Monitoring Canada's secrecy

King’s journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones is concerned with the lack of transparency from the Canadian government.
“I worry that democracy in Canada has been significantly diminished as a result of the kind of control the governments have imposed from coast to coast,” he says.
This concern stems from the results of the annual Freedom of Information Audit that he does on a contract basis for Newspapers Canada.
Along with the help of a student, Vallance-Jones submits requests for information to various municipalities in each province and territory across the country.
The results of the latest audit, released in June, held no surprises.
“We don’t have a real culture of transparency in Canada. We have a culture of government control of information and a great reluctance to share, especially the things … that are more sensitive with the public. We see that every year in the results,” says Vallance-Jones.
Emily Kitagawa, a King’s journalism graduate, has worked on past audits and agrees with Vallance-Jones.
“It’s a really sad day when a request is sent (back) to you saying it’s a final response with black lines running through the text. You’re sort of wondering, what’s so secret about this?”
Vallance-Jones believes that the audit does put the pressure on government officials, although he says that much of the resulting change is internal, and not obvious to the public.
Small changes have been seen based on the results of the audit. Vallance-Jones remembers a case a few years back when a municipality in British Columbia made changes to their assessment of fees after negotiations over the tremendous cost to obtain cell phone records of employees.
These sorts of changes, ones that come from the municipalities, are the ones that will make a real difference in the responses to future audits, Vallance-Jones says.
“It’s very clear that if you don’t have the Stephen Harper’s and Stephen McNeil’s of the world very publically saying, ‘We want to be as open as possible, we want to have a policy where it’s release if you can, as opposed to find some way to not release.’ It won’t happen because the people lower down know where their bread is buttered.”
Preparations are currently underway for the 2014/2015 audit.

By David J. Shuman

David is the current editor-in-chief of The Watch and writes on student issues and events. Find him on Twitter: @DavidJShuman

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