A Very Private Canada

Mr. Trudeau and company set out on his second personal convoy to Europe in the last couple of days, to present himself as a leader in the western world’s semi-defence of the Ukraine. It is likely, however cynical it may seem, that his political image makers felt that this would be another, second golden opportunity to re-shape his tarnished narrative at home. War seemingly, has always had the ability to bolster ones captaincy.

The only blemish or hiccup which surfaced in his multiple highly structured appearances is that he had to entertain some questions from some of the European based journalists– who still seem to exhibit some vestiges of old school journalism–who apparently were not quite as appreciative of the coziness of the Canadian media to their leader.

After meeting with the Queen, the British Prime Minister, and the NATO secretary general there was a press conference. As many of the Canadian journalists dutifully stood in silent attendance, they watched as our Canadian Prime Minister was peppered with questions. The Prime Minister not recognizing a slight change in tenor in Europe, had done what he always does, whether it be in the House of Commons, or in front of a bank of friendly microphones. He simply launched into “talking points”; those short speeches of practised and safe verbiage. The usual “standing strong”, “Canadians are with you”, blah blah blah.

Some of the European journalists turned to their colleagues from across the pond, clearly perplexed, and said to them, “you know, your Prime Minister doesn’t answer questions?”. They were baffled. How is it that he doesn’t answer? After all they reasoned, this was a serious time with a serious series of questions awaiting clarification.

The Canadian journalists of course are aware of their Prime Minister and his constant avoidance of questions. They have been grinning and bearing it for a number of years. By tolerating it they of course unwittingly condone it. It has now become part of the Canadian parliamentary accepted political playbook. Chrystia Freeland, Melanie Joly and the other Cabinet Ministers are all now mimicking their master.

Why don’t the media push back, why don’t they ask the clearly glaring follow up question?

The answer is that journalism is struggling in our country. Newspapers and standard cable television are being swallowed up and spit out by the internet. Readership and viewership is dwindling to the point of being almost irrelevant. Those few that are left behind, need to have access to the PM, they need to get a free ride to the event. To act otherwise would kick them out of the small circle and they would lose their ticket on the plane.

Furthermore, their editors and producers, in order to compete with the social media who blurt incessantly, are trying to fit everything into a 150 word Twitter blip or a thirty second sound bite. They therefore need the headline and thus they need access to the providers of any headline no matter how tamed. When one is operating under these constraints there is little opportunity or desire for a probing question.

As a country we the people, seem willing to accept this lack of insight. No time in our busy schedules, no real interest in anything past a bare headline. Therefore we are not overly concerned about tenacity in our journalists. We believe or are willing to believe, at least on some surface level, what we are being told by those somber sounding talking heads every night at 6 o’clock.

Running in parallel to this evasiveness and more potentially dangerous may also be our seeming acceptance of our government to be allowed to conduct business as they see fit; in privacy, out of the public inquiring eye. We apparently trust our government operatives to operate ethically. This assumption of honesty may be disproportional to the evidence. Or are we just dis-interested, complacent in our Canadian security?

The government’s desire for privacy is enveloped by and enforced by the legislation and entirely consistent with the desire for secrecy. First and foremost there is the Federal Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. If one dares to venture into the world of intelligence, then there is the Official Secrets Act. The Provinces have their own separate privacy acts. In the Province of British Columbia, there is the Personal Protection Act layered on top of all the other Acts. All of them are designed and have the express purpose to limit access to “private information”. In broad simple terms they are sold to us as a necessity to the overriding good. The devil, as always, is in the details.

In reading the complete version of these Acts, you can begin to see the over-reaching nature of these Statutes. You are not allowed to see the position or function of a government employee, the title or business address, classification or salary of that employee. In fact you are not allowed to see the name of an individual on a document. You are not allowed to know anyone performing services or under contract to government including the terms of a contract, and the names of individuals on that contract. You are not allowed any information relating to any discretionary benefit of a a financial nature, including the “granting of a licence or permit conferred on an individual, including the name or the exact nature of the benefits”. In fact the very “existence of the information does not need to be disclosed”.

