Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak to the message received from the other place with regard to Bill , an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts.
I would like to recognize that this is my first official duty debating a piece of legislation as Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government, who is a fabulous minister, I might add.
I also want to acknowledge the many stakeholders who were involved in getting Bill to this point, starting with our colleagues in the other place, who conducted a very thorough and thoughtful study of this bill.
I must also recognize the contributions of parliamentarians and stakeholders and particularly the contributions of the Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner in the development of Bill , as well as, of course, our colleagues on the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics who worked long and hard on the amendments being proposed.
I would especially like to note the interventions of a number of indigenous organizations, their influence on the matters we are considering today and with whom the government is committed to engaging more closely on these matters in the future.
Together, the ideas and suggestions in the letters and presentations at both committees contributed to ensuring that the concerns of Canadians were taken into consideration and reflected in the final version of the bill.
I would remind the House that the bill would implement some of the most significant changes to the Access to Information Act since it was introduced more than 30 years ago, changes which have not been seen since the advent of the World Wide Web. This is part of the Government of Canada's continuing effort to raise the bar on openness and transparency.
We believe that government information ultimately belongs to the people it serves, and it should be open by default. That is quite simply a fundamental characteristic of a modern democracy, and the bill reflects that belief.
In that context, we welcome many of the proposed amendments that would further advance this objective. I would note, however, that two of the amendments would effectively legislate matters that are beyond the intent of the bill, whose purpose, I would remind the House, is to make targeted amendments to the act.
Those targeted amendments include providing the Information Commissioner with the power to make binding orders for the release of government information and the creation of a new part of the act on the proactive publication of key information.
For the reason that it goes beyond the intent of the bill, the government respectfully disagrees with the amendment that would limit time extensions to respond to a request to 30 days without prior approval of the Information Commissioner.
The government is declining this proposal because these provision have not been the subject of consultation or thorough study in the context of the targeted review that led to Bill . This proposal risks having unintended consequences, particularly for the office of the Information Commissioner.
The government does agree with our friends in the other place that the time extension provisions merit further study. These will be examined as part of the full review of the act which Bill requires to begin within one year of royal assent.
For the same reason, the government respectfully disagrees with the proposal to create a new criminal offence for the use of any code, moniker or contrived word or phrase in a record in place of the name of any person, corporation, entity, third party or organization. Once again, the provisions of the Access to Information Act concerning criminal offences have not been the subject of consultation or thorough study in the targeted review. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to review changes to this provision in the context of a full review.
A third amendment of concern would require the Information Commissioner to review the operation of proposed part 2 of the act regarding proactive publication and report the results to Parliament on an annual basis. Giving the commissioner oversight of proactive publication by institutions supporting Parliament and the courts would create the potential to infringe on both parliamentary privilege and judicial independence. For this reason, the government respectfully disagrees.
It is also proposed that the Information Commissioner's ability to receive and investigate complaints related to fees and time limit extensions be removed from the act. While the government recognizes the intent of this amendment, which relates to some of the other proposals that were advanced, the commissioner's authority to receive and investigate complaints regarding waiver of fees would be removed from the act, an outcome I am certain hon. members on all sides of the House would agree is undesirable.
Similarly, as the amendment with respect to the extension of a time limit was not agreed to, we must preserve the powers of the Information Commissioner to receive complaints concerning time limits and to investigate these complaints, and therefore this amendment is not necessary.
With these few exceptions, the government is pleased to accept the proposed amendments in the message from the other chamber, subject to some technical adjustments to ensure the proper functioning of these provisions.
For example, we agree with the proposed amendment that would eliminate the government's authority to set and collect fees, apart from the application fee. As the government has committed to Canadians, it will continue to charge no fees other than the application fee of just $5.
A related amendment proposed in the message would retain the right of requesters to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner regarding decisions to waive the application fee. While the Senate amendments would have removed that right, we consider that the Information Commissioner should continue to have oversight over the way the authority to waive fees is exercised by institutions.
Some of the amendments proposed in the other place would foster and, in some cases, require more extensive consultations and better communication between the Information Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. This is paramount to continue to ensure privacy protection while the government seeks to foster more openness and better access to government documents.
The bill already provides the Information Commissioner with new power to order the release of government information. To ensure that this does not compromise the right to privacy, an amendment proposes that the Information Commissioner must consult the Privacy Commissioner before ordering a release of personal information. This amendment also proposes that the Information Commissioner have the discretion to consult the Privacy Commissioner when investigating a complaint regarding the application of the personal information exemption. Both of these and some related amendments were suggested by the commissioners themselves, and the government has previously indicated that it supports these amendments. We believe they will strengthen the protection of personal information and further safeguard Canadians' privacy rights.
The government also accepts an amendment that would retain Info Source. Government institutions will continue to be required to publish information about their organization, records and manuals. Canadians seeking to exercise their right of access to government records will continue to have access to this tool.
As hon. members are surely aware, the government processes tens of thousands of access requests each and every year. It is an unfortunate fact that in a small number of cases, the requests are made for reasons that are inconsistent with the purposes of the Act. They may be made to harass a certain employee or work unit, for example. Such requests can have a disproportionate effect on the system and slow down resources on legitimate requests.
The government agrees with the amendment from the other place that the power of government institutions to ask the Information Commissioner for approval in order to refuse to act on requests should be limited to requests that are vexatious, made in bad faith or that would constitute an abuse of the right of access and would backlog the system. That would enable government institutions to focus their efforts on legitimate requests after having obtained approval from the Information Commissioner.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the main objectives of Bill is to provide the Information Commissioner with the power to issue binding orders for the processing of requests, including the disclosure of records.
