RCMP’s job is to enforce the law, but it’s falling short on access to information laws

First published at Global News on January 12, 2018.

Canada’s largest police service has yet to fulfill an access to information request I filed last year — and no one from its information and privacy department is responding to explain why.

Last October, I filed a routine document request with the RCMP to better understand the scope of a story I had started following earlier in the fall.

The access to information office for the RCMP sent me a notice acknowledging it received my request on Oct. 17. But since then, nothing.

These requests under the Access to Information Act — ATIPs, for short — can no doubt be a thorn in the side of bureaucrats. Many of them require time and effort to fill, and some contain damning information. Such is the price one pays for transparency.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals campaigned, in part, on a pledge to improve access to information laws, which hadn’t been updated in more than three decades. One change, which I greatly supported, was the elimination of processing fees (which could sometimes run hundreds of dollars) beyond the $5 application charge.

What didn’t change is the requirement for government departments — including the RCMP — to supply either the requested documents, or an extension notice, within 30 days.

In my case, a month came and went with neither provided. In fact, in the 86 days since acknowledging receipt of my ATIP, I’ve had no communication whatsoever from the RCMP’s information department on the substance of my requests.

Nothing. Egregiously, the two inquiries I sent about my file to the RCMP’s information office have yet to be fulfilled.

If they’re hoping I’ll forget about it and move on, I won’t.

It’s understandable that in a large organization, some things will fall through the cracks. But my experience isn’t an outlier, nor is it representative of a new problem for the RCMP — an agency well known for being cagey with the press.

In 2013, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault rebuked the police department for not responding to information access requests.

“This past year at some point, they just completely stopped responding,” Legault said of the RCMP. “Requesters were complaining to my office, but we didn’t even have any response from the institution.”

I did file a formal complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner earlier this month, but it sounds as though I shouldn’t be optimistic.

When Legault’s scathing report was published, an RCMP spokesperson said the force was “diligently working towards increasing our efficiency.”

We’re now four and a half years later, and it appears the RCMP has little to show for its purported efforts.

In 2016, the RCMP came under fire after admitting an employee fabricated the date of an access to information response to avoid being penalized for the delay.

It shouldn’t have come as any surprise to the RCMP that, this past November, it was awarded the “Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy” by a group of journalism organizations. This came on the heels of a News Media Canada report finding the RCMP responded to zero out of five requests in a cross-government freedom of information audit the group conducted.

That report concluded that access to information has worsened under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, despite his campaign promise and subsequent legislation.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees the RCMP, told me the government “is committed to maintaining the integrity of the (Access to Information Act) process and does not interfere in the processing of requests.”

He pointed to the government’s improvements to information access such as giving the Information Commissioner order-making power, putting ministerial and Prime Minister’s Office staff inside the Access to Information Act, and reviewing the legislation every five years.

These are good steps, for sure. But they’re irrelevant when a government department doesn’t appear to be complying with the law.

I asked the RCMP’s media relations office for comment, and was told the information office “offers its apologies for not communicating with you in a timely fashion to update you on the progress of your request.”

I didn’t want an apology though. I wanted — and still want — what they’re legally obligated to provide.

Instead, the RCMP spokesperson said “a number of factors” — including volume of requests, complexity of police records, and shortage of ATIP analysts — prevent the RCMP from meeting the statutory 30-day timeline of requests.

“As this matter is now before the Office of the Information Commissioner, we anticipate there will be opportunities to clarify the circumstances of your particular case through the investigative process,” a statement said. “The RCMP is working diligently to meet its responsibilities under the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act and to be transparent with Canadians with respect to our work or activities which may impact the privacy of Canadians.”

These concerns may have merit, but they don’t excuse the department’s apparent inability to improve its processes over the last five years. They also don’t justify non-responses to inquiries about delays.

This is government secrecy and non-transparency from a department that should be among the most forthright.

I doubt the RCMP would respond well to civilians ignoring subpoenas and warrants, so it’s unacceptable that it chooses to ignore its legal obligations when it comes to government transparency.

If we can’t trust the enforcers of the law to follow the law, who can we trust?

Joshua Boyle deserves no sympathy, but he owes answers

First published at Global News on January 5, 2018. In December of 2019, all charges against Joshua Boyle were dismissed.

Sexual assault. Forcible confinement. Drugging.

If the allegations against Joshua Boyle, charged with 15 offences by police in Ottawa, are true, we are reminded of what we should already know — this isn’t a man who deserves any sympathy.

The charges against Boyle have not been proven in court, so I afford him his legally-guaranteed presumption of innocence.

My standing issues with Boyle, however, stem from facts that aren’t disputed.

While traveling through Asia, he took a detour — not part of the itinerary he previously shared with family — to a terrorist-ridden region in Afghanistan with his heavily pregnant wife, Caitlan Coleman.

After Coleman gave birth to the child she was carrying, Boyle deliberately impregnated her three more times in the course of the couple’s captivity. The first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, which Boyle characterizes as a forced, drug-induced abortion by the captors.

In a Maclean’s feature published this week, Boyle said the latter two pregnancies were an “act of rebellion” — a departure from his idiotic prior claim that he had children simply because he saw no reason to let captivity get in the way of his dream of a large family.

