WINNIPEG, Manitoba — “Imagine having to go to Washington to obtain reports about Canadian meat plants that our government holds secret from its own people.”
This was the astonished reaction by a participant to remarks made at a spirited conference on freedom of information versus government secrecy, during the Canadian Bar Association’s annual convention. There is a growing challenge by media, professional and civic groups to the Canadian government’s traditional policy of secrecy. This challenge is nourished by a comparison between the increasingly effective U.S. Freedom of Information Act and almost the exact opposite laws in Canada.
JOHN N. TURNER, former Minister of Justice in the Trudeau government and now a Toronto lawyer, described the governmental gap north of the border as follows:
“Secrecy provokes myths and creates tension and a lack of trust. Produce the facts and you dispel the myths. Produce the facts and you restore public confidence. In Canada, there is no legal right to know —nothing in the British North America Act or any other statute. And there is no legal duty on the government to inform.
“On the contrary, secrecy is sanctified by the Official Secrets Act and the civil servant’s Oath of Office and Secrecy.”
In contrast, U.S. law places the burden of explaining non-disclosure on the federal’ government. It gives citizens a legal right to know and authorizes the courts to require the government to pay the legal costs of successful citizen litigation.
THE USE OF the information law, if not its mere presence, has resulted in a growing stream of publicly disclosed material. These include nursing home reports, meat inspection reports, civil rights compliance data, documents showing violations of the law by federal enforcement agencies, facts about atomic power hazards and radioactive spills, historical material about wars, foreign relations and prosecutions.
Other disclosed materials from Washington cover the areas of workers’ safety, drug hazard data, airline passenger complaint tabulations, advisories relating to antitrust policy toward specific corporations and reams of internal government documents revealing negligence, illegality, harassment and waste.
Virtually none of these comparable documents is made public in Canada. A few weeks ago, a Canadian law student working with us for the summer received documents from the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act.
THESE MATERIALS included a Canadian study of defects in 1969 Chevrolet automobiles, reports by U.S. inspectors of Canadian meat plants that export to the U.S. and the extent of mail covers requested of the U.S. Postal Service by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Neither he nor any other Canadian citizen could obtain these materials from Ottawa.
Such specific examples arc being widely reported in the Canadian press. Obviously the impact has been to stir more and more interest in reform. The Trudeau administration, according to its spokesman, Mitchell Sharp, has promised to come up with an information proposal to Parliament later this year.
Some members of the opposition in Parliament are skeptical. Conservative party member Jed Baldwin, a long-time advocate of open government, does not believe such a proposed bill will have any teeth in it. He wants citizens to be given the right to take the government to court if it withholds information unlawfully. The Trudeau government is against any such external judicial review.
BALDWIN ALSO scoffs at the assertion that the daily one-hour question period in Parliament, where legislators can put questions to the government’s ministers, is a substitute for a freedom of information ‘law.
He doesn’t deny there is a question period; he wonders whether there is an answer period. In addition, he says millions of Canadian citizens should have the right themselves to ask questions and receive answers from their government.
Candid members of the opposition parties admit that without an information law their parties would act the same as Trudeau’s if they were in power.
Both before and during the Trudeau administration, Canadians could net obtain results of consumer product tests, data on government contracts with corporations, materials on the operations of Crown corporations, subsidy programs, welfare programs, compliance situations and many other “currencies of democracy.”
But times are changing as public awareness and opinion bear down on the government to open its doors to its own people.
Interested readers can obtain a free copy of a pamphlet, “The Freedom of Information Act: What It Is and How to Use It,” by writing to ‘P.O. Box 19367, Wash., D.C. 20036.