OTTAWA — The House of Commons information, ethics and privacy committee plans to look at Canada’s much-maligned access-to-information regime — the latest in a long line of studies of a system intended to make government more transparent.
Conservative MP Pat Kelly, the committee chairman, says the system is plagued by excessive delays and a culture of secrecy that has been “baking in for decades.”
The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for a range of federal documents — from internal emails and invoices to briefing notes and policy memos — but it has long been criticized as outdated and poorly implemented.
Federal agencies are supposed to respond within 30 days or provide valid reasons why more time is needed to process a request.
The law has not been significantly updated since its introduction 39 years ago, and many users complain of lengthy delays, heavily blacked-out documents or blanket denials in response to their applications.
The government says the performance standard for institutions is to respond to 90 per cent of access requests within the legislated timeline, including extensions.
Of 140 federal agencies that answered requests in 2020-21, 69 met this standard while 71 did not, principally due to “workload pressures within the organization,” the government says.
Problems with the access system have persisted for years, spanning both Conservative and Liberal governments, Kelly said.
“People still complain about about refusals, about the time backlog, and just about the general culture of secrecy,” he said. “And that has been a feature of the Canadian government for a very long time.”
Even so, Kelly accuses Justin Trudeau’s Liberals of failing to live up to their 2015 election promise to make government information open by default.
Federal officials have pointed to a growing number of access requests and the increasing complexity of applications.
“I think all the things that the government says in response to their critics are excuses,” Kelly said. “Surely they can they can figure this out, if there’s the will.”
Kelly is under no illusion that fundamental changes will take place overnight. “This has been baking in for decades,” he said. “You’re certainly not going to be able to flip a switch and instantly go from a culture of secrecy to a true culture of openness by default.”
Kelly said no hearing dates have been set as the committee is busy completing studies on facial recognition programs and RCMP use of surveillance technology.
The planned committee study comes as the federal government works to finish its own review of the access system that began more than two years ago.
Written and oral submissions to the federal review have called for expansion of the Access to Information Act, removal of numerous loopholes in the law, strict timelines for responding to requests and more resources to make the system work.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2022.
Soccer wasn’t really a thing when I was a kid. I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s. Sure, we all had soccer balls. And we played a lot of what should be more accurately called, Kick and Run. But I – and all my friends – did not really know the rules, the teams or the players. We might’ve heard of Pelé, but not more than that.
We followed hockey, baseball, football (CFL and NFL) and basketball, in that order. I did occasionally watch soccer on TV, but that was because we didn’t have a lot of channels and the soothing English accents often lulled me to sleep.
Things are much different now. My 13-year-old son is a massive soccer fan. He plays on a team three or four times a week. His schoolmates include a lot of second-generation Canadians, whose parents came from soccer-obsessed nations. He watches Premier League and Championship League matches. He’s watches La Liga and Bundesliga. He watches World Cup qualifiers and could tell me the backstory on most of the players. In fact, he watches classic games on YouTube and plays FIFA22 on his PS4 and as a result, knows more about Pelé than I ever did. But, because of him, I now watch enough football to know a game is a match, a goalie is a keeper and I know which plays end up in corner kicks or throw-ins.
I once asked him, “How well do you know the Germany national team?” and he said, “Not very well.” He then proceeded to name seven of their 11 starters. It’s a different world.
I still know almost nothing compared to the other soccer dads, but like millions of Canadians, I watched Canada’s qualifying matches and I know we have a great team, with some stellar players who are worth watching. The qualifying matches regularly beat both hockey games and CFL football when it comes to viewership.
But we should care about more than just the matches themselves. The World Cup is one of the biggest and most lucrative sports spectacles on Earth. This will be the first one hosted in the Middle East. And although Qatar may look shiny and new on TV, it’s mired in what many Western nations believe to be medieval and backwards policies on working conditions, LGBTQ2S+ and women’s rights.
Finding people to talk about it in Qatar is NOT easy. One of W5’s goals this week was to talk to migrant workers to describe how they were treated, their living conditions and their labour rights. Most were too afraid to talk to us.
And to confound things, there have been many stories of journalists being detained or arrested for reporting on migrant workers. Last week, a Danish reporter was live on TV from Qatar and when asked what things were like there, he directed his camera operator to pan left – revealing security officials in golf carts, who immediately tried to stop the live hit. The next day Qatari officials apologized, but the message was clear: we can stop you from reporting when we want. It’s a fascinating video that’s been viewed millions of times around the globe.
The Qatari government denies they’ve put any restrictions on media. In a tweet, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy says “several regional and international media outlets are based in Qatar, and thousands of journalists report from Qatar freely without interference each year.”