The commissioner would be able to publish these orders, establishing a body of precedents to guide institutions as well as users of the system.
Originally, in order to give the commissioner time to prepare to assume this power, it would not come into force until one year after royal assent. However, the commissioner has asked that this power be available immediately upon royal assent. Reflecting the value it places on the commissioner's perspective, the government has already indicated its support for this amendment.
Another amendment asked for the Information Commissioner to file her orders in Federal Court and have them enforced as Federal Court orders. Under Bill , the Information Commissioner's orders are legally binding without the need for certification. We believe that this amendment is unnecessary and would add a step in the process.
However, the government will look at these amendments at the one-year review of the act, with a year's worth of experience under the new system.
Providing the Information Commissioner with the power to issue binding orders to government and institutions is not a trivial change. It is a game-changer for access to information. Whereas now the Information Commissioner must go to court if an institution does not follow her recommendations, Bill puts the onus on institutions. Should they disagree with an order by the Information Commissioner, institutions will have 30 days to challenge the order in Federal Court.
As for the courts, I would remind the House that the government accepted an amendment that would ensure that Bill does not encroach on judicial independence. As the House knows, part 2 of the bill would impose proactive publication requirements on 260 departments, government agencies and Crown corporations, as well as the Prime Minister's Office, ministers' offices, senators, MPs, parliamentary entities and institutions that support the courts.
The amendment would also enshrine in law the proactive publication of information of great interest to Canadians, particularly information relevant to increased transparency and responsibility with regard to the use of public funds.
This includes travel and hospitality expenses for ministers and their staff and senior officials across government, contracts over $10,000 and all contracts for MPs and senators, grants and contributions over $25,000, mandate letters and revised mandate letters, briefing packages for new ministers and deputy ministers, lists of briefing notes for ministers or deputy ministers, and the briefing binders used for question period and parliamentary committee appearances.
Putting these requirements into legislation will ensure that Canadians will have access to this kind of information automatically, without having to make a request. It will impose a new degree of transparency on this government and on future governments.
As passed by the House, Bill would require similar disclosure by the judiciary.
Concerns have since been raised about the impact that the publication of individual judges' expenses could have on judicial independence, and those concerns are exacerbated by the fact that, due to the traditional duty of reserve, judges express themselves only through their judgments and can neither defend themselves nor set the record straight. The amendment proposed in the message that would require the publication of judges' expenses according to each court, rather than on an individual basis, would address these concerns and include additional measures to increase transparency.
The government also welcomes and accepts the amendment to remove the specific criteria requiring requesters to state the specific subject matter of their request, the type of record being requested and the period for which the record is being requested.
This was included in the original bill as a way to ensure that requests provided enough information to enable a timely response.
We listened to the Information Commissioner's concerns about this clause and especially to the indigenous groups who told us that these provisions could impede their access rights. I just want to note that this amendment, along with several others proposed in the message, was suggested by the former Treasury Board president when he appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in October.
The proposal and acceptance of this amendment reflect the government's commitment to guaranteeing that indigenous peoples have access to the information they need to support their claims and seek justice for past wrongs, for example.
As members can imagine, when it comes to records that are several decades or, in some cases, more than a century old, asking someone to state the specific subject matter, type of record and period requested may constitute a barrier to access.
I also want to assure the House that the government has taken careful note of the feedback from indigenous groups who felt that the governments did not consult them properly when drafting Bill .
To respond to these concerns, the government supported the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, the National Claims Research directors and the Indigenous Bar Association in surveying selected first nations researchers and policy staff about the issues they were encountering with respect to access to information, compiling and analyzing the results in a discussion paper, and undertaking a legal review of Bill .
Nonetheless, we recognize that further work is needed, with greater collaboration between the government and indigenous groups. I would draw the attention of the House to a letter written by the former president of the Treasury Board and sent to the committee in the other place. The letter detailed specific commitments to engaging indigenous organizations and representatives about how the Access to Information Act needs to evolve to reflect Canada's relationship with indigenous peoples, including how information and knowledge of indigenous communities is both protected and made acceptable.
This engagement, as with all engagements with first nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation, will be founded on the fundamental principle of “nothing about us without us”. The government is committed to ensuring that programs, policies and services affecting indigenous peoples are designed in consultation and in collaboration with them.
In that regard, I would remind the House that this bill represents only the first phase of the government's reform to access to information. A full review of the functioning of the act would begin within one year of royal assent of Bill , with mandatory reviews every five years afterward to ensure that the Access to Information Act never again falls so far out of date. I would add that the government recognizes that engagement with indigenous communities and organizations needs to be a central part of these reviews of the act.
In conclusion, I would recall for the House that in its fifth global report, issued in 2018, Canada was ranked number one in the world for openness and transparency by Open Data Barometer, well ahead of many other nations, including many so-called advanced countries. I would note that in this most recent report the author states:
The government’s continued progress reflects a strong performance in virtually all areas—from policies to implementation. Its consistent political backing has been one [of] the keys to its success.
Bill would continue to advance our progress toward more open and transparent government.
I again thank our friends in the other place for helping to make a good bill even better. I share the Information Commissioner's opinion that Bill is better than the current act and urge all members to join me in supporting it.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased and proud to speak to Bill as the official opposition critic for the Treasury Board.
Let us put things in perspective. The bill was debated and passed in the House. Then it was sent to the Senate, which proposed amendments. In accordance with our legislative and parliamentary procedure, once the Senate made its proposals, these must be brought back to the House for analysis, and the House must accept or reject the proposals. The government calls the shots in that regard.
Essentially, the government has decided to accept most of the Senate's amendments, but it opposed four proposals, two of which are particularly interesting.
