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Uncovering Government Secrets

Here are some examples of formerly hidden government data
or of government data still being kept secret.

  • Pressure to Get GM Salmon to Market

    Access Records show that CFIA was already in early 2016 starting to get commercial export arrangements in place for genetically modified (GM) salmon even before Health Canada and CFIA May, 2016 approvals of GM salmon as safe for human and animal consumption.

    Countries where these modified salmon reputedly engineered to consistently grow faster for market would be produced include potentially Panama, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and China.

    The GM salmon eggs were developed and originate from AquaBounty's PEI land-based hatchery facilities.

    Testing of GM salmon cultured eggs provided from AquaBounty became a higher priority "jump[ing] the queue" so that export health certificates could be issued. As one veterinarian CFIA employee in PEI stated, "there is pressure to get testing done for export purposes for this operator on a very short time-line".

    By issuing export certificates that will enable the commercial use of cultured GM salmon eggs for fish production in other countries, CFIA,whose other job is to protect food safety, is helping facilitate foreign market access and production.

    CFIA, who approves feed for animal livestock consumption as safe, is also, records show, in discussions with AquaBounty to enable GM salmon parts or carcasses to be sold as fish bait for lobster catches or feeding salmon carcasses to mink. But issues raised of infectious diseases being spread by such fish-derived feed may not have been adequately explored.

  • Canada sells arms to a human rights offender

    "No records" responses to Global Affairs access requests help tell the story of the Canadian government's 2014 $15 billion sale of more light armored vehicles (lav) to their ally Saudi Arabia, a known human rights offender. One reply said Canada has no annual human rights violations reports in 2013 and 2014 for Saudi Arabia despite indications that such reports would be annually done. In another response, Foreign Affairs says no briefing preparatory records exist for a Saudi Prince meeting with their Minister despite such a meeting occurring. Other records show Canada permitting the transfer of information technology that goes with the armored vehicles sales. The story done puts the heat on the Canadian government to further explain its military sales and lax human rights reporting. Human rights advocates in a followup story note that Canada has refused to sign the Arms Trade Treaty that requires nations to assess the potential for weapons being used in violation of international human rights laws. A CBC "As It Happens" interview describes Rubin's search for human rights records for Saudi Arabia. Another story indicates that Ottawa will not make public any assessments it did or will do in connection with its export control permits for the arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Yet another story revealed that a sanitized 2015 Saudi Arabia human rights report, that went through several heavily redacted drafts, was only released after the Global Affairs Minister signed off on for key export permits for the Saudi LAV deal in April, 2016. Ottawa's human rights report on Saudi Arabia to be 'sanitized' for public", Steve Chase, April 1/16 A5

  • Uncovering the Licencing System That Enables Surveillance Equipment Sales

    How does spy equipment get sold to law enforcement and intelligent agencies? The answer is through licences by the federal Public Safety Minister under a criminal code exception granted to the RCMP, CSIS and CSE agencies and other provincial and municipal law enforcement agencies . In the 2008 to 2016 period, over a hundred such 1 and 2 year licences were granted. Documents however do not reveal the type of intercept equipment being sold nor the companies thus enabled to sell their spy equipment. One candidate for sale being so approved could be the controversial IMSI cell phone intercept equipment.
    Records reveal that one CSIS licence was granted retroactively and that the intercept companies appear to have a "trusted" relationship with security agencies like CSIS. Such an uncovered surveillance enabling system has little public scrutiny or accountability built into it.

    Shady, secretive system: Public Safety green-lit RCMP, CSIS, spying devices, documents reveal, Laura Wright, CBC on-line, Sept 22/16

    Federal security officials approved Winnipeg police efforts to purchase spying devices", Jacques Marcoux, Katie Nicholson, CBC News on-line Jan 17, 2017;

  • Forty years spent trying to open up the National Capital Commission

    Battling for greater access to records and to meeting deliberations can prove to be a long term continual effort fraught with difficulties and requiring great persistency. As my summary indicates, this has been the case when it comes to gaining information at and access to the secretive National Capital Commission.

  • The Hidden Side of Oilsands Development

    The history of oilsands development in Alberta has been controversial on many fronts, especially its impact on the environment. One 2011 Privy Council Office (PCO) memo prepared for the PCO Clerk, released under access to information, indicated that the oilsands posed "significant environmental and financial risk to the province of Alberta" including greatly accelerating emissions and permanent damage to Alberta's landscape". Other 2008, 2009 access records obtained from Natural Resources Canada showed that the Canadian government along with help from the oil and gas industry mounted an international campaign to promote such developments and challenge foreign climate change policies and weaken "dirty oil" environmental campaigns abroad.

    A 2011 access memo obtained from Environment Canada revealed that oil and gas companies met secretly with federal officials seeking to weaken environmental assessment and protection work, including for oilsands projects. Lobby registrar records show that oil and gas and other energy companies, had exceptional frequent access to Canadian cabinet ministers. Until an access request uncovered it, the National Energy Board even refused to make public its concerns and 2010 orders about inadequate pipeline safety, whereby companies had to reduce the gas flow pressure level in pipelines travelling through cities.

    What these access records indicated is that many Canadian agencies are involved in the oilsands file and none are too willing to be fully transparent in their pressing for oilsands developments.

    In addition, Canadian Washington DC embassy officials promoted the oil sands, arranging paid tours to Alberta by congressmen, government officials, academics and journalists.

  • The Arctic Waters: Pollution Concerns

    Canada's Arctic waters can expect more traffic and commercial developments. Access documents indicate the government does not even have enough knowledge of how an oil spill in Arctic waters will affect marine life. Yet the Canadian government is concerned that other countries travelling in Arctic waters could cause spills, claiming some unnamed countries do not have adequate oil and other waste discharge plans or high enough discharge standards.

