Uncovering Government Secrets
Secrecy is us and what we can do about it. Here is some of my access work uncovering formerly hidden government data.
- 01: Money launders take advantage of Canada’s weak regulation
- 02: Pandemic Data Still Hidden
- 03: Unprepared for Emergencies
- 04: Blocking Ministerial Records
- 05: High-Pressure Banking Sales Practices Report Fails the Smell Test
- 06: Fighting Car Insurance Lobby Exemption Claims; Gaining Access to Consultant Work Justifying Cutting Car Insurance Benefits and Coverage
- 07: Uncovering Private Sector Influence and Hidden Advice on the Setting Up of the Canada Infrastructure Bank
- 08: Following the Money Trail Literally: A Controversial Pathway through Iconic Jasper and Banff parks
- 09: Pressure to Get GM Salmon to Market
- 10: Canada sells arms to a human rights offender
- 11: Uncovering the Licencing System That Enables Surveillance Equipment Sales
- 12: Forty years spent trying to open up the National Capital Commission
- 13: The Hidden Side of Oilsands Development
- 14: The Arctic Waters
- 15: Access records raise questions about Canadian embassy conduct
- 16: Crumbling Infrastructure and Montreal’s Champlain Bridge
- 17: Removing the Secrecy Surrounding Access to the Records of the Prime Minister’s Office
- 18: Canada’s Food Guide: A Classic Case of Going Behind the Official Document
- 19: Knowledge About and Use of Access Records: The Deadly Listeria Case and Lax Regulation
- 20: The Long-Hard Struggle to Get An Airline Safety Report
- 21: Public Employee Bonus Privileges in Ottawa
- 22: Bank of Canada – Up In Smoke
- 23: Government Senior Official Held Accountable
- 24: Ken Rubin and Mila Mulroney’s expenses
- 25: Start of the Sponsorship Scandal
- 26: The targeting of Maher Arar
- 27: Celebrity Spying on preventing baby seal pup’s killing being banned
- 28: Soft pedalling lethal asbestos use in Canada and abroad
- 29: An Agency Outside Access to Information
- 30: Altering Safety Records
- 31: Duping and Spinning Access to Information Materials
01: Money launders take advantage of Canada’s weak regulation
Access documents show Canada’s track record at knowing the full extent of the multi-billion dollar amount of money laundering schemes has been limited. Authorities were warned that criminals were washing vast sums of money but Canada’s prosecution of money launders is notorious low. And Canada’s lacks a national coordinated regulatory plan to control money laundering. During the pandemic, it became harder to carry out compliance operations. Most astoundingly, money launders have exploited and used pandemic benefit funds and mixed those public funds with other illicitly obtained funds in their money laundering operations.
02: Pandemic Data Still Hidden
Since March, 2020, it’s been difficult getting details on pandemic management and spending. That includes information on federal government work patterns, on its maintenance of access to information services, and on the millions spent. Especially troublesome has been the lack of the federal government’s meeting a deadline for fuller pandemic data that Parliament had ordered it to be produced on a timely basis.
03: Unprepared for Emergencies
As Canada’s experiences growing emergency threats from climate change and pandemics, records show that authorities are not well prepared. In one instance, Agriculture Canada warned our food and water supply was far from secure. No stockpiles are maintained, particularly problematic should critical transportation infrastructure collapse or if a high magnitude earthquake were to strike. Other Public Safety records indicated that with growing threats from wildfires and floods, more damage and federal assistance would be needed. Both sets of records were obtained before the COVID-19 crisis where key information remains unavailable.
04: Blocking Ministerial Records
Privy Council Office documents reveal that the Justin Trudeau promise of ministerial records’ coverage was never meant to give much public access to those records. All sorts of roadblocks were suggested by senior officials. In the end, the Trudeau government opted for total exclusion of ministerial records. Those records were received after a five-year delay. The huge exclusions of ministerial records cuts off basic information. If New Zealand can provide such public access, so can Canada.
05: High-Pressure Banking Sales Practices Report Fails the Smell Test
Documents behind the March, 2018 Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) report show that the minister of finance and his officials and the big five banks exerted pressure to downplay the banks’ high-pressure sales practices and the need for tougher regulation before the final report’s release.
Most astounding, despite hearing from some 4500 hundred consumers with complaints and conducting time-consuming tax-paid interviews with 600 bank employees, the study does not quote from any of them. Bank employees being interviewed were given some advance warning. Much of the FCAC records on the conduct of the banker study were exempted.