In the time I have, I will take an in-depth look and clearly explain why those four proposals should be in the act. Unfortunately, the government rejected them.
That attitude has led to the one of the worst crises of public confidence in the government, especially when it comes to the respect that the government should have for the responsibilities of the Canadian army. In fact, just a few minutes ago, here in the House, we honoured some of our bravest men and women in uniform.
Bill is a tricky bill. It is tricky yet essential, since it concerns privacy protection and the disclosure of information. We basically need to strike a balance between the public's right to information and privacy.
I know what I am talking about, having had the good fortune and privilege of being a journalist for more than 20 years. On July 17, 1989, I was officially hired as a journalist by the TQS television station in Quebec City. That was the start of a 20-year career. Actually, the year before that, I was hired by the Canadian Press to fill in as a parliamentary reporter covering the National Assembly of Quebec. During the 1988 general election, Michel Dolbec, who was a journalist at NTR and the Canadian Press, left. I replaced him for six weeks. That was my first experience as a journalist. I am not going to get into my entire life story. My point is that this is very important to me.
This issue is quite important, because we are talking about the balance we have to protect, as parliamentarians, between the right to information, which means that we protect the good work of the free press in our democracy, and on the other hand, making sure that people have their privacy respected. It is not a very easy thing to address, but this is what democracy is all about. It is about letting the press do its job while making sure that people are well protected with regard to their privacy, and especially their private lives.
It has been quite a while since this legislation was first brought forward and all the political parties committed to reviewing it. It is important to remember that the first Privacy Act dates back to 1983.
If we look back 36 years, we were entering a new world. Certain rules were needed. Year after year, successive governments thought that the rules would need to be updated one day to ensure that the approach taken in 1983 was still relevant. In 2006, the Conservative government initiated the first update to that legislation.
As mentioned earlier by the and member for , who is also my MP when I am in Ottawa, the fact is that in 1983, the World Wide Web, the system that led to the Internet, was not nearly as widely used as it is today. It was basically restricted to very small scientific and military circles.
To get back to what I was saying, in 2006, the Conservatives laid the foundation for a much-needed update. From one government to the next, election after election, everyone committed to reviewing the legislation to adapt it to the realities of the 21st century, such as the advent of social media and greater access to information. This dramatically changed how journalists and investigators do their jobs, as well as the information to which everyone has access.
Members will also recall that in 2016, in the last Parliament, a report was tabled that included 32 recommendations. Most of them made their way into the legislation and have been implemented to various degrees. Some of the recommendations that were not included in the legislation were subsequently proposed by the Senate and were either implemented or rejected by the government, which is part of the legislative process.
This piece of legislation is quite important, because since 1983, we have had a law here in Canada on the protection of personal information. It has been a long ride since then, but we have to understand that in 1983, there was no World Wide Web, aside from in some laboratories, universities and the military. People in general did not have access to this new reality of the 21st century. That is why, when my party was in office in 2006, we touched up that legislation, and finally, in this Parliament, the government tabled Bill .
The first version of this bill was introduced a while back. That may come as a bit of a surprise, since this bill was the next logical step after the Liberal Party's election promise to address the dire need for more democratic privacy legislation. This promise appeared in the Liberals' infamous election platform, along with a number of other broken promises. For instance, they promised to run three modest deficits. Instead, they have posted three huge deficits in the last three years. In 2015, the Liberal Party also promised a zero deficit by 2019, but we now have a $19.8-billion deficit. The government has not kept its word, and Canadians will pay the price.
The Liberals' election platform also included a promise to update the privacy legislation, which led to Bill . That is why I am talking about it in this speech. Obviously, when we talk about something, we must get to the point, lay out the facts and stay focused. I just felt it was important to remind the House that the Liberal Party's 2015 election platform said that they would introduce legislation on this issue, and the result was Bill C-58. Their platform also included a string of broken promises that the Liberals will have to answer for on October 21.
I would like to table the document in question, that is, the election platform. Over the past three years, I probably tried to do so 150 times, which is barely an exaggeration, but my requests are always denied. Again today, after question period, I asked for leave to table an official document of the Government of Quebec's environment ministry, which was tabled in the National Assembly by the Quebec premier on November 29. Unfortunately, once again, the government refused to let Canadians have access, here in the House, to serious, rigorous, scientific and official data on the environment compiled by the Government of Quebec. We will definitely have an opportunity to come back to this. In short, this was an important piece of legislation for the government.
When the new cabinet was sworn in at Rideau Hall, in November 2015, after the November 19 election, the gave each new minister a mandate letter. The ' mandate letter stated, “Work with the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Justice to enhance the openness of government, including supporting a review of the Access to Information Act.”
Then, there is the Minister of Justice; he, too, was called upon to work collaboratively in his mandate letter. Actually, back then, the position was held by a woman. I apologize for misleading the House. The fact of the matter is that the individual who once held the position of justice minister resigned and was ejected from caucus. She now sits as an independent.
This unfortunately happened in the wake of a situation considered to be shameful and outrageous by any Canadian who understands that politics and the judicial process must be kept separate. I will talk more about this later.
The justice minister's mandate letter stated the following:
Work with the President of the Treasury Board to enhance the openness of government, including supporting his review of the Access to Information Act to ensure that Canadians have easier access to their own personal information, that the Information Commissioner is empowered to order government information to be released and that the Act applies appropriately to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.
I should also point out that the president of the treasury board in question also resigned. The claimed that he was behind all of this government's misfortunes in 2019. I will talk more about this later.
