COVID-19 highlighting government secrecy, changes urged

“Conspiracy theories are very quick to take hold in the absence of truthful information," researcher warns

Canadians have been denied information about COVID-19 and details about government responses to the pandemic, say a group of Canadian accountability experts.

“What COVID-19 is exposing is the existing secrecy and paternalism of our political and government systems,” said Prof. Sean Holman of Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

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Holman was part of the group whose report, released May 25, said Canadians deserve greater information transparency, protection for whistleblowers and COVID-19 ombudspersons across the country.

The report said public and private bodies have been less than transparent with the public and news media about actions taken to slow the pandemic.

“As a result of their scale, scope, and opacity, the potential for the abuse and misuse of resources and information has increased,” the report said.

“Canadians are being kept in the dark about everything from how much money is being spent to fight the pandemic to basic data about where the disease is spreading,” Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group member Ian Bron said.

The group includes former whistleblowers and prominent accountability experts from academia, law, policing and journalism.

Holman, a former Victoria-based investigative journalist and longtime user of B.C.’s freedom of information system, said governments are doing no one any favours in pursuing secrecy in an era where trust in government is plummeting.

From just the pandemic alone, the group identified six examples of withheld information:

• B.C.’s government refused to reveal the locations of confirmed COVID-19 cases, with provincial health officer Bonnie Henry saying, “It would be irresponsible to mention only a few communities and give people outside those areas a false sense that they are not susceptible or at lower risk;”

• Health Canada refused to provide historical data about confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada because “the provinces and territories are the owners of the information;”

• Federal officials refused to respond to questions from opposition parties and news media as to how many ventilators and critical care beds Canada might need during the pandemic;

• Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan refused to say how many Canadian Armed Forces members have contracted COVID-19, citing “operational security reasons;”

• Nova Scotia’s government refused to release its plan for lifting COVID-19 restrictions, even though the provincial chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang had already briefed the Nova Scotia Business Labour Economic Coalition about that proposal;

• New Brunswick’s Horizon Health Network refused to reveal if any of its staff had tested positive for COVID-19, claiming it was personal health information, and;

• Manitoba’s government refused “to say how much it had spent on personal protective equipment, what the province got, and how much it was still obligated to purchase.

“Not releasing that kind of information means the people in communities being hit by the pandemic may not know of the danger around them,” Holman said. “That’s a problem.”

Moreover, he said, secrecy can create greater problems.

“We’re living in the post-truth era in which conspiracy theories are very quick to take hold in the absence of truthful information,” he said. “Governments need to be alert to that.”

As a result of government secrecy, the group recommended release of the following information within 15 days of their compilation being completed:

• Inspection reports, audits, statistics and similar records related to the compliance with and enforcement of government environmental, consumer, health, and safety regulations;

• Scientific and public health research reports, studies, statistics and similar records that have been prepared by or submitted to public bodies; and

• Contracts, grants and loans provided to companies and organizations, including records related to the conditions and values of those agreements, as well as whether they were fulfilled.

Further, the group said such records should be exempt from the myriad of exemptions and exclusions found in federal and provincial freedom of information and privacy laws.

“Public bodies have repeatedly misused these exemptions and exclusions to prevent the release of embarrassing and inconvenient information, while our governments chronically underfund the offices responsible for mediating or adjudicating appeals regarding that abuse,” the study said.

Deeper than those, the group said, is a need for stronger access-to-information laws to empower Canadians to get information by default rather than through cumbersome procedures where they must battle ministries or agencies for release of information.

“The public has a right to know whether the regulations meant to protect them are being enforced, as well as when and where they are violated and by whom,” the report said. “The public has a right to know the scientific and medical research that are informing government decisions. And they have a right to know how their money is being spent. In the midst of the pandemic, these rights have never been more important. And making these records open by default is vital to securing these rights.”

The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) has also waded in, saying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has an opportunity to end government’s culture of secrecy.

CAJ president Karyn Pugliese said May 11 the pandemic has brought the information system to a standstill.

“This comes at a time when the federal government spends billions of dollars in emergency aid with minimal parliamentary scrutiny,” Pugliese said. “The system is often the only means of transparency that allows Canadians to hold their government accountable for its actions such as its rapid-fire pandemic response.

“The system was in crisis for years before the pandemic, with journalists sometimes waiting years on requests. We warned the government many times that it urgently needed fixing, they ignored the problems and now the pandemic has shattered the system. The government needs to recognize the crisis and make fixing it a priority now.”

