Which party will deliver most transparent government?

By Stanley Tromp

Stanley Tromp is a Vancouver independent journalist and author of the book Fallen Behind: Canada’s Access to Information Act in the World Context.

Canada’s Access to Information Act of 1982 is an essential law that allows citizens and the media to obtain government records on many vital topics, such as health and safety, crime, public finance and the environment. Yet today it could be equated to a rusted manual typewriter in the iPhone-Twitter age. In 2008, I wrote a book called Fallen Behind , which compared all the world’s freedom of information laws to reveal that our ATI Act had lagged far behind global FOI standards in their level of openness.

Over the past decade, more than 50 nations have passed FOI laws for a total of 128, and such access has come to be recognized by courts as a “human right.” In the authoritative Global Right to Information Rating system of the world’s laws, Afghanistan ranks number 1, while Canada – which ironically has so worked hard to transform that nation from a theocratic dictatorship into a modern democracy – ranks 58th. (The top ten list includes Serbia, Sri Lanka, Slovenia, Albania, India, Croatia, and Liberia.)

The problem has grown so much worse that, indeed, the second edition of this book – to be released later this year – could well be entitled Fallen Further Behind .

In the 2015 election campaign, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau made several FOI reform promises, and after he won, actually kept a few of them. In Ottawa this year, Bill C-58 was passed, which grants the Information Commissioner the power to order government to release records against its will.

Even this new power has received very mixed reviews, mostly negative. The Commissioner has objected that the Bill is in fact a “regression” of existing FOI rights, and the new power is not “a true order-making model” due to five serious failings with it, features that are mostly absent in the rest of the FOI world.

The Liberal party broke its pledge to have the prime minister’s and ministers’ offices covered under the ATIA, instead prescribing only some proactive release of some self-selected records, which is a form of faux transparency.

Overall, as Information Commissioner John Reid said in a 1999 speech: “It amuses me to see the profound change in attitude about access to information which occurs when highly placed insiders suddenly find themselves on the outside. And vice versa!”

To raise our ATI Act to world standards, the law needs a public interest override, a harms tests for all exemptions, some limit on the delays that authorities are allowed to claim, and new rules for officials to create and preserve records so as to defeat the growing menace of “oral government.” This last occurs when officials no longer commit their thoughts to paper, and convey them verbally instead, to avert the chance of the information emerging in response to FOI requests.

We also need FOI coverage of the wholly owned and controlled entities that perform public functions and spend billions of taxpayer’s dollars. Today more than 100 such quasi-governmental entities are still not covered by the ATIA . The exclusion of some of these such as the Canadian Blood Services, the nuclear Waste Management Organization and air traffic controllers could result in harm to public health and safety.

As well, the records of cabinet discussions are excluded completely from the scope of the FOI law only in Canada and South Africa, whereas other nations have a mandatory exemption for it. The ATIA ’s Section 21 exemption for policy advice is far broader than in most of the world, and it is being over applied to withhold countless records in the public interest. (Its 20 year secrecy limit is grossly overlong, compared to the five years set in Nova Scotia’s FOI law.) In the world, 78 nations grant citizens a right to access state-held information in their Constitutions or Bill of Rights, while Canada does not.

“As someone who travels around the world promoting the right to information, it is frankly a source of profound embarrassment to me how poorly Canada does on this human right,” writes Halifax lawyer and FOI expert Toby Mendel. “Given that everyone who uses this system regularly is aware that it is profoundly broken, it is inexplicable that it does not get fixed.”

By stubbornly holding Canada back in such an insular, stagnant backwater within the FOI world, Prime Minister Trudeau is placing our country’s reputation for democratic process at risk. When will the ATI Act be raised to accepted global standards? Will we have to wait another 36 years to finally bring it into the 21st century?

In this 2019 federal election campaign, Canadians should insist upon answers from all the candidates.

Election 2019: Comparing Party Platforms

How Canada’s major federal political parties compare on issues related to privacy and access to information

The table below uses publicly available information contained within the platforms of Canada’s four major political parties: the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, and the Green Party.

FIPA is a non-partisan organization and this chart is only intended to be an easily accessible guide on how the parties are addressing issues related to privacy and access to information. It is not an endorsement of any particular party.