That is no small task that the Prime Minister gave his former justice minister, whom he later ousted from his caucus. Many of the tasks outlined in that letter did not even come close to being accomplished, but that is another story. Canadians will have their say on October 21, just four months and a few days from now.
In June 2017, after two years in office, the government introduced Bill . I would like to recognize the outstanding work of my colleague in the upper chamber, Quebec Senator Claude Carignan. I believe I am allowed to say his name. Here in the House, we cannot identify MPs by their names, but I think I am allowed to do so when referring to a parliamentarian from the upper chamber.
Senator Carignan is a lawyer and the one responsible for the extraordinary legislation to protect whistleblowers. Members will recall that, two years ago, Senator Carignan introduced a bill in the Senate to provide better protection for whistleblowers. I had the great honour and privilege to sponsor that bill here in the House of Commons. We would therefore like to recognize Senator Carignan's outstanding work to protect access to information, freedom of the press and journalists' ability to do their job properly.
Senator Carignan played a major role in the analysis of this bill. Senator Carignan is a lawyer and a well-known parliamentarian who was nominated 10 years ago by Prime Minister Harper. He is doing a tremendous job with respect to protecting whistle-blowers. He tabled a bill two years ago in the Senate. I had the privilege of being the sponsor here in the House of Commons of this great piece of legislation.
I want to pay my respects to Senator Carignan, who played a major role in the study of Bill in the Senate of Canada.
In a speech he gave in the upper chamber on May 3, Senator Carignan noted that former information commissioner Suzanne Legault had expressed serious reservations in her report about Bill , which had been tabled in the Senate in September 2017, writing:
Rather than advancing access to information rights, Bill C-58 would instead result in a regression of existing rights.
Later in his speech, Senator Carignan made the following remark:
Senator Pate spoke about this. A number of Indigenous groups have asked that Bill C-58 be simply withdrawn. Former information commissioners have spoken out against it. Several commentators hope it will not be passed. Senator McCoy pointed out that Bill C-58 makes a mockery of the very essence of access to information, and I share her opinion. She wanted the Senate to block the bill, but she dares not do it now.
Senator Carignan was warning of a very valid and relevant issue that had been raised by many commentators and journalists. Many professional journalists' associations felt that, although the government got elected by vaunting its lofty principles, the very essence of Bill fell well short of those goals.
As former information commissioner Suzanne Legault said, this was not a step forward, it was a step back. That is why the Senate did its work. Members will recall that the official opposition voted against the bill. Since we are now at the stage following the upper chamber's study of the bill and the tabling of amendments, let us focus on what the senators did.
That is why the amendments were tabled and voted for by a majority of senators. As I said, we are now studying the proposed amendments.
In the big picture, the government accepted most of the amendments tabled by the Senate, but unfortunately decided to put aside what we consider to be four key elements of this legislation and the amendment tabled by the the Senate.
The government said, in a very respectful way in the words that were read a few minutes ago, that it put aside amendments 3 and 12 and will also put aside paragraph 6. It also put aside amendment 15(c).
Now let us talk about two Senate amendments that we believe should be included in the legislation. Unfortunately, the current government is rejecting those amendments.
I will now look at amendment 12, which I mentioned earlier in my question to the . The amendment proposes:
12. New clause 30.2, page 17: Add the following after line 37:
“30.2 Subsection 67.1(1) of the Act is amended by adding the following after paragraph (b):
(b.1) use any code, moniker or contrived word or phrase in a record in place of the name of any person, corporation, entity, third party or organization;”.
This is a key element that I will have a chance to debate later. I will also provide a specific example that we believe justifies keeping this subsection. Unfortunately, this amendment was rejected by the current government.
In the next few minutes, I will go over the tragic ordeal our country went through because of this government's arrogant attitude. I am referring to the sad affair of Vice-Admiral Norman.
The other amendment that we believe should have been accepted is amendment 3, which reads:
3. New clause 6.2, page 4: Add the following after line 4:
“6.2 Subsection 9(2) of the Act is replaced by the following:
(2) An extension of a time limit under paragraph (1)(a) or (b) may not be for more than 30 days except with the prior written consent of the Information Commissioner.”.
Before getting to the topic at hand, I want to commend the outstanding work of the legislative drafters. When we read clauses of bills, they can seem arduous and hard to understand. They are especially difficult to follow since the language is very technical. I would like to commend the outstanding work of the legislative drafters of the Parliament of Canada, who check, word for word, line by line—
Mr. Speaker, I thank my B.C. colleague for reminding us about the respect that we, as parliamentarians, should have for rules and customs. It is not because we are full of ourselves that we want to have a lot of people here listening to the person who has the floor, who just so happens to be me right now.
I want to recognize the outstanding work done by the people who draft bills for Canada's Parliament, because that is an extremely difficult job. It takes years of practice and, above all, dedication to doing things right, down to the last detail. I very much appreciate their work.
In December 2004, if memory serves, I did a story on the legislative specialists working for Quebec's revenue ministry. They are the people who write budget implementation bills, which are extremely intricate. I would just like to pay tribute to the Hon. Lawrence Bergman, Quebec's revenue minister under the Hon. Jean Charest. Mr. Charest was well known here in the House of Commons from 1984 to 1997 as an MP, minister, deputy prime minister, party leader and deputy speaker of the House of Commons.
That said, we think it is important to include those four elements in the legislation, which is exactly what the Liberal government did not do. I mentioned that we Conservatives were particularly concerned about the issue of monikers. In the Norman affair, unfortunately, people with bad intentions—and I can say this with the protection of the House—started a witch hunt. I will prove this over the new few minutes. That is completely unacceptable in our democratic system, especially when we consider the respect that the political branch needs to show for the legal system and the military system. Unfortunately, there were attempts to lump everything all together, without talking about the financial repercussions it could have on Canada's shipping industry.