 

Federal response

On Thursday, federal Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos suggested to cabinet colleagues that transparency and accountability are essential “even in times of crisis.” He said openness in the pandemic is key to ensuring public confidence.

A month earlier, Duclos received a letter from Information Commissioner of Canada Caroline Maynard saying what happens with access to information during the pandemic is critical in how that systems moves forward.

“Even before the pandemic and the widespread adoption of alternative work arrangements, chronic under-resourcing had created backlogs in both access requests and complaints that had grown year after year,” Maynard said in the April 28 letter to Duclos.

Maynard anticipates a surge in information requests after the crisis that could overwhelm a system “already facing major challenges.”

“Transparency in government is crucial to maintaining trust between citizens and their government.  In order to safeguard openness and transparency, it is incumbent on the government to show leadership and develop a new vision and strategy for modernizing the access system; one that includes innovation, ensures adequately resourced and equipped [Access to Information and Privacy] units across all institutions, as well as increased proactive disclosure.”

That government departments or agencies are perhaps under-resourced and overwhelmed is underscored in a February decision by Maynard in which the RCMP was “deemed to have refused to give access.”

An April 2017 request to the RCMP was repeatedly put on hold for clarifications. The requester complained to Maynard’s office in September 2019.

Maynard notified the RCMP of her finding and of her intention to order disclosure.

“The RCMP did not, within the period provided to do so, notify me as to whether it would implement the order,” Maynard said.

Glacier Media has requests into the RCMP dating to 2018.

 

Whistleblowers

The advocacy group said governments are failing to protect whistleblowers who could expose threats to public health – whether they are in long-term care homes or meat packing plants.

Indeed, whistleblowing on such realities fell, in part, to Canada’s military, which had to send members into care homes hard hit in the pandemic.

The group wants to see the prime minister and premiers commit to such protections.

The study suggests expanding “definitions of wrongdoing, whistleblowers, whistleblower actions, and workers to cover any situation where public interest could be impacted.”

Further, it advocates expanding whistleblower protections to cover anonymous reporting, reporting based on “reasonable belief,” multiple channels for reporting and seeking redress in civil court at any stage.

And then there’s the idea of incentives.

“Implement whistleblower incentives for the private sector that include best-practice whistleblower protections, described above, and provide an award ranging from 10-30% of revenue recovered as a form of insurance for the risks that whistleblowers take,” the study said.

“Whistleblowing laws are particularly important during emergencies because they empower people to report wrongdoing by bad actors who may seek to capitalize on those emergencies for financial and political gain.”

The report said some incentives already exist through Canada Revenue Agency and Ontario securities legislation.

What needs to change, however, the group said, is a culture in which retaliation against whistleblowers is tolerated.

“These individuals risk their livelihoods to alert the public and organizations to misconduct that presents a danger to health, life, the environment, public finances, or other matters in the public interest,” the paper said.

The B.C. whistleblower who brought down a cabinet minister with his revelations about the B.C. Liberals’ ‘quick-wins” strategy isn’t keen on suggestions that whistleblowers be paid.

Jeff Melland gave the BC NDP the BC Liberal Party’s “Draft Multicultural Outreach Strategy.” The NDP released the document, which detailed a plan to use taxpayer-funded resources and staff including “ethnic outreach workers”  to score “quick wins” with ethnic voters as well as to compile ethnic contact lists for the Liberals.

Having read the new study, Melland said he supports any effective means to prevent, uncover, and report abuse of funds.

“Making sure people have the complete picture of the COVID-19 threat is unobjectionable as well. The open documents requirement, though, should have anonymization mechanisms to ensure patient privacy.”

However, Melland isn’t a fan of the incentive idea.

“As a whistleblower who ended up paying $6,900 in legal fees for my good deed, I'm cold to the idea of a financial incentive for whistleblowers,” Melland said. “Whistleblowing is an act that alters your life profoundly. Friendships get lost, bridges get burned, it can make job-hunting more of a challenge, and you can end up with powerful enemies.

“It is absolutely not an action to be taken lightly. I worry that a financial incentive might impair the soberness of thought that ought to be used in making the decision to blow the whistle,” he said.

But, he added, legal fees should be reimbursed.

Further, the group advocates creating COVID-ombudspersons coupled with powerful new open-records laws to give Canadians documents and data that public bodies routinely withhold.

“I like the idea of an ombudsperson,” Melland said.

 

jhainsworth@glaciermedia.ca

@jhainswo

 

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