Not everyone is convinced. Qatar ranks 118 out of 180 countries in the 2022 Press Freedom index, published by Reporters Without Borders. Freedom House, which is a U.S.-based freedom watchdog, gives Qatar a 25 out of 100 score on Global Freedom, which includes freedom of expression. (Canada ranks 98 and the US ranks 83).
A Reuters Institute column from last week on press freedom in Qatar suggests authorities obscure press freedom laws, by hiding behind trespassing laws.
“One of the most common risks when doing journalistic work in Qatar is to be accused of trespassing. This is what Halvor Ekeland and Lokman Ghorbani of Norwegian state broadcaster NRK were accused of when they were arrested by officers of Qatar’s Criminal Investigations Department in November 2021, while covering World Cup preparations. The journalists were held for over 30 hours before being released without charge. They deny they were filming without permission,” says the article.
A little insider info: I have personally written, “we don’t want you to get arrested, but…” at least twice in correspondence with our team in Qatar. I’ve never encouraged anyone to break the law of course, but sometimes doing our jobs leads police or security into thinking they have a duty (or at least a right) to stop you.
Where do we get our story ideas? You. Emails, DMs, letters and tweets get to us and we read them all. Share your story with us and you can help us make a difference at W5@bellmedia.ca.
OTTAWA — Haven’t you herd? A dramatic tale of 20 escaped cows, nine cowboys and a drone recently unfolded in St-Sévère, Que., and it behooved a Canadian senator to milk it for all it was worth.
Prompting priceless reactions of surprise from her colleagues, Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne recounted the story of the bovine fugitives in the Senate chamber this week — and attempted to make a moo-ving point about politics.
“Honourable senators, usually, when we do tributes here, it is to recognize the achievements of our fellow citizens,” Miville-Dechêne began in French, having chosen to wear a white blouse with black spots for the occasion.
“However, today, I want to express my amused admiration for a remarkably determined herd of cows.”
On a day when senators paid tribute to a late Alberta pastor, the crash of a luxury steamer off the coast of Newfoundland in 1918 and environmental negotiators at the recent climate talks in Egypt, senators seated near Miville-Dechêne seemed udderly taken aback by the lighter fare — but there are no reports that they had beef with what she was saying.
Miville-Dechêne’s storytelling touched on the highlights of the cows’ evasion of authorities after a summer jailbreak — from their wont to jump fences like deer to a local official’s entreaty that she would not go running after cattle in a dress and high heels.
The climax of her narrative came as nine cowboys — eight on horseback, one with a drone — arrived from the western festival in nearby St-Tite, Que., north of Trois-Rivières, and nearly nabbed the vagabonds before they fled through a cornfield.
“They are still on the run, hiding in the woods by day and grazing by night,” said Miville-Dechêne, with a note of pride and perhaps a hint of fromage.
She neglected to mention the reported costs of the twilight vandalism, which locals say has cost at least $20,000.
But Miville-Dechêne did save some of her praise for the humans in the story, congratulating the municipal general manager, Marie-Andrée Cadorette, for her “dogged determination,” and commending the would-be wranglers for stepping up when every government department and police force in Quebec said there was nothing they could do.
“There is a political lesson in there somewhere,” said the former journalist.
Miville-Dechêne ended on what could perhaps be interpreted as a butchered metaphor about non-partisanship: “Finally, I would like to confess my unbridled admiration for these cows that have found freedom and are still out there, frolicking about. While we overcomplicate things, these cows are learning to jump fences.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.
There are growing concerns from Iranian-Canadians who say they are being threatened, monitored and even followed at protests and outside their homes by affiliates of the Iranian regime who are here in Canada.
“They know the view out of my apartment. They said it was a school. That I have three cats. They knew the friends that have come to my house,” said Maryam Shafipour, an Iranian activist who now lives in Canada and who is speaking out against the regime despite the dangers.
Last year, members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard — a branch of the Iranian forces designated as a terrorist organization in the U.S. — took that information about her life back to her sister in Iran, Shafipour said, and used it to try to threaten her family and lure her back to the country.
“After that I just cut my relationship with all my friends because I’m really scared,’ said Shafipour. “I am just isolated now.”
Shafipour has reason to be afraid. She once spent two months in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison for “spreading propaganda against the system” — the same prison where Mahsa Amini was held. Amini’s arrest on Sept. 13, reportedly for not following Iran’s strict dress code, and death in detention has sparked months of major protests inside and outside Iran.
Last week, for the first time, CSIS confirmed that it is investigating “several threats to life emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
But Shafipour and other activists told CBC News they’ve had no help from Canadian police or government officials and don’t feel like the threat here is being taken seriously.
Concerns of digital spying
Shafipour’s not the only one who has been monitored in Canada.
In 2021, the FBI publicized details of a plot to kidnap Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad from her home in New York — part of that report revealed plots to kidnap three unnamed people here in Canada.