The people conducting the investigations used code names to cover up their work. In our view, that practice should be harshly condemned. We applauded the fact that the Senate adopted amendment 3, which would put an end to that practice. As the announced, it is their right and their prerogative, and I respect that. I am a parliamentarian first and foremost, and a champion of democracy above all else. However, we believe that the government is wrong to reject that amendment, because it pertains to an abhorrent practice and one of the most direct attacks by political authority on judicial authority and military authority, all for financial gain and dishonourable purposes.
I am going to talk about what happened with the Asterix, since that is what this is all about, as well as Vice-Admiral Norman and the contract awarded by the Government of Canada in 2015 for the construction of that supply ship. The contract was awarded to a shipyard in Lévis called Davie. Meanwhile, pressure was being applied by a competing shipyard, Irving, which interfered in the executive process of our parliamentary system by lobbying some of the most senior cabinet members directly.
We should first talk about Vice-Admiral Norman, one of the most decorated and honourable members of the Canadian military. His dedication, professionalism and sense of duty led him to accomplish great things. He is the son of an army officer and grandson of a First World War veteran; honour runs in his blood. Vice-Admiral Norman studied in Kingston before joining the naval reserve and pursuing a career in the navy. He is a specialist in above water warfare and has held a number of posts, including on the maiden operational deployment of HMCS Halifax, and as executive officer of HMCS Iroquois, commanding officer of the frigate HMCS St. Johns and, more recently, commander of Canadian Fleet Atlantic.
At every step of his career, from his days in the naval reserve to his promotion to one of the highest ranks in the navy, that of vice-admiral, he always acted with a level of honour befitting his rank, never betraying the faith placed in him by his peers.
Sadly, history will show that this government dragged an honourable man through the mud for their own, purely self-serving, financial purposes. The government disgraced itself. Incidentally, let's hope the Canadian public voices its extreme displeasure over this issue on October 21.
Let's not forget that all of this happened because, during the 41st Parliament, the previous government, a Conservative government, contracted the Davie shipyard in Lévis to build a supply ship.
As soon as the Conservative government was defeated and the new Liberal government took over, Irving immediately started pressuring the newly elected government to review the decision. This resulted in a judicial inquiry, which led to the vice-admiral, an honourable man, being dismissed and dragged through the mud by the current government, including the , who made some unfortunate comments. Heads of state need to choose their words carefully. Unfortunately, on two separate occasions, the Prime Minister said that there would be a trial, even though nothing had been announced. This was some utterly unacceptable political interference in the judicial system, not unlike what we saw with the SNC-Lavalin scandal. It is worth remembering all of this.
Since my time is limited, I will be brief, but I do want to remind members about the unfortunate Vice-Admiral Norman affair, which runs deep and which will leave a permanent scar on this government.
Paul Martin's Liberal government looked at the possibility of replacing some supply ships in 2004, but the decision was ultimately made in 2015.
There had been talk of the need for a new supply ship since 2004 and a number of steps were taken. Finally, on November 18, 2014, Vice-Admiral Norman informed the Standing Committee on National Defence that Canada needed new supply ships.
In 2004, Paul Martin's Liberal government announced that Canada would need a new supply ship. Then, on November 18, 2014, in front of a parliamentary committee, Vice-Admiral Norman stated that Canada was indeed in need of a new supply ship. In January 2015, the federal government decided that it needed to follow through on that request. On June 23, 2015, the current Premier of Alberta, the Hon. Jason Kenney, who was the defence minister at the time, announced that the government was in discussions with Davie shipyard in Lévis about a temporary supply ship.
This announcement was made on June 23, on the eve of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, Quebec's national holiday or, as some call it, the summer solstice, but that is another story. This happened just a few hours before Quebec's national holiday.
On June 23, 2015, the defence minister, on behalf of the Conservative government, announced that it was initiating talks with Davie. On August 1, 2015, the Conservative government announced, a few hours before the election was called, that the Government of Canada had signed a letter of intent with Davie shipyard for the construction of a supply ship. Everything was going well up to that point. However, on October 19, 2015, Canadians cast their ballots, and the Liberal Party came to power. We are democrats and we respect the people's decision.
On October 8, 2015, the MV Asterix, which was chosen by Davie to be refitted as a supply ship, arrived at the shipyard in Quebec City.
November 17, 2015, is when the political interference in the entirely appropriate process initiated by the former government began.
I want to remind members that that is no small thing. I represent a riding in Quebec City, where the issue attracts considerable attention. Once again, for the third time, I would remind members, because this does in fact relate to Bill , that in my 20 years as a journalist in Quebec City, I reported on the Davie shipyard between 150 to 200 times.
Of those 150 to 200 news reports, maybe three of them were positive because, unfortunately, as I recall, things were never going well for Davie. Our government granted funding to this shipyard, which was established in 1880. That is no small thing, and this is no small shipyard that we are talking about. It is the biggest shipyard we have with two huge dry docks where these sorts of big jobs can be done.
Some members will likely wonder why the Conservative government did not do anything about that in 2011. I will say two things. First, the government announcement in 2011 was based on the recommendations of a neutral and independent committee. Second, it is important to remember that, sadly, the Davie shipyard was technically bankrupt in 2011. No one takes any joy in that, but facts are facts. I would invite members to ask themselves whether they would be prepared to hire a company that is technically bankrupt to build their house. I am not so sure anyone would. That is what happened in 2011.
