In a democratic society, information is crucial to the proper functioning of government. There can be no true accountability of the government to the people without adequate information about what our government is doing, how its decisions are reached, and the actions that it takes in our name. Freedom of information is also important to facilitate other fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of thought, opinion, belief and expression. While we may entrust the making of important decisions to the judgment of our elected representatives, we need information to properly understand how those judgments are reached.
CCLA believes freedom of information is a fundamental right and that it is also an essential part of the exercise of many other core rights and freedoms. While Canada has laws in place to facilitate access to information at both the federal and provincial/territorial levels, these laws are often subject to significant exceptions and the process for obtaining information that the government has refused to provide can be costly, time-consuming and frustrating.
CCLA is concerned about the delays and costs associated with our access to information system and believes that the presumption of openness and transparency that was the basis for enacting these laws is being seriously undermined. We also believe that Canada is falling behind internationally as open government movements have popped up in many countries with governments increasingly being more proactive about disclosing information to the public.
CCLA has written to the Secretary-General of McGill University regarding court proceedings that the University has initiated in light of a number of access to information requests made by McGill students. The University first applied to the Quebec Commission d’acces a l’information (access to information commission) asking for permission to disregard a number of existing requests for information along with future requests that meet certain criteria. The Commission denied this request and McGill is asking the Court of Quebec to hear an appeal from that decision.
CCLA is committed to the principles of openness and transparency in public institutions and wrote to McGill to lay out these principles and how they apply to the case McGill has started. CCLA encouraged the University to take a more proactive approach to disclosure of information, arguing that this would provide students with information they are seeking and pose less of a burden on administration in responding to multiple requests. We also proposed that the University organize discussions or forums where information about ongoing research work or corporate partnerships could be shared with students and feedback could be solicited.
Yesterday CCLA hosted “Seeking Access to Information,” the latest installment of our Conversations for Civil Liberties discussion series. Thank you to everyone who came out to CCLA’s new office for the event. It was a great success.
Paul Knox, long-time journalist and Ryerson School of Journalism instructor, gave a very engaging talk on the public’s access to government information both here in Canada and around the world. The boundaries between public and private are being redrawn in ways that threaten civil liberties, Knox explained. Though Canada was a relatively early adopter of access to information requests, the willingness of federal offices to be open and transparent has decreased noticeably of late. Knox pointed to a recent statement by Access Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who said that the RCMP had “completely stopped responding ” to information requests. This blockade of information must be stopped. “We live in a strong democracy,” said Knox. “We need to know what our governments our doing.”
Knox went on to explain that without the right to information (also known as the Right to Know), the right to free expression is a hollow promise. In order to be able to form and disseminate opinions, people must first be able to learn about, and understand, the world around them, for which they need access to information.
Can’t make it to our event “Seeking Access to Information”? We’ll be live blogging the event today – check it out below!
The federal Access to Information Act celebrated its 30th anniversary this summer amidst calls from Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault to overhaul the Act. According to Legault, “our access to information rights have been slowly eroded by a variety of constraints, practices and amendments to the act.” Moreover, “…the act does not cover all institutions that spend taxpayers’ money or perform public functions. One such institution is Parliament itself — the seat of our democracy.”
Join us on Thursday, August 22nd at 12:30 pm for a discussion with journalist Paul Knox on the current state of access to information legislation in Canada. Knox has worked as a reporter, editor and broadcaster for over 30 years. He teaches at Ryerson’s School of Journalism and is a member of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)’s Canadian Issues committee.
As a follow up to this discussion, join us on Saturday, September 28th from 1pm-4pm for a hands-on workshop intended to teach individuals how to navigate Canada’s Access to Information System. More details coming soon!
Do you care about privacy, freedom of expression, and technology? Have research or an innovative project you’d like to showcase? Apply to share your initiatives or volunteer at the RightsWatch Conference this September!
Each year the Canadian Civil Liberties Association hosts the RightsWatch Conference - this year we’re partnering with Ryerson University to host a discussion on Civil Liberties and Democracy in the Digital Age: Privacy, Media and Free Expression. The conference will take place on September 20-21 in Toronto (find out more and register here).
As part of the conference we would like to include a showcase of hands-on tools and projects to protect user privacy and enable freedom of expression. These can be cool new technologies, grassroots education initiatives, concrete campaigns for reform – or anything else you or your organization does that relates to the conference theme.
Our hope is that conference attendees will be able to learn about a variety of practical ways to safeguard and manage their own digital privacy, exercise freedom of speech, and hold governments and other organizations to account in these areas.
We’re also looking for volunteers capable of providing technical information on digital security to RightsWatch participants in the form of accessible, hands-on support. These volunteers will work as a team to share information on tools and tactics (like GPG, 2-step verification, full disk encryption, strong passwords, encrypted chat systems, managing social media privacy settings) with conference attendees.
If you or your organization is interested in taking part, please contact us with a paragraph explaining your project or experience and how you hope to contribute to RightsWatch. You can email Abby at firstname.lastname@example.org. Space is limited, so get in touch as soon as possible.
