Freedom from information: the symptoms of a national transparency problem
Last month, the Nova Scotia government gave its freedom-of-information (FOI) watchdog, Dulcie McCallum, two weeks’ notice. What it didn’t give her was a reason why.
McCallum, who held the post for seven years, was shocked by the decision and said it showed disrespect for her office—not to mention everything it stands for. If the officer in charge of transparency doesn’t know why she was terminated, there’s definitely a problem.
“I don’t think cabinet knows who I am,” said McCallum—who, unlike most FOI commissioners, is not an independent officer of the legislature and can thus be ousted by the cabinet.
She may be underselling herself. Two weeks ago, her office published a controversial report criticizing the Nova Scotia government for ignoring its own laws and withholding information from foster children. Regardless of whether the report had any connection to her termination (McCallum, for one, doesn’t think so), it was a prime example of oversight done properly, and of what the province might lack in McCallum’s absence. (The province is currently searching for a replacement.)
But what Nova Scotia—and Canada—needs is more people like McCallum. Our country’s access-to-information laws are already outdated, according to a nation-wide group of FOI officers, including McCallum. In 2012, Newfoundland and Labrador amended its access legislation to make obtaining info even more difficult. University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones described the amendment as “the biggest step backward in access in Canada in recent memory.” And last year, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) gave the federal government a D- for access to information.
“From the silencing of scientists to police posing as journalists to the surveillance of aboriginal activists, this pervasive issue threatens citizens’ right to free expression and undermines democratic society,” the CJFE report reads.
There is, however, some good news: the CJFE’s D- ranking is a slight improvement from three straight years of F’s, and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier, Tom Marshall, has announced that an independent committee will soon review its access law—but let’s not plan the parade just yet.
McCallum’s dismissal is a reminder that progress on the FOI front is fleeting. We can’t sit back and hope things will get better. Otherwise, next time a freedom-of-information commissioner gets canned, we may not even hear about it.