The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran even hired private investigators in Brooklyn, N.Y., and in Canada to spy on Alinejad and four other dissidents, according to court documents.
Shafipour is worried the Iranian government hacked into her phone. Curious if there was indeed spyware on her phone, Shafipour sat with experts at Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity lab in Toronto that helps human rights activists under threat of digital espionage.
WATCH | ‘Maybe they are already here,’ says activist Maryam Shafipour:
Shafipour, who has been in Canada since 2016, has limited her contact with her sister and friends since learning about the surveillance.
She said she’s grateful someone took her seriously, adding Canadian authorities hadn’t looked into her case at all.
“We know for a fact that they [Islamic Republic] have extensive technologies that enable them to drill right down into people’s personal mobile phones, know where they are, with whom they’re communicating with,” said Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab.
“It’s common actually for people in your situation to have agents or people who are sympathetic to the government within Canada follow them around, maybe try to intimidate them,” he said.
It’s not just high-profile activists like Shafipour and Alinejad who feel in danger; others with no public profile believe they are no longer safe to publicly criticize the regime. Two people spoke to CBC News on the promise of anonymity due to fears for their safety and the safety of their families back in Iran.
They say they have received threatening calls and a text message to cell phone numbers that were supposed to be private.
The messages warned them to stop posting on social media and speaking out about Iran.
“I have so many family members living in Iran and I love them. I don’t want anything to happen to them,” said the woman who received a text in Farsi. The text was identical to another one sent to activists and journalists in Iran several years ago.
It warned her that speaking with “the enemy” abroad through “email … or other communications” was criminal and would lead to prosecution, also stating “It’s crucial for you to disconnect and this SMS is the last security warning.”
The other person, a young man, received a series of phone calls from blocked and local Canadian numbers questioning why he had posted negatively about Iran on social media — using accounts that were private.
“He repeated himself multiple times and I was terrified and I dropped the call,” said the man.
WATCH | They received threats, but police told them they couldn’t help:
Two Iranian-Canadians, who are remaining anonymous, say they went to police with concerns after receiving threatening calls and a text message, and were told by police there was nothing they can do.
Even more frightening, the caller addressed him by name. He doesn’t know how either he or his number were found.
Both feel they have been watched at protests with people in the crowd using their phones to take pictures of their faces. They believe that information is then sent back to the Iranian government.
“I feel terrified,” the man added.
These two young Iranian Canadians went to police and say they could not get past reception. They claim they were told no one could help them.
“I feel like the police, whether in Toronto or anywhere in Canada … wait until someone dies and then they will do something,” said one of them.
CSIS investigating ‘several threats’
CBC spoke with others who had similar stories and who say they have been to police, the RCMP and even CSIS without hearing back.
When asked by CBC News about the rise in Iranian dissidents receiving threats in Canada, the RCMP said in a statement they believe the problem “is growing” but said they can’t quantify it as they believe it is still underreported.
CSIS has acknowledged they are monitoring the situation, announcing for the first time last Friday they are investigating “several threats to life emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
“Canadians are not getting how serious this issue is,” Ardeshir Zarezadeh said.
Zarezadeh, an Iranian-Canadian who once spent two years in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison, believes the regime’s presence in Canada is growing, causing distress and confusion in his community.
“They [the Iranian regime and its affiliates] have businesses here. Non-governmental organizations. Houses. They are everywhere. And everyone knows it,” he said.
The RCMP never responded to my messages. What’s wrong with the government? Why are they not taking action?– Ardeshir Zarezadeh
Zarezadeh said a couple years ago, a member of the regime showed-up at his Toronto legal offices after calling to make an appointment from a payphone. He was denied an appointment but showed up suddenly anyway, catching Zarezadeh in the lobby.
“He asked to speak to me for my legal services, I told him I was in a rush, but I felt nervous immediately, ” Zarezadeh said.
Zarezadeh said he quickly ended the conversation saying he had to go and that the man left.
“I met so many intelligence officers when I was in Iran. I was arrested 12 times. So many of them interrogated me, so I know how they behave, talk, react.”
He immediately contacted the FBI who confirmed to him that the visitor was a known threat and a top regime operative, and warned him to be very careful.
He says after calls to the RCMP over the matter, they have not followed-up with him.
“The RCMP never responded to my messages. What’s wrong with the government? Why are they not taking action?
Zarezadeh has taken matters into his own hands. He’s compiling a list of names and addresses of known regime affiliates here in Canada and is prepared to make that list public as well as sharing it with the government and other intelligence agencies.
“I don’t feel safe in Canada. I am constantly watching my back, I bring people with me everywhere I go because who knows any day now I could get a knife in my back,” Zarezadeh said.
CBC News asked the federal minister of public safety about the lack of police response. We are still waiting for an answer.
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