06: Fighting Car Insurance Lobby Exemption Claims; Gaining Access to Consultant Work Justifying Cutting Car Insurance Benefits and Coverage
It took several years to get car insurance lobby records. Ontario Finance and its rate regulator fought to keep Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) records secret claiming they were policy advice and cabinet confidences. The IBC insisted for example that government officials keep it informed about the development of regulations and legislation, for which it conveniently supplied drafts of for the government’s consideration. Ontario’s system of auto insurance regulation is based on a secretive, too-close and one-sided industry-government relationship that keeps the Ontario public in the dark and auto insurance premium rates high, with shrinking coverage and low benefits.
Ontario Finance also hired expensive consultants to justify and monitor its auto insurance cost cutting program. These included in 2011, 2012 reviewers headed by a Dr. Pierre Cote to get major and minor injuries restricted and confined. The second review cost $2.8 million dollars, with his selected team making $4,765 per day.
Another hire was the actuarial firm Oliver Wyman whose five-year 2012-17 $1,101,750 contract. produced secretive projections and passenger auto insurance company reviews. Wyman readily admitted it was relying on industry data without independent analysis and verification.
Finance also retained in 2013 at a cost of $194,544 the management firm KPMG for two years to reputedly monitor the government’s auto insurance rate setting and reduction program. The firm, who also relied on industry data, had just done work for the auto insurance industry.
The fourth consultant, David Marshall, at a $1,975 daily rate worked in secret out of the Minister of Finance’s office with a cabinet mandate to bring auto insurance costs down further. His April, 2017 report recommended the Workplace and Insurance Board (WSIB) system of “neutral”, “fair” and fast settlements that IBC favoured and applauded. IBC praised his report for suggesting further clamping down on auto insurance claims and payouts and for recommending a new even weaker regulator agency.
The next government needs to bring in a transparent arms-length system of independent analysis and review for better auto insurance coverage and rates. And not be hostage to industry demands.
07: Uncovering Private Sector Influence and Hidden Advice on the Setting Up of the Canada Infrastructure Bank
Infrastructure Canada access records have exposed a little-too-cosy corporate-government relationship in the setting up of an infrastructure bank as well as a cautionary report on the pitfalls of opting for an infrastructure bank.
One set of records outlined how BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, helped jointly plan and shape the Canadian government’s November 14, 2016 seminar on potential investment in the newly proposed Canada Infrastructure Bank before the bank bill had gone to Parliament for debate and approval. BlackRock assembled some of the most influential world institutional investors for the seminar,whose funding of Canadian infrastructure projects the government would like to attract.
The records also raised questions about whether the relationship the Canadian government and Finance Ministry had with its powerful 14 member private-sector Advisory Council on Economic Growth (which a BlackRock representative sat on) might result in conflicts of interest.
Another uncovered record was a KPMG consultant report that raised all kinds of flags about proceeding rashly with a infrastructure bank. But the $73,450 September, 2016 report remained hidden until May, 2017 right before parliament was considering the infrastructure bill inserted into the budget omnibus implementation bill.
08: Following the Money Trail Literally: A Controversial Pathway through Iconic Jasper and Banff parks
Documents revealed that the Parks Canada’s $86.4 107 kilometer ice fields bike trail from Jasper to the Columbia ice field posed many problems to the surrounding ecology and wildlife and safety risks to users. But planners, after getting the funds in 2016 for the next two years, wanted construction to get underway given such tight deadlines. However, the public consultations only began in early 2017 and are not finished, nor are the environmental impact studies.
The location of the bike trail away from the existing roadway produced opposition to the trail going through sensitive lands and concerns that Parks Canada was rushing ahead too quickly. Extra costs too were revealed as an issue too with further public funds needed to extend the trial to Banff and for building the infrastructure along the trail for campgrounds, rest stops and parking lots. Also noted was that the trail would bring more commercial development to the parks and surrounding areas.
In January, 2019, thanks to the ATIP revelations and negative publicity and the Environment Minister, the federal government cancelled the Icefields bike trail.
09: 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.
10: 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.
11: 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, Sept22/16
12: 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.
13: 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.
14: 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.
15: Access records raise questions about Canadian embassy conduct
Access records from Global Affairs indicated that their embassy in Mexico provided active support to a now defunct Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration who were accused by local activists of shoddy environmental and labour practices and human rights abuses at their short-lived barite mine site.
Access to information disclosures show that there were over 30 contacts between Blackfire and the Embassy between 2007 and 2010 and multiple interventions with Mexican federal and Chiapas state authorities on Blackfire’s behalf.
Local activists and civil society groups including MiningWatch Canada, after obtaining these records, called for an investigation into the actions of diplomats at the embassy that may have put Mariano Abarca, a local leading community activist life in danger after he asked for embassy help on these conditions and suspected corruption. Mr. Abarca was murdered in 2009 by gunmen.
MiningWatch Canada in 2013 produced a report (Corruption, Murder and Canadian Mining in Mexico: The case of Blackfire Exploration and the Canadian Embassy) largely based on the access records and their fact-finding mission.
