On the Hill – You don’t Need to Know

It’s a funny thing about setting government policy in a democracy: most of the time, citizens expect their leaders to live up to the standards that they set.

Which makes it especially interesting that a couple of recent events have hit the news so close together.

The first is that the Tories are going to begin demanding more transparency in the way Canada’s native reserves spend their money. It’s a reasonable demand: there’s no secret that corruption and financial mismanagement are widespread on reserves. (This Montreal Gazette article and National Post series document the problem well.)

It’s the first time since 2002 that Ottawa has tried to reform accountability on reserves. At that time, the First Nations Governance Act, tabled by the Liberals, met strong resistance from the chiefs in charge of the Assembly of First Nations. This new attempt at reform will focus on transparency, especially in the way billions of dollars of funding are being used (or, in many cases, misused).

Yet at the same time, the Harper government seems intent on maintaining its own atmosphere of secrecy, something that flies in the face of their demand for Native accountability. The recent listeriosis tragedy is a case in point, but the concealment goes well beyond that?straight to an Access of Information Act that is becoming little short of a bad joke.

The listeriosis stonewalling centres on notes that were taken during conference calls during the outbreak. The Canadian Press made a request to the Privy Council Office (PCO) for ?all transcripts and minutes.? As the Globe and Mail reports, the Privy Council said they had the records but would need four months ?to consult other government institutions.?

But on February 10, Ann Wesch, the access to information director for PCO, denied the application, saying the notes ?do not fall under the scope of this request.? The reason? The notes were handwritten and not technically ?transcripts and minutes.? A flimsy excuse at best, especially when one of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary’s definitions for transcribe is to ?make a copy of, esp. in writing . . . write out (shorthand, notes, etc.) . . . .?

The broader state of affairs has been documented by Stanley Tromp, a freedom of information specialist, in his report “Fallen Behind: Canada’s Access to Information Act in the World Context.” As Tromp told reporters, the Act began to disintegrate under the Liberals ?but has now reached an ?appalling? state of institutionalized delays under the Conservatives.?

It will be interesting, then, to watch the Tories begin their consultations next month with a straight face even while their own party is setting an example of obstruction and evasion.

There is no doubt that cleaning up the widespread financial corruption on reserves is overdue. But before the Tories work on bringing in a new era of transparency there, it would be reassuring to know they’d already learned those lessons at home.