Opaque by default

How Global Affairs Canada hid behind the Access to Information Act for eight years to avoid disclosing embarrassing information

By: /
17 February, 2021
Libyans celebrate the fall of Libyans celebrate the fall of Tripoli to rebels fighting dictator Moammar Gaddafi in August 2011 in Tripoli, Libya. Canada delivered medial kits to Libyan rebels that June. Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

Global Affairs Canada spent eight years trying to hide the fact that Canada once decided not to ship bandages to rebels in Libya because the bandages were made in Israel.

In the process, it hid behind and abused the Access to Information Act by pretending that merely embarrassing information could by harmful to Canada and its allies. It ignored a recommendation from the Office of the Information Commissioner that it disclose the information, after the information commissioner investigated GAC’s stated reasons for the redaction and found them unconvincing. Global Affairs only threw in the towel when a journalist challenged it in Federal Court.

The story begins in June 2011, when then-foreign affairs minister John Baird was planning a visit to Libya’s Transitional National Council, which Canada had just recognized as the country’s legitimate representative and which spoke on behalf of rebels fighting dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Canadian officials scrambled to find emergency trauma kits Baird could give the rebels during his visit. They would eventually source these kits privately but were originally planning on sending Department of National Defence medical gear. However, it seems officials weren’t happy with some of the emergency trauma and combat dressings in the DND kits.

“The packaging of the items indicate that they are made in Israel, so we are removing them from the shipment,” Col. Frances Allen, then director of support operations at DND’s strategic joint staff, wrote in an email to Bruno Nordeste, then program coordinator in Global Affairs Canada’s stabilization and reconstruction programs division. (Global Affairs was at this time called the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.)

Except, when I received the results of an access-to-information request about the delivery of those kits in 2013, the bit about Israel was redacted. The stated reason, referencing section 15(1) of the Access to Information Act, was that revealing that information “could reasonably be expected to be injurious to the conduct of international affairs, the defence of Canada or any state allied or associated with Canada.”

At the time, I was as a reporter at Maclean’s magazine. I had already confirmed with two other sources why Canada didn’t want to send certain medical supplies to Libya. I knew the argument that it might harm Canada to reveal this information was ridiculous. At worst, it might make Canadian officials look foolish for assuming a Muslim fighter bleeding to death wouldn’t want to save himself with Zionist bandages. So, I filed a complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner.

“This isn’t just about government waste. It’s about Global Affairs Canada’s contempt for accountability and for legislation meant to ensure it.”

Seven years went by. (“Seven years” is not a typo.) Last fall, the OIC sent me the results of its investigation. Caroline Maynard, the information commissioner of Canada, found my complaint to be well founded and recommended that Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Marta Morgan disclose the redacted information.

Specifically, Maynard wrote: “Global Affairs Canada did not demonstrate that disclosure of the information at issue could reasonably be expected to harm the conduct of international affairs. It did not provide adequate specifics to demonstrate a risk of harm resulting from disclosure of this information that is well beyond a mere possibility.”

Morgan rejected Maynard’s recommendation and, as the department had before, cited section 15(1) of the Act to justify her decision.

It wasn’t a reckless calculation on Morgan’s part. At this point, my only option was to apply to the Federal Court for a review. That would be expensive, and it was reasonable to assume I’d walk away. I likely would have done, until Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ offered to take my case on a pro bono basis.

Shortly after we filed our affidavit, Global Affairs folded. They gave me the unredacted email, confirming what I knew to be true all along. Taxpayers will now pay Champ’s fees and cover the court costs I have accrued. This is on top of the cost in time and salary for all the work the Office of the Information Commissioner put into investigating my complaint and making a recommendation that Global Affairs subsequently ignored.

But this isn’t just about government waste, or even primarily so. It’s about Global Affairs Canada’s contempt for accountability and for legislation meant to ensure it. Governments, and government departments, function best when they are subject to scrutiny. That Global Affairs put so much effort into evading scrutiny on a relatively trivial matter is concerning.

Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to François-Phillippe Champagne, who was foreign affairs minister when the department doubled down on using false pretences to prevent the disclosure of embarrassing information, says he expects Champagne to continue raising the bar on transparency in government. At least he still has a sense of humour.