For more information about the specific statements issued by each party leading to these determinations, please see the information below the chart.

 Liberal PartyConservative PartyNew Democratic PartyGreen Party
Totals6329
Increase the powers of the Privacy Commissioner of CanadaYesUnclearYesYes
Increase the powers of the Information Commissioner of CanadaNothing stated Nothing statedNothing statedYes
Improve Access to InformationNothing statedNothing statedNothing statedYes
Ensure Political Parties fall under Canada's federal privacy legislation Nothing stated Nothing statedNothing stated Yes
Mandatory breach notifications YesUnclearNothing statedYes
Give citizens the ability to erase basic personal information from platforms YesUnclearNothing statedYes
Give citizens data portability YesNothing statedNothing stated Yes
Create stronger cyberbullying protectionsYesYesYesNothing stated
Create mandatory plain language consent agreementsNothing statedYesNothing stated Nothing stated
Give citizens ability to review and challenge amount of personal information being collected by governmentYesNoNothing stated Yes
Create regulations related to Artificial IntelligenceNothing stated YesNothing statedYes

Each of these determinations are based on the platform documents released by the major four political parties in 2019:

Liberal Party of Canada Platform 2019

Conservative Party of Canada Platform 2019

New Democratic Party of Canada Platform 2019

Green Party of Canada Platform 2019

Below are the quotes and page numbers where each of these determinations can be corroborated.

We encourage all political parties to provide us with additional details about their commitments, or to provide us with clarification on their positions, by writing to us (fipa@fipa.bc.ca).

Increase the powers of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada

Liberal Party: Yes. Included in Canada’s Digital Charter (40-41).

Conservative Party: Unclear. “We will employ sensible regulation, rigorous standards, and strong oversight over the personal information, data, and privacy of Canadians” (74).

New Democratic Party: Yes. The “New Democrats will work to strengthen privacy protections for Canadians by boosting the power of the Privacy Commissioner to make and enforce orders” (102).

Green Party: Yes. “Significantly increase the powers of the Privacy Commissioner, in particular to protect identity and personal data, and to enforce privacy laws” (75).

Increase the powers of the Information Commissioner of Canada

Liberal Party: Nothing stated.

Conservative Party: Nothing stated.

New Democratic Party: Nothing stated.

Green Party: Yes. Will “[s]trengthen the role and protect the independence of parliamentary officers including … the Information Commissioner” (73). They will also “[a]uthorize the Information Commissioner to order the release of information” (74)

Improve Access to Information

Liberal Party: Nothing stated.

Conservative Party: Nothing stated.

New Democratic Party: Nothing stated.

Green Party: Yes. They will do this by: removing all fees except filing fee; creating enforceable deadlines; put parliament, the PMO’s office, and all minister’s offices, within scope of ATI; ensure public interest comes before secrecy; allow Information Commissioner to review and determine if cabinet confidence applies; create a duty to document regarding ATI decisions (74).

Ensure Political Parties fall under Canada’s federal privacy legislation

Liberal Party: Nothing stated.

Conservative Party: Nothing stated.

New Democratic Party: Nothing stated.

Green Party: Yes. “Require political parties to follow the Privacy Act, without exceptions” (75).

Mandatory breach notifications

Liberal Party: Yes. Included in Canada’s Digital Charter. Also includes compensation (40-41).

Conservative Party: Unclear. Will establish “binding cyber security standards for critical infrastructure sectors and penalties for non-compliance” to protect Canadians from “largescale data breaches” (75).

New Democratic Party: Nothing stated.

Green Party: Yes. Will “[c]reate mandatory data breach reporting for all government departments, companies, banks and political parties” (75).

Give citizens the ability to erase basic personal information from platforms

Liberal Party: Yes. Included in Canada’s Digital Charter (40-41).

Conservative Party: Unclear. “We will employ sensible regulation, rigorous standards, and strong oversight over the personal information, data, and privacy of Canadians” (74).

New Democratic Party: Nothing stated.

Green Party: Yes. “Require companies to … to delete personal information from company databases when requested by that person. Individuals would have the ‘right to be forgotten.’” (75).

