FOI news in Canada – a long, proud tradition needs championing
By Stanley Tromp. September 2021
Freedom of information laws were passed to grant citizens the right to obtain government records on vital issues as diverse as health, safety, officials’ waste, public security, and environmental risks. This essential democratic right has been under siege for many years in Canada, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has fallen even further behind.
The value of a strong FOI law needs to be demonstrated rather than just asserted. To this end, I collected and summarized 6,500 news stories that were produced via the federal Access to Information Act since it took effect in 1983. You can view this database at www.canadafoi.ca/ATIAnewsindex.xlsx
I began this project in the pre-COVID era, but then it assumed a new urgency. I wished to ensure that 2020-21 would not be entirely lost years for FOI, and this database has several goals: to honour and preserve the fine work of the reporters, to supply a morale boost and story ideas for journalism students, and to press our politicians to fulfill their unkept electoral pledges on FOI law reforms. Canada’s transparency law has fallen decades behind the accepted global standards, and without raising it, the loss of hundreds of such untold and untellable articles that might have been possible amounts to a world of lost opportunities.
These ATIA stories were sorted into in 46 topic categories, and for many readers, the most interesting summaries may be found in Category 10 – Personal Requests. These items are based on requests that were filed by individuals or their family members, often in some period of distress. It demonstrates that obtaining records is not solely within the purview of experts, and their usage best shows the professed goal of FOI laws – to empower the average citizen.
Most poignant are the articles on the mistreatment of children and animals, some of which have lost none of their power to disturb. The old adage of journalism’s mission being “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable” has been well realized here, with news that can bring some degree of justice to the powerless, and voice to the voiceless. It is hard to comprehend how even the most avid government loyalist can fail to see their worth, and if this does not convince them of FOI’s value, it is likely that nothing will.
The articles require a second look, for when they appear in daily media they may be forgotten within days, but many should not be, because we could be living continuously with the unresolved or recurring problems they have raised. My fondest hope is that the public may finally realize that not everything of merit can be had for free online, and here see the value of FOI journalism, enough to financially support its production and so ensure its survival.
Especially in these challenging times, the news media work as an indispensable bridge between government and the public. If the latter asks, “Why should we care if we have a good FOI law?”, a kind of answer can be found here, and the stories belie the most pernicious and self-serving myth of all – “What the people don’t know won’t hurt them.”
Moreover, while critics complain of the cost of administering the FOI law, it is really a minuscule fraction of the federal budget. In fact, the access system often saves public funds, because public outrage over misspent money – revealed via media FOI requests – has induced government to trim the waste and tighten controls.
Today, oddly, the freer FOI spirit of the Mulroney years of 1984-93 (at least relative to what followed) feels about as remote as the 1950s. Since then, a chill crept over the FOI system, and many types of records that were released from that period would be locked up today. Another goal of this catalogue is to revive the more cooperative approach of that time, for most of what was disclosed before should be released again.
To the Canadian people I would say: Do you believe that you should have the right to view records on health and education, or crime and the environment, or official spending and public safety - records whose production you paid for with your tax dollars, and which were presumably created for your benefit? If so then speak out now, lest the government interpret the silence, rightly or wrongly, as consent or indifference.
During past election campaigns, Canadian political parties of all stripes have promised to reform our decrepit FOI laws up to global standards, and all have broken their pledges afterwards. This time around, Canadians need to be extra persistent in demanding the candidates provide specific details on how they would improve our FOI system, and then insist these measures are implemented after E-Day on September 20. It may be the only way to ensure the flow of such vital news stories will continue. The choice is ours.
Stanley Tromp is an independent journalist and author of Fallen Behind: Canada’s Access to Information Act in the World Context, 2nd edition, 2020. FOI website - http://www.canadafoi.ca