If curiosity arises and you put in a Freedom of Information Act request, you will likely be waiting 18 months to two years for the information; which will also likely be redacted to the point of often being useless, not to mention untimely. It recently took this blogger 18 months to receive the answer to a request of how many officers were working on a particular Watch at a particular RCMP detachment. The answer was itself missing half the information, saying they didn’t know, or that they did not gather such information. (apparently they don’t know how many people were working on a particular shift) When I was able to double check the actual numbers that were provided, the numbers were in the end not accurate either.

The Federal Privacy Act applies to all government institutions, an extensive list of Crown Corporations and government sponsored entities. The list numbers in the hundreds. This includes such groups as the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Specifications Board (whatever that is) and the Nunavut Water Board.

Three point six million Canadians worked for the Federal Government in 2010, another 844,762 worked for the Provincial and Territorial Governments. This is roughly 20-25% of the population depending on the measure. If you include those that work in the private sector but are under contract to various levels of government those Government Business Enterprises (GBE) add another 350,000 employees.

If we look at the Courts and the administration of Justice in this country, records are regularily hidden from public view, despite the principal need for justice to be seen as being done.

Defence counsel and civil counsel will almost invariably ask for publication bans in the name of privacy, and those bans are routinely given by Judges with little forethought or examination of the public’s right to know. Media companies often have to go to court to fight these publication bans, but of course an individual usually will not have those kinds of legal and financial resources.

Our labour arbitrations are the masters of keeping quiet. Settlements never exposed, no matter how egregious. If you leave a company employ, you sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Civil case settlements will almost always include these non-disclosure clauses to protect “privacy” It is effectively also protecting the secrecy of the wrong-doing. One does not have to look further than the sexual harassment suits which were signed off by the RCMP. Lawyers and Judges in quiet wood panelled rooms get to see the details, but not you, the taxpaying public.

The irony is that this is all happening as the government continues to gather individual and private information on you. Your health records under the cover of Covid being put on a government application. We are assured that these apps could never be hacked. The tethering of our phones to our lives and our very existence means that we are more than willing to let data aggregators know where we live, what book or food we like, and which toothpaste we like to buy.

The ability to control information is a powerful tool. The war in Ukraine is playing out constantly on the waves of the internet, both sides producing mis-information in the battle for our approval and acceptance and to extol their positions. Safe to say there really are no principled sides. Right or left, Liberals or Conservatives, North America or Russia.– one only needs to look to the examples that Wikileaks and Snowden exposed. No one should trust their government implicitly.

The problem is overwhelmingly complex, layered, and few show any interest in peering in. There are some banging on the gates of secrecy that surround Canada’s institutions, but right now it is for the most part falling on deaf ears. Government employees and our representatives are not going to give up their hiding spots easily. Transparency in what transpires in government corridors throughout this country is non-existent. It is election rhetoric at best, nothing more. Our current Federal leader even when asked a relevant question feels no need to expose information of any kind.

On a more recent intimate level, there is the story of Liette Savoie and her quest to uncover the details of an investigation of the death of her 17 year old daughter in Bas-Caraquet New Brunswick in 2007. The other driver was convicted of impaired driving causing death. She is on the quest for further information as there are many rumours of the crash being the result of a high speed chase and that there was another car involved. The initial answer by the RCMP was that the Access to Information Act did not allow for disclosure due to a 20 year before release rule. They were pressed by the Federal Commissioner and they again argued that the personal information of the deceased (yes, her dead daughter) was protected for 20 years and that the public interest in disclosure “did not outweigh the invasion of privacy that would result from disclosure”.

This kind of story can be multiplied hundreds of times over.

It is heart breaking and maybe even more disturbing when the police as instructed and directed by an allegedly democratic government, simply go into hiding.

The Liberals just negotiated a deal with the NDP, to insure a majority style government. Even the Liberal MP’s did not know it was coming.

The agreement, of course, was negotiated in secret. That is the way we do things in Canada.

Photo courtesy of Flickr by European Parliament via Creative Commons – Some Rights Reserved

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