Brokering Access

By Amy Reiswig, April 2013

A new book tells the story of how the public is denied information about the public’s business.

When a journalist sought two-months’ worth of records around the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s handling of the listeriosis outbreak in 2008, he was told the Agency would take a time extension of 555 days to complete the request. Unfortunately, as a recent book edited by UVic assistant professor of sociology Kevin Walby makes clear, such end-runs around Canada’s information access laws are far from unusual.

Described as a “ground-breaking volume,”  Brokering Access: Power, Politics, and Freedom of Information Process in Canada (co-edited with Mike Larsen, UBC Press), brings together essays by sociologists, journalists, and access-to-information advocates who stand up for the idea, expressed by Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott in 1985, that “We do not now and never will accept the proposition that the business of the public is none of the public’s business.”

Walby is a publishing powerhouse. In just the 14 months between March 2012 and June 2013, he will have published, as either author or editor, four books reflecting areas of interest as diverse as policing, male-for-male escorts, emotions and freedom of information.

Walby—who began his undergrad career in drama before discovering sociology—lectured at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Carleton before being hired at UVic in 2011. Besides his teaching and book editing, he has published articles in numerous academic journals and also helps edit the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, a peer-reviewed journal published by University of Ottawa Press. He’s a young, busy guy who admits: “I get up pretty early.”

While Walby’s books aren’t likely to be recommended at weekend book clubs or taken on escapist beach vacations, Brokering Access deals with an issue at the very heart of our democracy. 

Freedom of information (FOI) is the assumption that, particularly in a democracy, people have the right to know what goes on in government and the public sector and that such information should be disclosed with minimal interference. Only through such access can we hold those in government accountable. 

Access to information (ATI) refers to the process by which that concept is applied—the administration of the idea—at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. The term “brokering access” is all about how access to information happens: the way gatekeepers (access coordinators, civil servants, government offices, legislation) handle, flag, delay or deny requests and why. 

Divided into four sections, this 370-page books covers the history of access to information in Canada; topics of security and information control; access’ role in research strategies; and, finally, access’ role in investigative journalism. The tone varies from essay to essay, ranging from formal academic jargon to more colourful comments describing the handing over of data to a journalist as “a full body X-ray, strip search, and finger up you know where. It’s indeed the full monty of freedom of information…requests, and things tend to get weird, fast.” In fact the book is full of weird, as each writer tells their own story of engaging with ATI requests on a variety of topics, such as airport security infiltration tests, Maple Leaf’s listeriosis outbreak, the BC softwood lumber dispute, the Liberal sponsorship scandal, Maher Arar, Afghan detainee torture, Aboriginal activism, streetscape video surveillance, and more.

“The essays are different ways of telling a story,” the winter-shorts-wearing cyclist Walby explains. “Having a collection allows more voices to tell the story of access. Some of the book’s voices may be contradictory, but that’s okay. Hopefully it will stimulate debate, create a conversation.” 

For the most part, it’s a critical rather than cheerful story, detailing arbitrary decisions, lack of staff training and consistency, unreasonable delays, staggering fees (e.g. $1,599,840 for a copy of a database about Canada’s criminals that could be easily modified to protect privacy), and the flagging of certain categories of requesters, among other systemic pitfalls. While Brokering Access looks mainly at federal legislation, these are issues faced at all levels, including municipal and police departments and provincial bodies.

The book is not all bad news. It offers tips on becoming an effective requester as well as some hope for the future. While some authors see increased demand for accountability (including an increasing awareness of and engagement with the ATI process) as leading to greater secrecy and more creative methods of burying information, others note the very real progress and policy change that persistent requesting has brought about and can continue to spur. “It pushes in both directions at the same time,” Walby believes. “There have been lots of surface gains toward the notion of open government,” he says, at the same time warning that we must remain vigilant about “contrary tendencies to keep information submerged”—even telling me about the discovery of an internal RCMP document titled “How to avoid an access to information request.”

The book therefore asks the question “What is to be done?” Walby’s introduction, co-written with Mike Larsen of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, claims that “broad law reform will come to fruition only as the result of agitation by an organized social movement.” When I ask what that movement would look like and what the role for Joe and Jane Average is, he says: “People who have never identified as activists before are getting more and more concerned about why something is happening in their backyard that is state-led. There is a politicization of folks in Canada now, and it seems like various publics are coming together in an organic way regarding how government is operating.” Therefore, any social movement for reform of either legislation or practice can’t come just from academics or journalists. “We don’t need a special cadre of activists. It needs to be broad-based if it is going to succeed.”

In fact, Walby believes that broad base must include access practitioners themselves, “civil servants on the other side” who he hopes will read the book and even write their own accounts (there have been few so far). “That’s the next thing we need—to hear about it from inside for true understanding.” 

There is a long way to go before the culture of secrecy or of antagonism between information-seekers and government will change. But as Einstein observed, the world we have created is a product of our thinking and can only be changed by changing our thinking. Through this book, Walby and his colleagues are aiming to do just that.

 

Royalties from Brokering Access are being donated to the BC Civil Liberties Association. 

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig encourages people to check out the various activities put on during Canada’s annual Right to Know Week each September, but reminds you that our right to know applies all year, every year.