Give citizens data portability

Liberal Party: Yes. Included in Canada’s Digital Charter (40-41).

Conservative Party: Nothing stated.

New Democratic Party: Nothing stated.

Green Party: Yes. “Require companies to grant access to all information they hold on an individual” (75).

Create stronger cyberbullying protections

Liberal Party: Yes. Included in Canada’s Digital Charter (40-41) Will also “move forward with new regulations for social media platforms, starting with a requirement that all platforms remove illegal content, including hate speech, within 24 hours or face significant financial penalties. This will also include other online harms, such as radicalization, incitement to violence, exploitation of children, or creation or distribution of terrorist propaganda. Because hate speech continues to harm people offline as well, we will also look at options for civil remedies for victims of hate speech” (47-48).

Conservative Party: Yes. Will introduce the Cyberbullying Accountability Act, legislation that “prohibits the use of a phone or the internet to threaten or advocate self-harm”, create civil liability so that “the parents, guardians, or account holders of cyberbullies can be held liable” (74).

New Democratic Party: Yes. Will convene a “national working group to counter online hate and protect public safety, and make sure that social media platforms are responsible for remove [sic] hateful and extremist content before it can do harm” (96).

Green Party: Nothing stated.

Create mandatory plain language consent agreements

Liberal Party: Nothing stated.

Conservative Party: Yes. Will also only allow “data that is necessary to provide the service” to be collected (74).

New Democratic Party: Nothing stated.

Green Party: Nothing stated.

Give citizens ability to review and challenge amount of personal information being collected by government

Liberal Party: Yes. Included in Canada’s Digital Charter (40-41).

Conservative Party: No. Will increase funding to police infrastructure: “To better support local law enforcement, a new Conservative government will commit $30 million over five years to purchase new equipment. This would benefit mid-sized communities the most, since they do not have the same budget as larger police programs to access technology. We will create a grant program so that our law enforcement has access to every tool and technology available. This will empower law enforcement to keep our communities and neighbourhoods safe” (64).

New Democratic Party: Nothing stated.

Green Party: Yes. “Change the law to require the Communications Security Establishment and CSIS to get a warrant before intruding on Canadians’ communications”; “Prohibit the routine surveillance of Canadians who protest against the government and the sharing of protesters and NGO staff information with the National Energy Board, and others”; and “Prohibit cyber surveillance and bulk collection of data by intelligence and police agencies” (75).

Create regulations related to Artificial Intelligence

Liberal Party: Nothing stated.

Conservative Party: Yes. Will establish “regulatory standards for ethical and secure use” of Artificial Intelligence (74).

New Democratic Party: Nothing stated.

Green Party: Yes. Will create parliamentary committee to examine issues that include Artificial Intelligence (46).

New on the Podcast: Information Laundering

As we learned in the first episode of Data Subjects, BC’s Freedom of Information laws were created in order to ensure that public records belong to the public, which is a fundamental principle to our democracy.

Citizens in a democratic nation must have a right of access to information about their government in order to make informed choices. But prior to 1992, we didn’t have these rights in BC. And now, we’re at risk of losing them again due to something called information laundering.

This episode is about a loophole in BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that allows public bodies to create subsidiary companies that are not subject to BC’s Freedom of Information laws.

First, we learn about how BC Ferries and BC Hydro used subsidiary companies with disastrous consequences in the 1990s during the ‘Fast Ferries’ and ‘Hydrogate’ scandals. Then, we hear from Larry Kuehn, of the BC Teachers’ Federation, and find out how BC school boards have misused subsidiary companies.

And finally, we hear from Stanley Tromp, independent journalist, and learn about his experience requesting information about one of UBC’s subsidiary companies, the UBC Properties Trust, and its consequences for health and safety on campus.

If you’d like to see information laundering as a thing of the past, please sign our petition and encourage the BC government to keep their campaign promise of protecting information and privacy rights in BC.

Support Information and Privacy Rights in BC

We’re calling on the provincial government to keep their promise

Earlier this month, we teamed up with the BC Civil Liberties Association and created a petition to encourage the British Columbia government to keep their campaign promise of reforming the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

This Act is as important today as it was when it was created in the early 1990s. It creates a legal framework that regulates how public bodies treat personal information and assigns information and privacy rights to British Columbians.

