years, and now that it’s finally legally grown, we would allow people to win a ribbon for the best,” said James.
He said fair officials believe the Cowichan cannabis category is the first of its kind in Canada.
An official at the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions, a non-profit organization representing rural and urban fairs, said she had not heard of any other cannabis judging contests prior to the Cowichan Exhibition, but couldn’t confirm it was the first.
A fall fair in Grand Forks, B.C., is also judging local cannabis, but the event starts Saturday, one day after Cowichan’s fair. Those who enter the competition in Grand Forks can compete for best indoor- and outdoor-grown cannabis.
James said fair organizers contacted the local council and RCMP prior to adding the cannabis category. The mayor and council did not oppose the contest and the RCMP referred organizers to B.C.’s Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch, the agency monitoring retail sales of non-medical cannabis, he said.
Organizers decided to go ahead with the event after its plans were not rejected, James said.
“Our interpretation of the rules are you can’t make it attractive to people under 19 years and we are not making it attractive,” he said.
James said the cannabis entries will be placed in a glass display case and the individual entries will be sealed in clear zip lock plastic bags.
“It’s being judged to the same standard of judging garden and field produce,” he said. “It’s done by uniformity. You want all three buds to be the same size, same shape, same colour. It’s also the dryness, texture and smell. It’s exactly the same way you would judge apples or carrots or hay bales. It’s all done the same way.”
James said the contest doesn’t involve sampling the product.
Bree Tweet, the manager of a medical cannabis dispensary in nearby Ladysmith, will judge the marijuana entries, said James.
The exhibition received 18 cannabis entries and James said the contest created a buzz at the fair.
“The enthusiasm of the entrants, the people bringing their entry forms, they are so enthusiastic it’s unbelievable,” he said. “They are so thrilled that it’s happening, that we’re doing it because they’ve been waiting for years for legalization and now, they finally got it and now they have a chance to show what they can do.”
James, who has entered his prized Dahlia flowers at past fairs, said the addition of the cannabis category has exceeded expectations with the 18 entries.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press
School board defends book pictured on principal’s desk after online uproar
A Toronto-area Catholic school board says an online firestorm that erupted after a book on how to teach black students was photographed on a principal’s desk stems from a misunderstanding over the book’s contents.
The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board says the book, titled “The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys,” has a provocative title but is actually a helpful resource on tackling racial and cultural oppression in education.
Michelle Coutinho, the board’s principal of equity and inclusive education, says such materials are a particularly useful reference given how diverse the student population is in the district and at that specific school.
The controversy emerged this week after a Brampton, Ont., high school, Cardinal Ambrozic Catholic Secondary School, posted a photo of its new principal on Twitter.
The photo, which shows the book on her desk, set off heated debate, with some suggesting it was a sign of racism or incompetence, or a prop meant to bolster the school’s image.
The image was also shared on instagram by 6ixBuzzTV, a popular account with roughly 1.2 million followers.
“LOOOOL. No principal should make it this far while subsequently needing a book like this,” one person wrote on Twitter. “She a bad principal,” wrote another.
Some defended the book, however, and the principal’s efforts to educate herself. “She’s making an effort to connect with her students, it’s more than most principals do,” another tweet read.
The board said it was surprised by the uproar and hoped people would look up the book before jumping to conclusions based on its title.
The principal intends to address the photo in a public announcement and invite any students with lingering questions to see her, said Bruce Campbell, the board’s spokesman.
The book, written by three researchers and published in 2017, aims to improve outcomes for black students by helping teachers create learning environments in which they feel nurtured and engaged. The title references the fact that white women make up the bulk of the teaching force in the U.S.
Coutinho said the book asks educators to challenge the biases they may bring into the classroom.
“We know that we’re steeped in a colonized kind of world view and how do we break out of that in our everyday practices?” she said, noting it has been used in the board’s anti-oppression training in the past.
Cardinal Ambrozic’s new principal was involved in a book study at several schools that delved deeply into the text last year, Coutinho said.
“If we’re going to make any changes to the education system, we have to start talking about these things and talking about them openly and honestly without shame or blame.”
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press
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