Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has released its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada, surveying free expression and access to information issues and grading various institutions from A to F on their performance in the past year. “Freedom of expression in Canada truly does span the spectrum from head of the class to flunking out,” the report observes.

By Grant Buckler

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has released its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada, surveying free expression and access to information issues and grading various institutions from A to F on their performance in the past year.

“Freedom of expression in Canada truly does span the spectrum from head of the class to flunking out,” the report observes.

One of the A grades went to outgoing Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page and his staff, who, the report says “made an important contribution to the discourse in Canada about access to information, transparency and accountability of government.” But, the CJFE Report Card goes on to note, “despite the excellent work, Page’s appointment has not been renewed. Instead, the government has appointed an interim parliamentary budget officer with far less experience.”

The government of Québec received the only other A grade, belatedly, for its move four years ago to outlaw strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), a device for silencing dissent by consuming the energy and financial resources of critics. Québec is the only province to do so, however, and the Report Card gives legislatures in the rest of Canada an F for their lack of action.


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As an article elsewhere in the Review notes, British Columbia passed anti-SLAPP legislation in April 2001 but repealed it four months later. Bernard Landry, professor at TÉLUQ, Université du Québec, writes that after Québec passed its law, Ontario set up an advisory panel on anti-SLAPP law, which concluded in a 2010 report that the remedies current laws provide are ineffective and recommended legislation. No concrete steps have been taken, though. Bills have also been proposed unsuccessfully in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In the U.S., meanwhile, 29 states have anti-SLAPP laws.

The federal government gets a D- on access to information for 2012, up from an F for 2011. “There are good reasons to go even lower than last year’s failing F,” the Report Card notes, citing widespread muzzling of government scientists, dismal statistics on delays  in responding to freedom of information requests and on redactions and exemptions, and the ranking of Canada’s aging access law at 55th out of 93 countries. But the report finds some signs of hope, including improved performance by 13 of 18 federal institutions that were performing poorly and government plans to make summaries of completed access to information requests searchable across all departments. It also welcomes Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault’s push to reform the 30-year-old Act.

An article in the Review by CJFE board member Bob Carty says that the Harper government claims to be the most transparent in Canadian history, and certain facts support that claim. Those facts include the total number of access to information requests received, the extension of access to information law to some Crown corporations such as the CBC and moves to make more government data available online.

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However, Carty writes, the number of requests received – which has grown steadily for 30 years – is a different matter from how they are handled. The percentage of requests responded to within the government’s own 30-day time limit has declined year by year, he writes, and the number of cases in which all the information asked for was released has declined. That number was 21.2 per cent in 2011-12, compared to 43 per cent in the U.S. and 60 per cent in the U.K.

The Review also includes a summary of CJFE’s recommendations for changes to Canada’s access to information laws, which the organization submitted to the Information Commissioner as part of a national dialogue on reforming the act. The recommendations include extending the act to cover more federal institutions and clarifying who it covers, eliminating the exclusion for “cabinet confidences” and allowing non-Canadians to request information under the act.

In a separate article on the muzzling of government scientists – which earlier this year became the subject of an investigation by the Information Commissioner – Carty writes that “the Harper government appears intent on suppressing certain kinds of science: science that could undermine its policies about climate change, the oil sands, ozone depletion, mining and pipeline projects, and other sensitive issues. We are witnessing the erosion of the principle that evidence should be the foundation of political discourse, sound policy and government regulation.”

Ottawa’s over-all grade this year is C-, buoyed by the government’s withdrawal of its controversial Internet surveillance legislation, Bill C-30, which CJFE describes as “a huge victory for privacy advocates.”

On the other hand, the Report Card decries the government’s treatment of Justice Department lawyer Edgar Schmidt, who was suspended without pay after criticizing the way government officials assess proposed legislation’s compliance with the Charter of Rights.

Though the federal government and seven provinces have some form of whistleblower protection in law, those who speak out about wrongdoing in government workplaces still aren’t well protected, writes Arnold Amber, president of CJFE, in another Review article.

“There have been a few steps forward for whistleblowing in Canada over the past year,” writes Amber, “but we have fallen backward in developing solid conditions to encourage the practice in the public’s interest and in protecting those who are brave enough to report malfeasance where they work.”

The article refers to shortcomings in a new whistleblower protection law passed in Alberta, citing an analysis by Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR).

The Supreme Court of Canada also gets a middling grade – a C. Citing a timid decision in the hate speech trial of William Whatcott, the Report Card says the court – “a powerful institution with the opportunity to implement strong protections for free expression rights in this country … is failing to live up to its potential.”
 

Grant Buckler is a retired freelance journalist and a volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and lives in Kingston, Ont.