The federal NDP will press Parliament’s Information Commissioner to investigate how and why a Trudeau cabinet minister’s officer began a process that may have resulted in an attempt to interfere with the access-to-information process, a key transparency and accountability mechanism used by tens of thousands of Canadians every year.
Global News learned earlier this week that in 2017 political staffers in the office of former Immigration Minister John McCallum set in motion a process that resulted in department officials attempting to learn the identity of an individual who may have used the federal Access to Information law to obtain internal government records that appeared to contradict what McCallum had been saying in the House of Commons about a controversial issue of the day.
“A minister who does that, interferes with your right of access,” said Michel Drapeau, a lawyer who specialized in the access-to-information act and is the author of reference works on the act. “[He] is trying to intimidate you or somebody of your profession to be asking such questions. And it’s illegal.”
Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said Drapeau’s assessment is spot on.
“It’s not at all allowed for a minister to dig into who is getting information out of their department legally — that’s forbidden,” Attaran said. “An information requestor does have the right to privacy. And the minister should be leaving that absolutely alone.”
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New Democrat MP Charlie Angus will put the matter in front of Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard next week.
“This is really concerning because this is about political interference in the work of the [access to information and privacy] offices which are supposed to be independent of the politicians,” Angus said.
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In late 2016, McCallum was under fire in the House of Commons over a decision his government had made to move about 280 federal government jobs from the small town of Vegreville, Alta., to Edmonton. McCallum said the move would save the federal taxpayer millions of dollars.
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But in May of 2017, Global News received an internal government costing analysis which showed the opposite: Moving the jobs from Vegreville to Edmonton would actually cost millions more.
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After Global News reported on that internal government analysis, the minister’s office tried to track down the documents the Global News report was based on, according to records Global News obtained this month. Among other things, McCallum’s officials sent word to the department’s access-to-information unit if it had released any records on the topic. That request is entirely within the law. Indeed, any Canadian, including ministerial political staff, can request and obtain information about the subjects of an access-to-information request.
But it is against the rules to ask about the identity of the requester. And yet, e-mail records obtained by last week by Global News — records obtained, ironically, through a separate access-to-information request — show that department staff searched by the name of the journalist who had published the 2017 story contradicting McCallum’s claims and searched by the name of the organization that published the article.
“ATIP has searched requester by author of article and by Global News and nothing relevant,” says a May 18, 2017 e-mail from a senior department official in response to the request from McCallum’s office.
Searching access-to-information requests by the name of the requester or the requester’s organization affiliation is prohibited by law. Such searches are not available to the general public, including government or political staff, legal experts said.
In 2010, a political aide to then-Public Works Minister Christian Paradis resigned after evidence emerged that he had interfered with the access-to-information process.
And in 2006, the Liberals, then in opposition, called for resignations of political aides in the government of Stephen Harper after evidence emerged that aides were given the name of a reporter from The Canadian Press who had received records released under an access-to-information.
Drapeau said that the independent bureaucrats who run the access-to-information unit within Citizenship, Refugees and Immigration Canada should have refused the request from McCallum’s office.
“The minister has absolutely no right of access, none whatsoever,” Drapeau said. “A competent access-to-information coordinator will tell them politely that, ‘minister, you cannot do this and it’s going to get you into trouble.’”
The federal access-to-information law is widely used by businesses, academics, everyday Canadians and the media to learn about the activities of the federal government. In 2019-2020, more than 120,000 access-to-information requests were filed to various government departments.
“If you don’t have an access-to-information system to let citizens look inside government,” Attaran said, “can you imagine the shenanigans the government gets up to and covers it up?”
All the more reason, Drapeau said, why the apparent breach of the act by McCallum’s office needs an investigation.
“So by interfering [with the journalist], they are directly interfering with the right of the public to know what’s happening, how it’s happening, and why is it happening in government.”
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