But in the nearly thirty years since the Act was passed, a lot has changed while the Act has stayed largely the same. Just think, the new technology at the time was the fax machine. The internet and our connected world has changed the way information is created, stored, used, and accessed. And our laws need to change as well.

The status quo isn’t good enough

Two years ago, during the campaign period for our last provincial election, we asked each political party about their plans to update BC’s FIPPA. We asked the New Democratic Party (NDP) if they would include a duty to document within the FIPPA and if they would create penalties for those who interfere with information rights.

In response to both questions, the NDP unequivocally committed to including a duty to document within the FIPPA, and to creating penalties for those who interfere with information rights.

Today, over two years later, we’ve seen no action towards realizing these commitments. In fact, while the government celebrated legislative changes to the Information Management Act as improvements to “transparency and accountability to British Columbians,” they were being accused of breaking the very laws they are mandated to uphold.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC, Michael McEvoy, released this statement about the legislative changes to the Information Management Act and the serious accusations facing government:

‘As it now stands, the Information Management Act designates the Minister herself as primarily responsible for ensuring her Ministry’s compliance with the duty to document its decisions. Citizens would find it very surprising that, on its face, the current law makes a Minister responsible for investigating their own conduct. This is unacceptable and falls short of the independent oversight required to ensure public trust and accountability.’

The tragic irony of the situation seems to be lost on government. Serious accusations of wrongdoing, the kinds that have been recently levelled against a government Minister, cannot be appropriately investigated by that very same Minister.

If British Columbians are to truly have improvements to government “transparency and accountability” then what is needed is independent oversight. The FIPPA creates a regulatory framework within the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, one that operates separately from government.

To keep its promise, and to truly increase “transparency and accountability to British Columbians,” the government must assign independent oversight to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner by creating a duty to document within the FIPPA.

What is a ‘Duty to Document’?

A duty to document is quite simple and something that the original writers of the FIPPA did not think would be necessary to include in the legislation. It’s the idea that government must record their decision making process, which is fundamental principle to functional freedom of information laws.

For example, if someone were to request documents related to a new tax that government was requiring of citizens, that request would not be successful if no records were to exist. The duty to document would compel government to document their decision making process so that citizens can exercise their information rights, like the right to know.

The original lawmakers who drafted the FIPPA did not anticipate that government would hold meetings in person and over the phone without writing anything down (a phenomenon known as ‘oral government’), use personal email addresses to conduct government business, and maliciously delete records in order to circumnavigate freedom of information laws (a practice known as ‘triple-delete’).

But unfortunately that is now the reality in which we are living.

We are not alone in calling for a duty to document. The all party special legislative committee that reviewed the FIPPA in 2016 made the specific recommendation to include a duty to document within the FIPPA. That committee included BC’s current Attorney General, David Eby.

In addition, Information and Privacy Commissioners in BC have called for the inclusion of a duty to document within the FIPPA. Elizabeth Denham, in her report, Access Denied wrote:

‘Government should create a legislative duty to document within FIPPA as a clear indication that it does not endorse “oral government” and that it is committed to be accountable to citizens by creating an accurate record of its key decisions and actions.’

And BC’s current Information and Privacy Commissioner, Michael McEvoy, has written this:

‘It is time for government to amend FIPPA to ensure that the vitally important duty to document has the oversight of my office, which is independent of government. The public interest requires this’

Yet despite these calls, the government has failed to act on their promise to protect the information rights of British Columbians.

We need your help

So after two years of government inaction, distraction, and obfuscation, we are inviting the public to join our call for the government to keep its promise of reforming FIPPA. We have included four main points; the inclusion of a duty to document within FIPPA is just the beginning. Over the coming months, we’ll expand on the other points.

If you are interested to learn more about the FIPPA, and our role in getting the legislation passed, check out our podcast. We have an episode on the history of the Act and an episode on the duty to document.

But the most important thing that you can do, is to add your name to our petition and voice your support for the privacy and information rights of British Columbians.

Support information and privacy rights for British Columbians today