However, in 2015, under our government, Canada granted Davie a contract to build a supply ship and we all know now how well that turned out. I can confirm that the ship was indeed delivered on time and on budget. That does not happen very often. Davie workers and managers, the union leaders, and the new head and owner of the Davie shipyard all deserve our warmest congratulations and salutations for delivering this important part of Canada's arsenal, the Asterix, on time and on budget.
I was there on July 20, 2017, when Pauline Théberge, wife of the Hon. Michel Doyon, Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, broke a sacrificial bottle on the ship for good luck. We were there. I was very pleased and honoured to attend the ceremony along with a number of MPs and former Conservative ministers. Unfortunately, the current government was conspicuously absent from what was an important, positive and exciting event for Canada. That absence spoke volumes.
Getting back to our story about Mr. Norman and the contract for the Asterix, on November 17, 2015, just a few days after the Liberal government's cabinet was sworn in at Rideau Hall, James Irving, Irving's co-CEO, sent a letter to four Liberal ministers, namely the , the , the former minister of public services and procurement, and the former Treasury Board president, Scott Brison. We have heard that name a lot over the past few months, and as we will see, there may be something of a connection with what happened here.
Mr. Irving went to bat for his shipyard, which is basically his job, and communicated directly with four of this government's senior ministers, including the Treasury Board president, the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Finance. They might not be the three aces, but they are pretty close. They are at the top of the federal government hierarchy. Mr. Irving wanted to revisit the contract awarded by the previous government.
Then, as it turns out, on November 19, 2015, during a federal cabinet meeting that Vice-Admiral Norman did not attend, the Treasury Board president shelved the Asterix project for two months to review the contract that had been awarded.
It was not until later that we found out why. Cabinet confidences were leaked to CBC journalist James Cudmore, who, on November 20, 2015, reported that the letter was not signed by November 30 as it should have been.
That is where the problems in this story all began. On November 16, 2016, the RCMP started putting Vice-Admiral Norman under surveillance. There was a police car in front of his house in Orleans, a suburb of Ottawa. As I was saying, he was dragged through the mud, and it was despicable. On January 9, 2017, seven police officers conducted a raid of Vice-Admiral Norman's home.
Let me quote some information. The seven police officers arrived at Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's home. They “stayed [in the house] for six hours, and seized a desktop computer, a laptop, two cell phones and three iPads, one owned by [Norman's wife].”
Norman's defence would later argue that the RCMP, which had a warrant to seize “DND files and related material”, overstepped “by also seizing thousands of pieces of personal effects from the Norman family.”
This is totally unacceptable and outrageous. We are talking about one of the top soldiers in the Canadian Army. We are talking about the number two person in the Canadian Army, and the Liberals did not treat this honourable man as highly as they should treat a man who was so honourable in his career and in his personal life.
Other reprehensible events followed. The vice-admiral was relieved of his duties. On November 20, 2017, the Canadian government refused Vice-Admiral Norman's request for financial assistance for the legal expenses stemming from this crisis.
The Asterix was officially christened by the wife of the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec in July 2017. On December 23, 2017, the supply ship Asterix left Davie shipyard, near Quebec City, to commence operations. Over the past two years, the supply ship Asterix has distinguished itself as one of the best, if not the best, ship of all of Canada's allies. The contract our government awarded to the Davie shipyard was completed impeccably, not only in terms of budgets and deadlines, but also in terms of our military's needs.
Everything was going well until the political interference began. When asked about it, the twice said that Vice-Admiral Norman would be charged with a crime. He said that before any suit was officially filed in court. That is despicable. We are talking about clear interference by the Prime Minister of Canada, who is the head of the government, and therefore the head of the executive branch and, to some extent, the head of the legislative branch, in the judicial process.
This is not the only time he did this. We all remember the terrible SNC-Lavalin scandal, which led to the resignation of two senior government ministers, namely the former justice minister and the former president of the Treasury Board. Such political interference in the justice system is despicable.
The did not have to publicly announce that the Norman case would go to trial. We should let the courts and the justice system do their work. We cannot start predicting that certain cases will go to trial, unless we are talking about a backdoor deal, which we are not, even if it almost seems that way. That is what is despicable here.
What happened next? Vice-Admiral Norman was relieved of his duties under a cloud of deep suspicion. Police searched his home and confiscated his family's personal property. They went through his wife's iPad looking for information. Vice-Admiral Norman eventually requested access to evidence, emails and other records he needed to mount a full and complete defence. The government's lawyers continuously refused to grant him access to this important information, which was vital to mounting a full and complete defence of a man as honourable as the vice-admiral.
When the Canadian military's second-in-command is implicated in a case, we would at least expect the government to remain at arm's length. On the contrary, day after day, this government wanted to ensure that Mr. Norman did not have access to a full and complete defence. It refused to grant the financial assistance that would normally be provided to a man of his rank under such circumstances. Even when the charges were dropped, the government continued to refuse him this financial assistance, even though it had spent almost $15 million prosecuting him. The government steadfastly refused his request for financial assistance.
At the beginning of the court case, a request was made for access to important records, and there again, the government refused. Fortunately, the judicial system worked. A judge gave Mr. Norman access to certain pieces of evidence. Once everyone had access to this information, it suddenly became clear that there was no case and that this man should never have been dragged through the courts and the mud. This case will long be remembered by every Canadian as a shameful incident. Politicians interfered in a court case that was without merit.
Vice-Admiral Norman suffered for months and was left to defend himself alone and unaided. On May 8, the government realized that it might not have a case. It therefore dropped the charges against Mr. Norman and finally decided to pay his legal fees. My goodness, that is the least it could do. The government created this whole problem for nothing.
