May 21, 2018

Winnipeg
26° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

Opinion

Trust broken with push for confidentiality

It appears the battle for transparency is never-ending.

Most sensible people would agree that institutions — government, political parties, schools and even some private businesses — owe a duty of transparency to society. It is only by knowing exactly who did what, when, where, how and why that we can guarantee people are accountable for their actions.

Despite that, transparency is under constant attack. There were numerous examples this past week that demonstrate the ways in which the trustees of transparency have to constantly fend off efforts to undermine.

At the trial of the Raymond Cormier, the man accused of killing teenager Tina Fontaine in 2014, Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal was asked to consider two separate requests for publication bans. One was made on behalf of a Child and Family Services (CFS) employee who was the last social worker to see the 15-year-old alive. The other was from a man who attempted to buy sex from Tina shortly before her death.

Subscribers Log in below to continue reading,
not a subscriber? Create an account to start a 60 day free trial.

Log in Create your account

Your free trial has come to an end.

We hope you have enjoyed your trial! To continue reading, we recommend our Read Now Pay Later membership. Simply add a form of payment and pay only 27¢ per article.

For unlimited access to the best local, national, and international news and much more, try an All Access Digital subscription:

Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

Federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion has proposed a publication ban on details of complaints received by his office.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion has proposed a publication ban on details of complaints received by his office.

It appears the battle for transparency is never-ending.

Most sensible people would agree that institutions — government, political parties, schools and even some private businesses — owe a duty of transparency to society. It is only by knowing exactly who did what, when, where, how and why that we can guarantee people are accountable for their actions.

Despite that, transparency is under constant attack. There were numerous examples this past week that demonstrate the ways in which the trustees of transparency have to constantly fend off efforts to undermine.

At the trial of the Raymond Cormier, the man accused of killing teenager Tina Fontaine in 2014, Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal was asked to consider two separate requests for publication bans. One was made on behalf of a Child and Family Services (CFS) employee who was the last social worker to see the 15-year-old alive. The other was from a man who attempted to buy sex from Tina shortly before her death.

Neither petition had much chance of success. Joyal quickly established that transparency was paramount to the integrity of all matters in his courtroom.

The petition from the man, Richard Mohammed, was a total shot in the dark. The other, launched by Child and Family Services, was more troubling.

Managers from CFS and their lawyer tried to make the case that the names of social workers must be kept confidential as part of the child-welfare system’s duty of confidentiality to the children and parents with whom they work.

This is an argument the CFS system has used unsuccessfully in the past. The courts have established in most instances that identifying a social worker does not threaten the privacy of children and families. Particularly in cases where the performance of the CFS system is in question, as it is in this case, there is no reasonable argument for extending anonymity to the people who worked on individual files of children who met a tragic end.

Thankfully, Joyal dismissed both applications.

At almost the same time, another skirmish over the principles of transparency was unfolding in Ottawa.

This time, it started with newly appointed federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion, who tabled a series of recommendations with a parliamentary committee to strengthen the reach and authority of his office. Those recommendations included a ban on publishing details of complaints received by his office.

It should be noted that Dion’s other proposals are most welcome. He would like the power to suspend MPs from sitting in the House of Commons and impose larger fines — perhaps as much as $25,000 — as a greater deterrent to ethical transgressions.

In making these proposals, Dion is dealing head-on with the greatest criticism of his office — namely, that it does not have any real authority to investigate or punish politicians. Former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson’s investigation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlights the limits of the process.

Dawson found that Trudeau violated four provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act when he did not recuse himself from meetings and decisions involving government business with the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims. Trudeau and his family accepted two trips to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas.

The result of Dawson’s findings? Trudeau apologized and the nation shrugged. Opposition parties will likely try to use this against Trudeau and the Liberals in the next federal election, but even then, there are no guarantees it will sway many voters.

Federal politicians who are found guilty of a conflict of interest quickly discover the stiffest penalty they face is a bit of shaming in the media. For the most part, that is how politicians want it done; this is a system set up by politicians to police, investigate and adjudicate the actions of other politicians. Talk about a conflict of interest.

However, Dion’s suggestion of a publication ban is a step too far, despite the fact that his main concern, and the reason he made the proposal, is not entirely wrong. The mere acknowledgment that the ethics commissioner is investigating a complaint is portrayed by political enemies as evidence of wrongdoing, even though, as Dion noted, his decision to open a file does not speak to guilt or innocence.

Dion’s prescription for the political manipulation that surrounds the work of his office is dangerous. Too much of what government does now is protected under a broad, but vague, shield of confidentiality. Citizens need to know that, at the very least, the person investigating alleged ethical transgressions is, ultimately, committed to publicly sharing the details of his work.

That includes confirming that an investigation has been opened, and a commitment to sharing the full details of that investigation when a finding of guilt or innocence has been reached.

Transparency can be a messy concept, and there is little doubt that in the pursuit of a full and open airing of the most intimate details of any one story, there is a possibility someone will get trampled.

That threat, however, pales in comparison to the damage that is done to society when our mistakes of omission and commission are allowed to linger in the darkness of confidentiality.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Dan Lett.

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

History

Updated on Monday, February 12, 2018 at 8:30 AM CST: Adds photo

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective January 2015.