Abarco’s family and support groups have taken Canadian authorities to court to try and make the embassy and its officials take some responsibility for those events.
16: 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.
17: 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.
18: 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 and the Globe and Mail, then covered such revelations. I also wrote about the behind-the-scene pressure that the food industry exerted in the Hill Times.
19: 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.
20: 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.
21: Public Employee Bonus Privileges in Ottawa
For the past several decades, middle and upper management officials’ salaries and regular benefits were topped up in Ottawa with not insignificant special “performance” bonuses. The problem was Ottawa did not and still does not want those figures fully released and known.
Access to information requests shone a light on just how widespread the practice of almost everyone getting bonuses was that resulted in annual multi-millions of expenditures. That resulted in a CTV September 1997 expose on big federal bonuses and a 1998 Canadian Association of Journalist award.
The federal Public Accounts Committee became interested and investigated the ground rules employed in granting extra bonuses but not much changed.
Despite continual media reporting and access records revealing very high aggregate bonuses in some agencies, far too many bonuses are still being given out and much of the data on individual payouts remains secret as “personal”.
22: Bank of Canada – Up In Smoke
In Ottawa, our capital city where I live, one day several years ago, I was walking down an downtown street when all of a sudden I smelt noxious fumes and was almost overcome by them. Workers were forced from their downtown office buildings.
Being curious, I noted that smoke was coming from down the street, at of all places, from the Bank of Canada building. Getting nowhere through an informal inquiry, I filed a federal Access to Information request with that agency. I asked about the incident in my request but as is my style, I asked for more records on their occupational health test results and other toxic incidents at the Bank of Canada. Several weeks later, the Bank of Canada, which is our central bank, replied. Low and behold, the incident was embarrassing.
Records eventually obtained revealed that the Bank was burning confidential computer tapes in their incinerator usually used to burn old money. Their incinerator was not working properly and the resulting chemical emissions was what I and others encountered. No one affected filed legal complaints but who knows what damage was done to human health. The data obtained was provided to a national wire service and became a front page story.
The access request results also indicated that workers at the Bank of Canada complained about eye irritation brought on by the fresh crisp money bills.
Another Bank of Canada $30,000 report indicated that if someone were to ingest 193,103 new $50 bills with the new anti-forgery squares on them, that person could then die have, if he or she ever was able to digest that many bills! That became another front page story.
23: Government Senior Official Held Accountable
Access documents can reveal embarrassing information. This was the case when the discovery of a top bureaucrat taking Spanish lessons at taxpayers’ expense that earned him his Minister’s displeasure ended in his resignation.
To get what Ken Rubin does, you have to know the story of Mila Mulroney’s furniture. In 1993, the secretive National Capital Commission (NCC) decided to pay the Mulroney’s for the furniture they left behind at 24 Sussex Drive, their former official residence. The NCC cut the Mulroney’s a cheque for $150,000, and there was an outcry from those who felt the NCC (and ultimately the public) had overpaid.
The Mulroney’s gave back the money, and things settled down. But Ken Rubin didn’t feel the story was finished. He fished around the way he loves to, and ultimately came up with an appraisal for the Mulroney castoffs from a reputable auction house.
They were worth $39,050. This is what Ken does. He pokes around and looks in locked filing cabinets, prying them open with various access to information laws, mostly at the federal level. He feels that people should have the right to know what their governments are doing, which is a radical idea in a town like Ottawa.
Ottawa would be duller place without Ken. And it would have a lot more secrets. (Tom Spears Ottawa Citizen, August 20, 2015)
25: Start of the Sponsorship Scandal
26: The targeting of Maher Arar
Access records helped show how Maher Arar was unfairly targeted, with misinformation circulating and the long road to clearing his name.
27: Celebrity Spying on preventing baby seal pup’s killing being banned
Canadian authorities access records showed wanted Sir Paul McCartney out of the way in their fight to avoid a pup seal ban.
28: Soft pedalling lethal asbestos use in Canada and abroad
29: An Agency Outside Access to Information
Not all funded public agencies are covered under access legislation. One agency, Health Infoways, was spending significant unaccounted for monies including on a senior manager’s pension and not making much headway on the transition to e health records.
30: Altering Safety Records
Governments can and do hide and at times alter and destroy records. A classic case was when Pierre Blais, a scientist at Health Canada was ordered to destroy his draft damming research report on an unsafe for human use breast implant medical device. The government downplayed the device’s impact on women’s health.
31: Duping and Spinning Access to Information Materials
This is less a case than a warning that getting secrets does not mean game playing is over and out comes a story. Here’s a few instances, some covered above, where agencies just wanted to massage the little they did release.
“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”.
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”.
President, Digital Discretion
August 21, 2015
Secrecy is us and what we can do about it.