Blog by John Miller

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Freedom in blinkers

You are about to read about a case of government secrecy so outrageous that few Canadians will believe it could ever happen here.

It's a cautionary tale, illustrating how badly we need to fight back against the Harper government's determination to keep us in the dark about how it spends billions of dollars of our money.

The story begins in May 2008, when I made what I thought was a reasonable request under Canada's Access to Information Act. I wanted to know how much the Department of Natural Resources was planning to spend to clean up my hometown. I live in Port Hope, ON, which happens to be the site of the largest clean-up of radioactive contamination in our country's history. More than 1.2 million cubic metres of low-level waste will be dug out of backyards and streets over the next 15 or 20 years and buried in a safe containment mound. It's a legacy of when a federal crown corporation, Eldorado Nuclear, refined uranium for use in the Manhattan Project bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945, helping to end the Second World War. Canadian taxpayers are footing the bill for the clean-up. Estimates at that time said it would cost at least $260 million, but I knew it was going to be many times that amount.

Under the information act, the department must respond within 30 days. It did, but only to inform me that it was extending the time period for 90 days. I could expect an answer to my questions by Sept. 23, 2008. This delay is so commonplace that almost everyone who files for information has come to expect it.

So when Sept. 23 came and went, I wrote again to ask what was happening with my request. One thing led to another and, on Nov. 21 -- just two months late -- I got my package of documents in the mail. Or so I thought.

All I received was a manual prepared by Atomic Energy of Canada titled "Communications and Community Involvement Program, Port Hope Project." It was not restricted in any way, so I probably could have received it just by asking at AECL's local office. Sixty-four pages of cost estimates for the project were withheld, on grounds that they were either cabinet documents or contain information "which could reasonably be expected to be materially injurious to the financial interests of the Government of Canada." Ironically, AECL's communications manual states that "accurate and fair information ... can contribute significantly to the success of any project."

If I wasn't happy with this (and I wasn't) I was told I could appeal to the Information Commissioner of Canada. My letter of appeal was dated Dec. 2, 2008.

What happened over the next four years explains why Canada ranks so low on an international  index that measures the strength and effectiveness of laws intended to guarantee citizens access to information about their governments. On the list of 93 countries with such laws, the Centre for Law and Democracy ranks Canada 55th, well behind countries like Liberia, Mexico, Serbia and Ethiopia.  

The centre explains the reasons this way: "As a country that was once among the world's leaders in government openness, it is unfortunate that Canada has dropped so far down the list. Partly, this is the result of global progress, with which Canada has failed to keep pace. Canada's Access to Information Act, while cutting edge in 1983, has not been significantly updated since then, and reflects many outdated norms. Canada's lax timelines, imposition of access fees, lack of a proper public interest override, and blanket exemptions for certain political offices all contravene international standards for the right of access. Canada's antiquated approach to access to information is also the result of a lack of political will to improve the situation."

This should be a wake-up call to Canadians to participate in the current review of our 30-year-old Access to Information legislation. There is an online survey here that will enable the independent organization Canadian Journalists for Free Expression to intervene on the public's behalf before the public comment period ends on Dec. 21. Please add your voice.

Now back to my story. I argued that the the Port Hope clean-up is being paid for by taxpayers and the updated cost estimates are "information that the public -- and especially the people who live in Port Hope -- have a right to know."  I said I was not asking for cabinet documents, just correspondence between Natural Resources Canada and the federal Low Level Radioactive Waste Management Office, which is AECL's agency managing the clean-up in Port Hope.

Weeks went by. I was finally phoned by Eric Murphy of the information commissioner's office, warning me that the average time to resolve an appeal was one year. Did I still want to go to the trouble? Yes, I said, I did. I'm a patient man, but I know I have a constitutional right to information, and am determined to fight for it.

This took place in late 2008. The next I heard (and I admit that this appeal had almost slipped my mind) was February, 2010, more than a year later. Donna Billard, who carries the title "chief of operations, strategic case management team, complaints resolution and compliance, Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada," wrote with the results of the investigation. She said it's still ongoing, and "you will be informed of the results of those investigations upon their completion." She was able to confirm that some of the information I apparently asked for -- she couldn't say which -- is denied because it constitutes "confidences of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada." Okay, okay, I don't really want any state secrets, just how much the taxpayers of Canada are on the hook for. So I sat tight and waited.