CCLA recently received a response from the Fredericton Chief of Police to its Request for Information under New Brunswick’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Following the arrest earlier this year of a Fredericton blogger in connection to comments he had made on his blog about a city police officer, CCLA wrote to Police Chief Barry MacKnight to express its concerns regarding the use of Criminal Code defamation provisions, and to ask for information about the use of these provisions in the jurisdiction. CCLA sought information on the number of criminal libel investigations the Fredericton Police Force had undertaken, as well as the number of charges and the disposition of those charges.
Chief MacKnight has reported that since 1988, there have been 12 complaints to the Fredericton Police Force under the Criminal Code criminal libel provisions; 4 occured between 1988 and 2006, and 8 occured between 2007 and 2012. Of the 12 complaints, 10 were concluded without charges, and 2 cases remain under investigation.
The Fredericton Police Chief recently sent word to the CCLA that he intends to fulfill its Request for Information with respect to criminal defamation investigations in the jurisdiction.
On February 29th, 2012, following the arrest of blogger Charles LeBlanc under criminal defamation provisions, CCLA sent the Police Chief a formal Request for Information under New Brunswick’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. CCLA asked for information on the number of criminal defamation investigations the Fredericton Police Force has undertaken in the last five years, as well as the number of criminal defamation charges it has laid and the disposition of those charges. The Police Chief’s office confirmed receipt of the faxed request on March 1, 2012. On March 7, 2012, CCLA received notice from the Police Chief that data is currently being gathered in view of responding to the formal request.
CCLA expects to receive a response within the required 30 days.
Read more on this case here.
In January, 2012, Fredericton blogger Charles LeBlanc was arrested in connection to comments he had posted on his blog about a city police officer. CCLA sent a letter on February 1st seeking information from Fredericton Police Chief Barry MacKnight on the details of the arrest, as well as expressing its concerns regarding the use of Criminal Code defamation provisions (one of which has been found unconstitutional in multiple Canadian jurisdictions), and the potential chilling effect it might have on free expression. On February 29th, having not yet received Chief MacKnight’s reply, CCLA followed-up with a letter and a formal Request for Information under the New Brunswick Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in order to obtain information on the number of criminal libel investigations the Fredericton Police Force has undertaken, as well as the number of charges and the disposition of those charges.
In his February 21st reply to CCLA’s first letter, Chief MacKnight has refused to answer the questions CCLA posed regarding the arrest of Mr. LeBlanc and criminal libel investigations more generally, citing their relation to an ongoing criminal investigation as preventing him from responding. CCLA will pursue its Access to Information demand and continue to demand that charges of criminal libel not be laid.
Recently a series of reports have surfaced raising allegations of voter-suppression tactics being used leading up to the May 2011 federal election. These include automated “robocalls,” as well as non-automated calls from call centres that provided voters with erroneous information about the location of polls, among other things.
The right to vote is a fundamental democratic right, protected in the Charter. The provisions in the Elections Act that restrict misleading and obstructive behaviour with regard to the electoral process are designed to ensure that this fundamental democratic right is not tampered with and that all voters are able to exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed democratic rights in a free and meaningful way. CCLA echoes the call for further investigation into these acts to ensure that the rights of voters are protected and defended in the face of allegations of egregious abuse.
To read about CCLA’s recent intervention in a voting rights election case in Newfoundland click here.
The CCLA has been granted leave to intervene in the case of Mitchell v. Jackman in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador. While the case involves a challenge to the election results in a particular Newfoundland riding, CCLA’s interest in the case is related to the constitutionality of the special ballot provisions in Newfoundland’s Elections Act. These ballot provisions are designed to facilitate voting for people who will not be available on voting day or on the days when advance polls are open, and this is an important and laudable objective. However, they create an odd situation where voters can cast ballots before the election has actually been called. During this period candidates cannot be nominated, they cannot campaign, and fundraising and advertising restrictions that exist during the campaign period have not yet kicked in. This means that voters will not know who their candidates are and will be denied the opportunity to make an informed choice and meaningfully participate in the election.
The right to vote is a fundmanetal right protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It includes not only the right to cast a ballot, but the right to participate meaningfully in the electoral process. CCLA will be making submissions to defend the rights of voters and ensure that this important right is given robust protection.
A civil liberties group intervenes in the Burin election challenge (CBC, February 15, 2012)
The CCLA is concerned that all citizens and residents have access to basic information about their City and government offices. CCLA has written to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford expressing concerns about his office’s apparent refusal to send briefings, notifications and press releases to the Toronto Star. As an elected official, Mayor Ford has a duty to his constituents to ensure they receive information about the workings of his office. Access to information is crucial if residents are to take an active part in their democracy and newspapers are a primary source of information for many residents. Notwithstanding Mayor Ford’s dispute with the Star about a story published during his campaign, transparency and accountability should be paramount concerns and take precedence over any disputes with a particular news group.