Newsletter: How to unlock the Canadian government’s secrets

It’s your right to know.

This article originally appeared in our data newsletter. Want more info like this? Every month, we break down the numbers and share the how-tos behind our reporting. Read past editions and subscribe here.

Your curiosity is an integral part of our democracy. In fact, it’s actually your right to ask questions, so yes — go ahead and ask our elected officials for information.

One way Canadians can exercise this right is through something called a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for many provincial agencies or Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request for the federal government. Journalists use these tools, but they aren’t the only ones; businesses, law firms, politicians, researchers and everyday citizens do, too.

Filing information requests is “an opportunity to peer behind the press releases, and see what is really up and behind those government filing cabinets and disk drives,” says Fred Vallance-Jones, a data journalist and associate professor at University of King’s College in Halifax. “We need to know what our governments are actually doing, as well as what they say they are doing in their press releases.”

So, how do you find out if the government is staying true to its word? Simply fill out a form and ask for specific data. Here are a few examples:

Great. Now, you know some of questions you can ask. But what happens if the answer is no?

As it turns out, more often than not, the answer is no. An audit conducted by Vallance-Jones and News Media Canada, a group representing more than 800 of the country’s digital and print newspapers, gave the federal government a failing grade when it comes to disclosing information. In March, News Media Canada sent 432 requests in total to 25 federal departments, agencies and crown corporations, three departments/ministries in every province and territory, and 19 municipalities. It found that the feds denied information almost 80 per cent of the time — despite the fact that a key campaign promise of the Trudeau government was to “make government information more accessible

“This was a government that rode into office on the promise of sunny ways and greater transparency and openness,” Vallance-Jones tells me. “But in, fact, we saw the opposite.”

When the government says “no” to providing information, it has to explain why. But if you aren’t satisfied with the explanation, Canada’s privacy commissioner can investigate — unless the information is deemed a “cabinet confidence.”

That’s what happened to fellow Discourse reporter Emma Jones when she asked Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency for the Gender-Based Analyses Plus (GBA+) for two resources projects in B.C. (Check out Emma’s newsletter for a detailed explanation of GBA+.) Both agencies responded with email statements that said “federal gender-based analyses (GBAs) were conducted,” but that the actual “analyses are subject to Cabinet Confidence.”

For the uninitiated, here’s the idea behind “cabinet confidence”: Ministers should be able to disagree with each other behind closed doors, but still present a unified front in public. As theMichel Drapeau Law Office, which specializes in Access to Information law, explains it, “In the broadest sense, cabinet confidences are the political secrets of Ministers individually and collectively, the disclosure of which would make it difficult for the government to speak in unison before Parliament and the public.”

So, when it comes to access to information requests, if what you seek is deemed a “cabinet confidence,” there’s very little you can do to challenge the government’s decision. They’re a “big black hole” explains Vallance-Jones.

The Information Commissioner’s Office challenged the use of cabinet confidence in 2014; it called the current definition “overly broad” and made several recommendations to try and reduce its use. In 2015, “cabinet confidence” was used more than 3,000 times to deny information; that’s up from 1,180 times in 2011 – an increase of 66 per cent.

Strengthening our access to information laws towards greater transparency is important “if we are going to have that sort of open vibrant democracy with a real debate — not just one that is informed by tweets and what is pushed out to us superficially,” says Vallance-Jones.

Next week, we’re publishing a three-part investigation into Canada’s #shadowpopulation. In this series, Emma and I look at the challenges facing workers and local residents who live in and near, respectively, work camps that house some members of this transient workforce. Until then, we’ll keep looking for ways to access the GBA+ currently under cabinet confidence. If you have any ideas or tips for opening locked government cabinets, we’d love to hear from you.  

For now, I’ll leave you with my my top-three access to information fails as inspiration…

  1. That time Prince Edward Island’s government redacted information in an FOI response — even though the same information was already published on its public website.
  2. That time the B.C. government said it’d post completed FOIs online, and someone filed an FOI to see if that actually happened. It didn’t.
  3. That time an American journalist and lawyer were jailed for requesting court transcripts, which are typically available to the public upon request. [end]

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