I see, in a Canadian Press report, from about a week ago, that the Information Commissioner, Caroline Maynard (top) has rapped the knuckles of the Privy Council Office, headed by Ian Shugart (bottom) who is, arguably, the most powerful unelected person in Canada’s government, and that includes Katie Telford. The problem is bureaucratic arse-covering. Officials ~ the Access to Information function is the responsibility of the Executive Director, Access to Information and Privacy and Information Management who is a fellow named David Neilson, who reports to Matthew Shea who is the Assistant Deputy Minister, Corporate Services and Chief Financial Officer who in turn reports through the Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council and Associate Secretary to the Cabinet and Deputy Minister (Intergovernmental Affairs), Christyne Tremblay, to Mr Shugart ~ decided that when they could not meet the deadlines imposed (by legislation) on processing an Access to Information request (ATIR) they would simply close the file which made them look
good better than they would if they had too many missed deadlines. Both the lie, because that’s what it was, there’s no way to sugar coat it, and the Information Commissioner‘s rebuke are understandable.
The Information Commissioner‘s finding is easy to understand. Someone filed ATIRs (related, according to the CP story, to Cold War era intelligence records). Understandably, to me, anyway, at least some of those records are still, even if they are more than 30 years old, still classified and several government departments and agencies, including, perhaps, Global Affairs, National Defence and the Communications Security Establishment might have had to be consulted and they, in their turn, might have had to consult with allied countries and other agencies. It all takes time and the Access to Information timelines (30 or 45 days) are short, especially during a pandemic. But, and it’s a HUGE BUT, the Act (link above) is clear: “every person who is a Canadian citizen, or a permanent resident … has a right to and shall, on request, be given access to any record under the control of a government institution,” subject to a whole hockey sock full of usually pretty clear and common-sensical conditions like National Security requirements, personal privacy and so on and so forth.
It’s your right, subject to a bunch of restrictions that are justified in a free and democratic society, to know what the Government of Canada is doing and it is the government’s duty to be open and honest with you.
Now, I spent a lot of time in and around government, and in my last government job I was at the lowest rung of the executive ladder (director) where operations and policy (and, sometimes, even a wee, tiny bit of politics) meet. I can tell you that the entire Access to Information process is a pain in the arse. Some requests need 30 days just to comprehend ~ people ask for things about which they may have “learned” on Twitter, and, even with the best will in the world, I know that it can take several letters, back and forth, just to figure out what the person making the request actually wants to know. Then officials must ensure that everything they release to the public is releasable ~ that is to say that it is not restricted, in any way, by national (or international) security and privacy and contract laws and regulations. (I personally, recall, lengthy consultations with our, government lawyers who were consulting with a corporation’s lawyers because someone wanted to know some of the details of a contract. The problem was that they wanted some information that was provided in confidence to the Government of Canada by a company in a (winning) bid for a contract. You can imagine, I hope, how delicately one had to parse that request in order to skate between the competing requirements of several laws and contractual agreements and so on.) I don’t think that in nearly 50 years in and around government I ever met anyone who liked the Access to Information process, and that included some people in the Information Commissioner‘s own office!
But, and it’s another Big BUT, while it is possible, indeed necessary, for vey good and valid reasons, to refuse requests and delay responses and so on, it is
never rarely permissible to lie to Canadians, and that’s what the Privy Council Office did.
Many journalists are upset with how government, some departments are considered worse than others, handle Access to Information requests. Some journalists think that there is a conspiracy to keep them, and Canadians, in the dark. I think there is too much CYA ➞ in government, especially when it comes to what we used to call the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not embarrass the minister … no matter how big a mess (s)he may have made. It is normal, in my experience, to not want to give someone ~ the media or a disgruntled contractor for example ~ ammunition which they can use to cause you problems or embarrassment, BUT the people of Canada make better political choices in the voting booth when they know what’s going on.
What the Privy Council Office did was unacceptable. This is not on the prime minister nor is it on the Prime Minister’s Office. Mr Shugart has let down the side. He owes the Government of Canada and the people of Canada, especially those who work in media, trying to explain things to the rest of us, an honest and a sincere apology.