TORONTO, ONT., June 13, 2023 /CNW/ – Quebec’s criminal court system has been selected as the provincial winner of the 2022 Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy after it was revealed to have held a secret trial involving a police informant, which was only later revealed in a judgment by the province’s court of appeal after the accused appealed their conviction.
Details of the initial trial, now commonly referred to as ‘the phantom trial’, were first reported by Vincent Larouche, an investigative journalist with La Presse. The reporting indicated that the trial had no docket number and the names of the Crown prospector, the defence counsel and the judge were not in the public record. Further, there was also no information available about the date or location of the trial or details on the charges. Witnesses were also questioned outside of the courtroom.
“Holding secret trials is part of the ‘playbook’ favoured by dictatorships, not democracies,” said Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). “The scales of justice can never be allowed to slip into secrecy in Canada.”
In a redacted decision dated Feb 28, 2022, the Court of Appeal panel said the manner in which the so-called ‘phantom trial’ trial took place was “contrary to the fundamental principles that govern our justice system.” In March 2022, media organizations across the province issued an open letter expressing their “indignation” and “deep concern” with the secret trial.
In response to the news, Quebec’s justice minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, said he had held discussions with the Superior Court and the Quebec court and that secret trials would not happen again.
Since that proclamation was made, however, many additional details of the case have remained sealed. In March 2023, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear an appeal from a coalition of media organizations challenging the confidentiality orders.
In addition to the cloak of secrecy cast over Quebec’s ‘phantom trial,’ the Code of Silence Awards jury also deemed one other provincial government department worthy of public recognition.
Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has received a dishonourable mention in this year’s competition for its continued efforts, spanning several years, to block public service reporting on a government program designed to keep the province’s roads safe.
In 2018, the MTO said the processing fee related to an access-to-information request from The Investigative Journalism Bureau (IJB) for all materials related to Medical Condition Reports would cost nearly $60,000. Records on the same subject were later provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Health at no cost.
In 2021, when additional information about the program was being sought through the province’s access to information system, the MTO invoked a legislative provision that permits a ministry to deny requests that would “unreasonably interfere” with its operations.
The IJB subsequently filed freedom of information requests on internal MTO communications related to the publication of news stories. Results of those requests uncovered emails showing the MTO’s refusal to provide information to journalists was an intentional strategy because the officials in Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney’s office intervened.
“Journalists across the country are bearing witness to more and more of these kinds of ‘Kafkaesque’ tactics from public agencies every single day,” said Jolly. “While this is a particularly egregious example, any efforts to obstruct public accountability and inhibit public service information gathering is a ruthless assault on the Canadian public’s right to know.”
The Code of Silence Awards are presented annually by the CAJ, the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University (CFE), and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The awards intend to call public attention to government or publicly-funded agencies that work hard to hide information to which the public has a right to under access to information legislation.
So far in this year’s competition, the Toronto Police Service has been named the winner in the law enforcement category, while the Canada Border Services Agency was the recipient of the most secretive government agency at the federal level.
This year’s winner in the municipal government category will be announced on June 27.