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United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith recently told CTV News she believes everyone’s rights under the Canadian Constitution need to be protected.
“They are dearly important to me and all Albertans,” Smith told the news outlet in a statement. “I am impressed with any political leader that stood up for the core Charter rights of freedom of speech, expression, religion, assembly and association these last several years. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”
But my recent experience dealing with the Alberta government tells a different story — an experience that points to glaring shortfalls in free speech in Canada as we mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
In March, I started filing a series of requests for records from four different Alberta ministries. Thanks to reporting by my colleagues Carl Meyer and Drew Anderson in December, I knew that the four — Municipal Affairs, Treasury Board and Finance, Environment and Protected Areas and Alberta Energy — had been meeting in secretive committees with oil and gas lobbyists to cook up new government policies and decisions.
These are decisions affecting public health, public safety, the environment and the economy. They have larger national and international implications, but are immediately important in Alberta, where voters are about to head to the polls for a general election, with only a few pieces of the full picture.
I used a provincial transparency law — the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act — to request the records. I’ve been using laws such as this one for nearly two decades as an important tool for my reporting.
But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
Even though the Alberta government has already been caught breaking the law by delaying the release of these types of records for hundreds of days, they appear to be digging in and stepping up efforts to hide information.
In recent weeks, the four ministries have systematically refused to accept 26 separate requests for records of their meetings with lobbyists.
As my requests came in, internal correspondence shows how officials from a central Alberta office sprung into action with a flurry of emails to organize a conference call on the next day.
By law, all of these people have a duty to assist applicants like me who request access to government records, unless there is a valid reason to refuse.
At least six people from across the government — senior managers responsible for overseeing the transparency law — attended the meeting on March 9.
But instead of figuring out how to release information, they discussed a plan to shut down my requests.
A week later, each of the four ministries sent me a letter saying they would refuse to accept my requests, claiming the scope was too broad.
When I replied asking for help, they referred me back to their letters and told me they would no longer correspond with me about the requests.
Elsewhere in the world, the Chinese and Russian governments continue to place censors or other controls on media outlets, denying press freedoms and free speech in the 21st century.
You could also argue that a provincial government, which launches a politically motivated investigation into its opponents, has crossed a line that threatens free speech.
Also in Canada, as some of you know, The Narwhal has asked the courts to review whether the RCMP and the federal government infringed on press freedom in November 2021, when officers arrested photojournalist Amber Bracken and kept her in jail for several days.
Maybe it seems wild to compare government officials in Canada to some of the world’s most notorious regimes, but stories about oppression and authoritarianism don’t always involve physical violence, handcuffs or jail cells.
Canada may have moved up four ranks to number 15 in this year’s World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, but this might be a sign that press freedom is simply getting worse everywhere else.
The first part of Canada’s Constitution — the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — guarantees “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”
To me, this means we must all be empowered with the information that allows us to exercise those rights and freedoms.
If a member of the public wants to speak freely about politicians in government, it would help if they were informed of what those politicians have done and how they did it. If that information is kept secret, it infringes both on freedom of the press and the public’s right to free, informed speech.
In healthy democracies, this would mean elected representatives introduce and support laws that ensure information about their government is also free. And so freedom of information laws become an extension of free speech — one that applies to all members of the public, regardless of their identity.
At The Narwhal, we take these rights seriously. We consider it part of our responsibility as journalists to ensure you are empowered and informed about matters that could affect your health and safety, as well as the environment and economy.
Clayton Weimers, executive director of the U.S. bureau of Reporters Without Borders, said Canada performs well in a number of areas, including its laws, but there aren’t yet signs that it is actually improving, despite its slight increase in the World Press Freedom rankings.
“Sometimes, a rise in four places is really more of a reflection of other countries regressing,” Weimers told The Narwhal in an interview. “It indicates that maybe that the legal framework, as strong as it may be, needs to be better enforced or more uniformly enforced.”
Weimers said Canada is not making the top 10 due to situations such as Bracken’s case and other alleged threats to journalists who cover Indigenous Rights issues. Reporters Without Borders is also concerned about the harassment or violence directed at journalists covering anti-public health protests and the occupation of Ottawa last year.
Canada could gain some ground if it addressed these issues along with improving its freedom of information systems, Weimers added.
“If you saw improvement there, that’s another way that Canada could rise on the index,” Weimers added.
The Narwhal’s award-winning staff are among those struggling to cope with rising hostility and online harassment, particularly of women journalists. Our Ontario bureau chief, Denise Balkissoon, has also documented how a troubling lack of transparency in her province about changes to protected areas and the Greenbelt region is “a violation of democracy that will affect Ontarians for generations to come.”
Voters in Alberta will soon go to the polls to decide on a vision for the future of a powerful energy industry. It’s a big decision in a world being ravaged by what a majority of global experts describe as a climate crisis.
It terrifies me that there is no way of knowing whether someone in government is now destroying records they don’t want Albertans to know about before they vote on May 29.
At the end of the day, the way we treat access to information is a sign of the health of democracy in Canada.
Is it reasonable to charge members of the public, or even journalists, tens of thousands of dollars in money or legal fees to get information about their own elected governments?
Is it reasonable for public officials meant to be the guardians of transparency to set up an obstacle course for voters to access critical information before they vote in a general election?
And if this is perfectly normal and acceptable behaviour in a free democracy, why is the government taking extraordinary measures to cover it up? It’s possible these public servants believe they can frustrate someone into giving up and walking away.
But the good news is The Narwhal isn’t intimidated by those who are opposed to free speech and a free press.
We haven’t played our last card in this battle to shine a light on secrecy, and I’ve asked a provincial watchdog to investigate the Alberta government — once again.
Please support press freedom so we can continue this critical job.
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