And waited.

Finally, nearly two years later, on Nov. 2, 2011, out of the blue, I got a follow-up letter carrying the logo of the Office of the Information Commissioner.  I was excited but had to remind myself of what it might be about. Oh yes, the final results of my appeal! I rip it open, only to be confornted with the bureaucratic prose of Pierre Dupuis, who informs me "I have recently been assigned to investigate your complaint against NRCan." Oh dear. He adds: "In order to proceed with the present process, it would be necessary to contact you to discuss the present status and obtain necessary information. Consequently, I must advise you that in order to continue this investigation, it will be necessary for you to contact our office by Nov. 22, 2011, or provide this office with the appropriate contact information. Otherwise, we will consider the complaint abandoned, and close the investigation file."

Now I'm starting to get really angry. The investigation file appears to have been closed for a couple of years, you twit. You have my freaking phone number and my email address, and you mail me a letter? I phoned Pierre Dupuis and gave him an earful about the inefficient office he works at, and added a rocket to get him to expedite my complaint. He archly informed me that he's a temp, brought in to clear the backlog of complaints, and I should be more understanding. He's now working on it and giving it his full attention.

Another four months go by without any word. Frustrated, I phone Pierre one morning to find out whether he's forgotten about me. "Oh, Mr. Miller," he says. "I have good news. I've think we have convinced NRCan to release more information. I'm just writing you a letter."  

Three months later, no letter. Even for a person with M. Dupuis' work ethic and attention span, that seems overdue. But when I phone his number, I get a recorded message: "I will no longer be taking messages at this line. If you have questions, please phone 1-800-267-0441."  

I rightly deduce I'm back at square one, especially when I phone the number and am put through to the cumbersomely titled Donna Billard.

"What happened to Dupuis?" I ask. "He said he was writing me a letter with good news."

"He's taking some time off," she replies. A few minutes later, she confides "Mr. Dupuis no longer works here." She knows nothing about a letter.

"Are you managing my case now then?"

"I, uh, haven't reassigned his files yet."

"You know, this is unacceptable. I filed my appeal in 2008."

"Oh, we're still handling appeals much older than that. I have one from 2003." She attributed this to "staffing and volume issues," and let slip that "we're still working on paper here."  

Still pressing, I secure a promise from her. "I will check Monday and get back to you."

That was on June 1, 2012. I hear nothing, of course, and leave a few messages for her the following week, then  give up. Five months later, a letter arrives from NRCan containing a remarkable document, which is end the result of years of sporadic negotiation spearheaded by Dupuis and Billard and prompted by my complaint. It's a spreadsheet headed "Cost estimates, Port Hope Project" and listing the various categories of expenditures the taxpayers of Canada will be committed to spend to clean up Port Hope. There are several pages of this, covering the next several years. But every one of the boxes containing actual dollar figures has been methodically whited out.

I angrily toss the lot in the garbage and curse the Harper government which chooses to deny the public its information, and the Canadians like me who tend to take for granted that the freedom of expression granted by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms means that we have the ability to hold our government to account.

On Nov. 20, an email arrives from Donna Billard. "As a result of your complaint, NRCan reconsidered its application of the Act, resulting in the disclosure of more information to you under cover of its supplementary response dated October 2, 2012... I wish, first, to confirm your receipt of the supplementary response and, second, to obtain your final representations regarding NRCan's continued application of exemptions to withhold some information pursuant to sections 18 and 21. Your input on/by end of day Friday, November 30, 2012, would be appreciated."

This is what I wrote back to Billard and the horse she rode in on:

"This is surely a bad joke. Almost four years ago I filed an appeal to your office because NRCan refused my request for any cost estimates for the Port Hope Area Initiative. All you could achieve in that time was to persuade NRCan to reconsider. They did. What they released was a list of spending categories WITH ALL THE FINANCIAL INFORMATION BLOCKED OUT. What a colossal waste of time!"  

Canada was once hailed as a world leader in openness. Now, without public outrage, we risk being seen as a laughingstock. Please act now before it's too late.

By the way, since then the federal government has publicly committed $1.2 billion to clean up Port Hope. If you think that may or may not be the final amount, sorry, you'll just have to take the government's word for it.