Access to Information Merely An Illusion

If you thought you could peer behind the curtain at the pudgy guy pulling the levers and see what your government is up to, think again. You were wrong, you have no such rights. Documents just received by this writer from the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada pretty much demolish any naive notion that we have any right to know what's going on.

Citing subsection 69(1) of the Access to Information Act, Donna M. Billard, writes that "...the Act does not apply to confidences of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada. The Act also provides that this office (hers, presumably) may not see any of the information which the government claims to be a Cabinet confidence."

Translating from bureaucrat-ese, this means that if the Privy Council has seen documents that they or some other governmental entity think should be off limits to the public, then those documents vanish from public view for, get ready for this: 30 years. Not only that, but they remain secret from the Access to Information Commissioner too.

Ms. Billard holds the impressive sounding title of "Chief of Operations, Strategic Case Management Team, Complaints Resolutions and Compliance." The issue she was trying to resolve over the last 19 months was my complaint to the Commissioner's office about the surprising refusal of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the ministry to which the Coast Guard belongs, to answer a basic question.

The question I posed to them in July 2007 in an Access to Information request was this: "How much is the Coast Guard going to be spending on Olympic security preparations and operations up to and including in 2010?"

I wasn't asking where their ships were going to be, who would be on them, or what everyone would be having for breakfast. Certainly not a rocket science sort of question, not neuroscience, no tactical information required, no operational information, just one basic number in dollars and cents.

The reply I got back four months later said, in essence, nope, screw you and the horse you rode in on because of Privy Council confidentiality. So I complained to the Information Commissioner.

The story making the rounds amongst my journalist colleagues writing for other papers is that the Privy Council confidentiality clause seems to be the newest trick for the government to hide information from the public. Especially, Olympics-related information.

Privy Council may not even have looked at the documents in question. An anonymous source who used to work in the Privy Council office told the Vancouver Observer that "often the members don't even look at the documents, they just rubber stamp them."

The Queen's Privy Council officially exists to advise the Queen about governmental matters of state, but actually serves as an advisory body for the Prime Minister.

It formally consists of current and former federal cabinet ministers, Chief Justices of Canada, the current Governor General and any former ones still breathing.

Any Prime Minister can appoint the leader of the opposition or other members of opposition parties at his/her whim for various reasons. Critically, members of the Privy Council are empowered to hear information under the Security of Information Act. Members of the Security Intelligence Review Committee are required to be members of the Council.

Requests for clarification by the Vancouver Observer about how the Privy Council makes decisions to classify documents as "secret" were not responded to in time for this story.

So what is so bloody secret about how much the Coast Guard is spending for 2010 security and why doesn't your government want you to know?

I have no idea, but it sure makes a mockery of our vaunted Canadian mantra of "Peace, order, and good government"? It's more like: "You keep your peace, we'll give the orders, and we'll call that good government." In other words, screw you and the horse you rode in on.

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