Once the government was forced by the court to disclose all of the evidence Mr. Norman was entitled to see, and once Canadian legal experts had access to this evidence, suddenly, there was no more story. What did this evidence include? Here is where I will make the connection to Bill and the Senate's third amendment, which was rejected by this government.
On December 18, 2018, Vice-Admiral Norman's team called two surprise witnesses, who provided evidence proving that Vice-Admiral Norman had the right to see names that had been redacted. The people in power had avoided using his name in their emails, specifically to avoid identifying him. This is a fundamental point. Furthermore, on January 29, 2019, a list was released showing acronyms and other military terms that had been used to refer to Vice-Admiral Norman.
Let me quote this in English because, in the proof, the important element was all written in English. Instead of talking about Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, they referred to him as “the boss,” “N3” and “C34”. The list was compiled by DND. Under questioning, the chief of the defence staff, General Jonathan Vance, said that “unless officials were specifically instructed to use these as search terms, subpoenas from Norman’s defence team may not have turned up documents that used those phrases.”
That is precisely why the Senate's third amendment must be maintained. The use of code names, especially in cases like this one, is completely unacceptable in our view. Mr. Speaker, let me correct something I just said. It is not amendment 3, but rather amendment 12. In my conversations with my colleagues, I have always called it the Norman amendment. This change aims to ensure that no one gets in the bad habit of identifying key people in criminal cases by code names. Incidentally, this was not actually a criminal case.
In the end, they realized that this man was more of a victim of the obnoxious attitude adopted by this government for purposes that I dare not even mention here in the House. The Liberals wanted to please certain friends here and there, rather than all Canadians. In our view, this use of code names should be stopped.
I know this brings up bad memories for the government. If I were a Liberal, I would definitely feel uncomfortable about this situation, the terrible Norman scandal, which has the Liberal government's fingerprints all over it.
This soldier dedicated his professional life to defending Canada with honour and dignity. He came from the humblest naval beginnings to rise through the ranks of the Royal Canadian Navy. At the peak of his career and his art, this man made sure that we could trust Canadian industry and the workers at the Davie shipyard in Lévis. Yes, everything was going well, yes, it was a success, and yes, it could be completed on time and on budget.
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to participate in this important debate. I want to say at the outset that what we are technically addressing is a motion by the government that would refuse the 19 or 20 amendments to Bill that were proposed by the Senate. The NDP opposes the motion. It cannot support a bill that does not include the amendments that were brought to this place by the Senate. I will explain why in my remarks.
It is a very disturbing situation we find ourselves in. During the election campaign, the government committed to transparency. Indeed, the , when in opposition, introduced Bill , an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and the Access to Information Act. We could call it the transparency bill. Bill , therefore, is not something the Liberals simply decided to propose on a whim. It was the result of a considered effort by the government to deliver on an election promise on transparency.
It was a total disappointment when it came forward. That is not me speaking. It is from the former information commissioner of Canada, Suzanne Legault. Members know, just as I do, how unusual it is for an independent officer of Parliament, such as the Information Commissioner, to give the kind of criticism I would like to read into the record today.
On September 28, 2017, when the bill first came forward, she said that bill would “take people’s right to know backwards rather than forward”, according to the National Post. The article went on:
In her first substantive comments on the legislation, [the former commissioner] said the measures fail to deliver on Liberal election promises. “If passed, it would result in a regression of existing rights.”
She put forward 28 recommendations to improve the legislation, and they are not found, in any significant degree, in Bill . That is why, when I stood in this place during debate on the bill earlier, I reluctantly said, with sadness, that we had to oppose the bill. If the government is not even prepared to take the baby steps represented by the Senate amendments, clearly we cannot afford to pass what even the commissioner so eloquently said was a regressive bill. She is right, for reasons I will come to.
Like the member for , who is justly acclaimed for his awards in the world of journalism, I received an award as well for my work on freedom of information. It was from the hon. Ged Baldwin, who was once the member of Parliament for Peace River, for work I did at graduate school and then with the Canadian Bar Association, so many years ago, lobbying for an access to information act. It was modelled on legislation other countries have taken for granted. The United States has had it since the sixties, Sweden since the 18th century, and so on.
Finally, Canada got an access to information act. However, it is old. It was passed in the eighties. It is from horse-and-buggy days, yet some of those old features have not been corrected in the bill before us.
I care deeply about the issue. I think it is central to a democracy. The Supreme Court of Canada has called the right to know, freedom of information and access to information a “quasi-constitutional right” Canadians have. When the former commissioner says that the bill is regressive and is a step backwards, despite the bold promises of transparency the made when he was leader of the third party in the House, we can imagine the disappointment of Canadians.
Of course, it is not only this Canadian who has that disappointment. I should point out that Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Centre for Law and Democracy called the bill “inadequate” and asked that the government withdraw it.
The Senate has brought forward improvements, and for the government to say it cannot even go there is frankly shocking.
What is wrong with the bill? I do not quite know where to start. One thing it gets right, I concede, is that for the first time, there is an order-making power for the commissioner.
Just to step back, what should an access to information act contain? It should contain three things.
First, it should contain a general statement that the public has a right to government records.
Second, it should have obvious exceptions to that rule. We can all guess what they are. They are all included in this legislation, and then some. They include cabinet confidences, business information, policy advice, solicitor-client records and information that if disclosed would be injurious to national security or international relations. There are the rules, and there are exceptions.
Third, there should be an independent umpire in the game. Until this bill goes through, that umpire, the Information Commissioner, has only been able to make recommendations, which the government has frequently ignored. Now there would be something like an order that could be made and enforced in the Federal Court. That is something I believe is worth support. I also support that there would be a legislative review of these provisions within five years. I think that is good.
