OTTAWA, April 30, 2017 /CNW/ – The most secretive government department in Canada, as “honoured” by the Canadian Association of Journalists at its annual awards gala at the Sheraton Ottawa Hotel on April 29, is Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal.
The winning nomination for this year’s Code of Silence award came from Larry Cornies of the London Free Press, whose reporting on the aftermath of a costly fire, and a lack of transparency on the part of the London Fire Department and provincial Fire Marshal’s office, demonstrated a clear pattern of secrecy.
After a fire on June 30, 2016, which cost $1.5 million and destroyed a dozen businesses, Cornies inquired about the department’s response time. City council had earlier endorsed a goal of responding to fires within four minutes. The department referred all questions to the Fire Marshal’s office. No one would offer the data, which would have been available.
A mere 249 days later, after two appeals through freedom-of-information laws, the OFM finally revealed the response time: seven minutes and 11 seconds.
“The eight-month-long obfuscation raises the question of how city councillors in Ontario are supposed to evaluate the performance and effectiveness of the fire departments accountable to them when such basic information is suppressed,” Cornies wrote in his nomination. “The OFM operates within a culture of secrecy—a culture that reaches into municipal departments that should instead be responsive to city councils and the citizens they serve.
“And all this under the nose of a provincial government that prides itself on having adopted ‘open government’ principles.”
Needless to say, the CAJ agrees.
We also awarded an honourable mention to the National Energy Board, which hired a vice-president of transparency and strategic engagement who, soon after taking the job, decided to “warn employees that they were under investigation by a private security firm for speaking to reporters.” That investigation was based on a “preliminary assessment” by the firm. When National Observer’s Mike De Souza, the NEB’s nominator, filed an access-to-information request for that report, the NEB told him there was no record of such an assessment.
Finally, we placed the Trudeau government on notice. After promising substantive—and necessary—access-to-information reform during the last campaign, the government has since backed away from any timelines at all on producing real results. “The Liberals did everything they could to match the Harper government’s record on this file,” said CAJ President Nick Taylor-Vaisey. “They fell a little short this year, but we have a good feeling about next year.”
The CAJ is Canada’s largest national professional organization for journalists from all media, representing nearly 600 members across the country. The CAJ’s primary roles are to provide high-quality professional development for its members and public-interest advocacy.
For further information:
Nick Taylor-Vaisey, CAJ president – 647-968-2393 cell, firstname.lastname@example.org