  • Crumbling Infrastructure and Montreal's Champlain Bridge

    There have been many stories about failing, faulty and dangerous infrastructure from highway overpasses to sewers. Municipal, provincial, territorial and federal authorities are however reluctant to fully provide particulars, costs and rebuilding plans.

    One example of such reluctance obtained through Transport Canada access records, was that federal authorities did not want to release a 2010 structural analysis concerning one of Canada's busiest bridges in Montreal, Quebec. Authorities thought the expert report's language about the condition of the heavily travelled Champlain Bridge was too "alarming". Officials acknowledged, however, that a partial bridge collapse was a possibility yet delayed announcing plans for its renovation.

  • Removing the Secrecy Surrounding Access to the Records of the Prime Minister's Office

    The exclusion from access of most of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) records is harmful to government transparency and accountability.

    Provided here are a few obtained rare glimpses of how the PMO is using government resources, as well as an example of the more common excessive secrecy surrounding PMO operations. What the Privy Council Office exempted was the talking points for the PM to use for a congratulatory November, 2008 call to US President-elect Obama.

  • Canada's Food Guide: A Classic Case of Going Behind the Official Document

    Sometimes, time and effort are needed to go beyond what an official public document portrays. I asked for Health Canada data on how the last two Canadian Food Guides were developed and tested and who influenced the outcome. It was a real shocker to find out how this icon publication that millions use as their best nutritional advice, was put together.

    Documents obtained from Health Canada showed various powerful food industry groups – the meat, diary, and egg industries for example, lobbied for more servings of their commodities in Canada's healthy eating guide. The media, including the Ottawa Citizen, then covered such revelations. I also wrote about the behind-the-scene pressure that the food industry exerted in the Hill Times.

  • Knowledge About and Use of Access Records: The Deadly Listeria Case and Lax Regulation

    As a consumer advocate, for over three decades I have sought access to meat inspection records to see if the meat eaten by Canadians is safe. The fight to even get meat inspection reports the government had done on the larger meat packers' plants began in the nineteen- eighties. It took a few year's effort on my part and that of a Kitchener-Waterloo reporter to win access to those reports. This meant going all the way to the Federal Court of Appeal.

    Documents obtained revealed that Agriculture Canada afterwards, with pressure from the meat industry started changing both the rating levels and forms used for meat inspection. The end result was less information and reports designed to give a more favourable impression of the safety of meat packaging plants.

    Once the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) took over such inspections in the nineteen-nineties, the meat industry tried even harder to change the very nature of the inspection system so that the companies did most of the “policing” and less government inspectors were on the job. Access documents from 2006 (provided here) that I obtained in 2007 from CFIA showed that the meat industry lobbied successfully to end meat inspection reports.

    Those same documents also revealed that CFIA lobbied their counterpart, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), to try and end USDA doing daily inspection visits to meat packaging plants to more thoroughly check and test for signs of listeria.

    When 22 listeria related deaths happened in Canada in 2008, and were traced to meat products from a Maple Leaf meat packaging plant in Toronto, the past CFIA-meat industry double-dealing revealed in the 2006 documents was written about in a Globe and Mail front-page story. It is unlikely that the more embarrassing parts of the 2006 records received in 2007 would have been released at the height of the listeria crisis in 2008.

    Monitoring over the years what was happening to meat inspection and reporting was crucial to exposing lax safety practices. My experience helped as I knew to look for records of the meat industry meeting with senior government officials to trace what was occurring in emasculating meat inspection and reporting.

  • The Long-Hard Struggle to Get An Airline Safety Report

    I applied to Transport Canada for the safety review conducted into the operations of the charter airline, Nationair, right after a July 11, 1991 fatal crash of its DC 8 plane in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. There, all 263 people, crew and passengers, perished.

    The August, 1991 post-accident safety review report was denied to me under the law enforcement exemption allegedly because getting the data might prevent airline companies from cooperating in future investigations. The government secrecy stance was then upheld in 1993 by the Information Commissioner of Canada.

    The Saudi Arabia government did release their version of what happened to the plane carrying the Nigeria Muslim pilgrims on their way back by charter aircraft from Mecca. But the Canadian government adamantly refused to release its assessment of Nationair's safety capacity.

    I went to the Federal Court Trial Division but in 1995 only won a very limited release of portions of the Nationair report. I appealed that decision at the Federal Court of Appeal and was successful at gaining the full report in late 1997.

    The report of the Canadian investigation revealed none-too-favourable serious safety conditions and deficiencies at Nationair before the fatal 1991 crash, including poor aircraft maintenance. It indicated that had proper corrective regulatory action been taken, such a disaster could well have been prevented.

    The content of the report was reported in the media in early 1998, including in a Globe and Mail article. I also provided the report to the next of kin of the Canadian crew who died in the 2001 crash.

"Ken highlights the problems with Ottawa saying "no" so frequently to requests for information and who fights to produce stories that Ottawa prefers to keep hidden. He excels in his field, enriching Canadians' knowledge of government".

Kate Malloy
Editor, Hill Times
August 20, 2015

"I know of no other requester who demonstrated so regularly the reasons why access to information is not just important, but fundamental to our democracy".

Stephanie Perrin
President, Digital Discretion
August 21, 2015

Secrecy is us and what we can do about it.

The Face of Accountability

Access documents can reveal embarrassing information.
This was the case when the discovery of a top bureacrat taking Spanish lessons at taxpayers' expense that earned him his Minister's displeasure ended in his resignation.

The Face of Secrecy

Here are further examples of secrecy practices. Some of these cases are well known like the sponsorship scandal and the Maher Arar detention.

What people do not know can often hurt them