Mike Larsen and Kevin Walby, Eds., Brokering Access: Power, Politics, and Freedom of Information Process in Canada

Article excerpt

MIKE LARSEN and KEVIN WALBY, eds., Brokering Access: Power, Politics, and Freedom of Information Process in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2012, xxi + 369 p, index. (Also in hardcover).

"On a huge hill, Cragg'd and steep, Truth stands, and he that will reach her, about must, and about must go." John Donne, English poet and divine, 1572 to 1631. Third Satyr, early seventeenth century.

Although written 400 years ago, John Donne's metaphor appositely covers a central theme of Brokering Access. "Truth" becomes the flow and content of printed and electronic data within and between Canadian government departments. The "huge hill," hard to climb, becomes the often-stubborn efforts of academics, journalists, and others in a professional or private capacity to gain access to these data. Since their requests could reveal official information that is deemed too sensitive, or not in "the public interest" for controllers of the data to make widely available, the latter--primarily politicians and government officials--have developed many mechanisms that restrict transparency and the free flow of information. This is not always so, of course. Nonetheless, just as "transparency" and "freedom of information" are rhetorical flails used by opposition parties to show the voters how much more open they would be once in power, when that power is actually gained, they, in turn, all too often "accept the proposition that the business of the public is none of the public's business." This proposition (almost an ideology) was condemned by Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott when introducing the province's first Freedom of Information act in 1985. Ann Cavoukian, Information and Privacy Commissioner for Ontario, refers to Scott's comments in her Foreward to Brokering Access (p. xiii). In turn, she notes that "Freedom of information is really about freedom, the preservation and advancement of which should be at the heart of all that we do. It is frustrating that books such as this still need to be published and hopefully read" (p. xv). Nonetheless, she is clearly very glad that they are.

The editors of this anthology of 14, mostly original, articles have clearly had much experience with prison agencies, described by contributor, Justin Piche, a sociologist at Memorial University, as "amongst the most opaque of state institutions" (p. 234). Mike Larsen is a criminologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, and Kevin Walby is a sociologist at the University of Victoria whose research focuses substantially on criminological topics. Following a lengthy introduction on the "Politics of Access to Information" (hereafter ATI), they bring together the diverse experiences with ATI of contributors from sociology, criminology, journalism, political science, as well as professional ATI advocates. The book is formally divided into four parts, with Part I containing two articles that look at the history and current status of ATI legal processes and policies. The second and third parts that cover the majority of the articles are not very clearly delineated in the sense that a number of the articles would seem to fit into either part. Nonetheless, they contain much that is valuable about the crafting of ATI requests, the ways in which these requests may be delayed or denied by public authorities, and, vitally, advice on the most effective ways of obtaining data. This information is followed through in the three articles of Part IV written by authors with considerable experience of investigatory journalistic reporting. In Canada, the federal government passed the ATI Act (ATIA) in 1983, and much attention is given throughout the book to the functioning of this vitally important Act. However, the Canadian provinces and municipalities have adopted their own specific legislation. There has been some research on government secrecy in Canada, but little on its connection with ATI, and then mainly at the federal level. …