I talked about Liberal promises. One thing the Liberals talked about constantly in the last election was that the bill would be extended to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices. Those records would be available. They are available in provincial laws. They are certainly available in my province of British Columbia. That was a black and white election promise that has now been broken by the current government. There is no way to sugar-coat that.
The Senate amendments would improve it and give it a bit more teeth, but that is simply not on in terms of this legislation. I am grateful to the Senate for the 20 amendments that would, if passed, allow us to begrudgingly accept the improvements in this bill. However, the government has now put us on notice that it does not want to go anywhere near them. It likes the bill the way it is, despite the fact that it was castigated by everyone who knows about access to information in Canada. The academics and journalists who studied it and the advocates out there who use it as a tool to hold their government to account all said that it is not going to work and that it is just not enough. That was sad to me.
In opposition, the said, “a country's access to information system is at the heart of open government.”
I talked about transparency. The Liberals seemed to like it in opposition. The said during the campaign, “transparent government is good government.” That was something he said during the campaign.
Let us get more specific. He said:
We will...ensure that Access to Information applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.
Unfortunately, that did not happen in this legislation.
What the government likes to talk about is what it calls proactive disclosure, which is a good thing. That is when a minister travels and puts his or her expenses on the website so Canadians can see whether there has been abuse. That is done proactively. If one goes to the website, there it is. Frankly, it is old hat in Canada. It has been around for decades in the provinces. However, as much as I like that, the fact is that it is not what people want. If they want to apply to that minister's office to understand about a particular contract or something for which the minister is responsible, they cannot get anywhere with it, because the ministers' offices are not subject to the law. It is a bizarre aberration.
I had the good fortune of being the unpaid adviser to the attorney general when B.C.'s freedom of information act was brought forward. I can say that we did a lot of consultation. I think there were 52 amendments made on the floor. The bill was passed unanimously and was praised as the best bill in the Commonwealth when it came forward. Unfortunately, it needs more work. I hope it is amended, like this bill. Nevertheless, it was the gold standard at the time. There was never any question about ministers' offices not being covered.
The government has what is called in the trade a “Mack truck clause”. It was not changed. It is the clause that was section 69 in the original bill, the cabinet confidences Mack truck clause. What does that mean? Rather than just being an exemption, an exception to the rule, of which I spoke earlier, the act does not even apply to it. What does that mean? It means that we cannot have the commissioner's office or anyone else deciding whether stuff has been stuffed into a cabinet record to evade the law on the right people have to access information. It is called a “Mack truck clause”, or often, “cabinet laundering”. That means that the government sticks a record in the cabinet. I am not saying that this happened. I am not suggesting bad faith, but it is certainly possible under the law. That is why it was so criticized during the day.
What else does the Senate do that the government will not go near? We have heard a lot about Mark Norman today. The Senate would add a clause that would create a new offence forbidding the use of any “code, moniker or contrived word or phrase in a record in place of the name of any person, corporation, entity, third party or organization” with a view to evading the duty to disclose and release records under the act.
We all know why that is there, because it is notorious that to evade the law on access to information, the Department of National Defence did not even use the name of Mark Norman or his rank. It used a phony word, contrary to the spirit of the act and certainly the letter of the act. This would make it clear that this could not be done in the future, which seems to be good public policy.
It seems to me obvious that if the government intends to evade the letter and spirit of the act, as this government has done, we would want to correct that misbehaviour. The Senate saw through that, proposed amendments and brought them here, and the government has not even allowed us to talk about them. We are going to just put them all aside. That is quite disturbing. It is not a theoretical problem, in other words. It is a real problem that the Senate wanted to address, because we got wind of it in the litigation involving Mark Norman. The government will not fix it. It does not even want to go there.
There are some other changes that are technical in nature, but the big principle is that the bill, after so many years of ossification, is rusting out. The bill came forward before we even had computers, and now the government is doing tinkering and patting itself on the back for doing what in other jurisdictions has been the law for a generation.
I am hard pressed to find things to say about the bill that are positive. I appreciate the fact that there would be a five-year review and that, as I said earlier, finally, in keeping with all the provinces' laws, the order-making power would be available to the commissioner. That is pretty thin gruel after all these years. Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged as a positive change. However, on balance, the bill is very, very disturbing.
I wish I could be here saying that the bill has merit. I wish I could be saying that there were some of those things I talked about, like cabinet confidences being a regular exception for which courts and others would have the theoretical ability to review disclosure decisions, but there is nothing here that would do that.
There is another issue. That is the duty to document. One of the modern issues that has come forward is that to evade the public's right to know, there is a great oral tradition that seems to have emerged. Things are not written down in government documents. Either little yellow stickies are put on them, which are removed when disclosure applications are made, or, more frequently, a record is not made at all. We have seen that in British Columbia, the development of the so-called oral culture of government.
The notion of documenting and having a duty to record for future generations and others just exactly what decision was made and for what reasons is lacking. In administrative law, there has been a growing commitment, the courts have found, to provide reasons for decisions that are made. Sometimes access to information has been a tool to elucidate the reasons a particular decision was made, so people have been calling for a duty to document. There is no such thing in this law, I am sad to say.
In conclusion, the government has taken off the table all the work the Senate did that would have made it possible to support this bill. The Senate amendments made it better, said Caroline Maynard, the Information Commissioner of Canada. Had those amendments gone through, the New Democratic Party would have supported this bill.
To take all those amendments off the table and leave what has been soundly criticized, in all quarters, by academics, user groups and journalist groups, and say that we should be happy with what is remaining is simply an outrage. We cannot dignify this with our support.