Another instalment in Canada’s freedom of information follies

I couldn’t stifle the laughter when the defence team for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou said it was requesting documents under the federal Access to Information Act to fight her extradition.

I can only hope for her sake that the renovation of her $10 million Shaugnessy home will be senior-friendly. To her team as it embarks on this long-term trek, I can only quote the philosopher Alice Cooper: welcome to our nightmare.

As long as there have been freedom of information laws, Canadian governments and institutions have made thwarting them a national sport. As long as there has been an internet, the public has been on the losing team.

No Canadian government in the 35-year history of these laws vital to accountable democracy has ever led an advancement of the public’s right to know.

Not one.

Not that they don’t say they will.

But the pretension of the scripted promise with each new administration to be more open and transparent is as hollow as the cheapest drugstore chocolate Easter egg. Even a kid knows it’s crap.

The pattern of a shielding and deceiving culture is well-worn: For any meagre move to extend the law’s grasp on a wider range of government and institutional records we can request, the politicians, their aides and the bureaucracy have mounted new ways to take the information further from reach.

There are hundreds of exemptions of the records produced at our expense that cannot be seen at our request. There are buckling fees, mind-numbing delays, an entire industry of impediment with tricks galore up sleeves aplenty.

The latest ironic collision between professed commitment and practised culpability is the allegation involving our province’s minister responsible for the law, Jinny Sims, accused by a former constituency worker of evading the law’s purview by steering official communication into personal and inaccessible channels.

She says her former worker, albeit willing to swear this under oath, has it all wrong.

In time we shall see, but Sims would hardly be the first or the worst offender, and to be properly rude, her government has found hundreds of sillier errands to place ahead of the rather simple task of fixing the law.

Premier John Horgan, like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, made the proverbial pledge government would be done differently and that a candid era had arrived.

True to form, once in the saddle an opposition cowboy rides the horse with the same delicate rein of the dressage equestrian; in the process, the rodeo becomes a dance.

In our newsroom alone, where we file a half-dozen or so requests each week when we cannot get straight answers, we are told our lawful requests for rather basic information within 30 days will take 90, 120 or longer – they’ll get back to us.

And no one can compel release. Our legislation, like others across the country, provides merely moral suasion as the weapon of the office acting on the public’s behalf. Even a court ruling can be defied.

We incessantly face heavy processing fees that would ruin many media organizations, so we argue for a waiver under the law because disclosure is in the public interest.

Interested in where that argument leads? Into a semantic game on whether requests are a “matter” of public interest or an “issue” of public interest – that difference makes the difference between free and fee-laden disclosure or disclosure at all.

And that is only on what we know exists. Email subterfuge has been discovered at every level of government in almost every government in this country. Heaven knows what’s out there that we will never see. The future for historians is much more bleak because of our institutional ability to erase the pathology of policy.

Which is to wish Meng’s cadre well in their journey. Perhaps a posse of lawyers will wring loose the to-and-fro correspondence and documentation that will help her cause.

If they do, and if they have some pro bono hours to fulfil, I have a few files on the go, and I am easy to reach. •

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, at Glacier Media.