Beyond the callousness of bringing children into the world under such dangerous circumstances, it’s clear from Boyle’s comments that he viewed his children (even before conception) as mere props. I’ve never seen “Congratulations on your little bundle of rebellion” on Hallmark cards in my travels, so let’s not pretend that there’s anything normal about Boyle’s approach to family.

And let’s not forget his brief marriage to Zaynab Khadr, the sister of convicted murderer Omar Khadr. I know love conquers all or something of the sort, but Boyle entered into marriage with Khadr after it was well known from her on-the-record statements that she had a fondness for terrorism.

If Boyle is a victim of anything, it’s his own wrongdoing.

The Maclean’s article, which was based on a string of interviews in the days before Boyle’s arrest, revealed a concerning dynamic between Boyle and Coleman, saying “signs of Boyle’s controlling nature and distress were evident.”

“During interviews at the hotel, he refused to leave the room while Coleman spoke, at one point snapping at her when she responded to a follow-up question. ‘Check with me before you say any of that on the recording,’” the article said.

Despite how eager he’s been to get in front of cameras since his return to Canada in October, he hasn’t addressed his own motivations.

When asked why he and Coleman went to Afghanistan, Boyle called himself a “pilgrim” in one interview. In another statement he spoke of wanting to deliver aid to a region ignored by governments and charities — though he’s yet to explain what he was supposedly doing to help.

Boyle has yet to acknowledge his own religious and ideological beliefs about Islam and the Taliban’s interpretation of it.

His facial hair is trimmed in a way typical of many Muslim men, columnist Tarek Fatah wrote. Coleman has donned a hijab in all public appearances since arriving in Canada. In spite of this, neither has answered with any clarity whether they identify or practice as Muslims.

According to the Toronto Star, Coleman “declined…to speak about whether she has converted to Islam.” This week, the Toronto Sun reported that Boyle was similarly cagey about his faith, reporting “he refused to answer, stating only ‘I still identify as a pacifist.’”

Lest anyone accuse me of Islamophobia, I don’t think whether Boyle and Coleman are Muslims matters as much as their secrecy about it does — especially when it appears so clearly that they are, at the very least, embracing Muslim traditions.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen journalists push for real answers when interviewing him, which means his repatriation tour is more about revisionism than candour.

A fair criticism of this argument would be that someone who’s been through the trauma Boyle describes doesn’t owe an explanation to anyone. I’d argue he does, because he’s sought out these opportunities to speak out. But only on his terms, it seems.

Though I’ve not heard Boyle express radical views himself, his marriage to someone who held them is relevant, as is his travel to a regional hotspot for radical Islamists. He would also be well suited to describe the Haqqani network using stronger language than “criminal miscreants“— the term he used when speaking to reporters upon his return to Canada last October. He should forcefully condemn them as terrorists to remove any doubt about his own values.

Canadians have been so delighted that one of our own has returned that we’ve been too polite or politically correct to ask whether this is even a man worth saving.

A Grinch’s exposé of the worst holiday — New Year’s

First published at Global News on December 29, 2017.

‘Twere the days before New Year’s, and all ’round the world
Revelers await 2018 being unfurled
Most creatures will toast — from human to mouse
But I’ll just be here, asleep in my house

As 2017 winds down, and the mad dash to tie up the year’s loose ends ramps up, politicians will do year-end interviews, and my fellow commentators will unpack 2017’s ups and downs, perhaps even laying out some predictions for 2018.

Instead, I opt to answer Frank Loesser’s timeless musical query, “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?”

Absolutely nothing. And it will be spectacular.

As the Grinch of New Year’s, it’s worth noting that fewer and fewer people ask me that question each year, which suits me well.

(Indeed, newcomers to my workplace inquiring about my plans get quickly shushed by my longer-term colleagues who have already heard the perennial rant.)

Save for my childhood years, when the coming of a new year permitted me to stay up past bedtime, I’ve never enjoyed New Year’s Eve. We trumpet it as the passing of a year, but it’s really a loud and lengthy build-up to the changing of a single day, which just happens to fall at the end of the Gregorian calendar.

The digital age has even done away with the annual calendar swap-out formerly common in so many households.

No, I don’t have some repressed champagne-cork mishap from my formative years. It isn’t about my boredom with the anti-climactic Times Square ball drop. I wouldn’t even blame my family tradition of linking arms and singing “Auld Lang Syne” a couple of years.

I simply resent the purposelessness of New Year festivities.

It is a made-up holiday. The Seinfeld of observances — a day about nothing.

Unlike birthdays, which commemorate the passage of a year in a personalized way, and religious holidays, which carry meaning to believers, New Year’s Day is an administrative holiday with no more significance than the similarly contrived Family Day and Civic Holiday.

Yet our collective investment in New Year’s goes beyond merely enjoying a day off work — there’s a cosmically spiritual fervour driving some people’s celebration of it.

A look at Wikipedia’s entry for New Year’s Eve shows how circular the event is, offering a list of the holiday’s raisons d’être that includes: “reflection, late-night partying… [and] social gatherings during which participants may dance, eat, consume alcoholic beverages, and watch or light fireworks.”

It’s difficult to imagine much sombre reflection emanating from the two latter categories, in particular when one factors in the thumping music, noisy cheers and strangers kissing anything appearing to bear a human form. All after a few hours of consuming imitation champagne, I’d add.

Not that Wikipedia is a definitive authority, but it does seem to reflect New Year’s existence as nothing but an excuse to party.

There’s nothing wrong with getting dolled up and having a party, but let’s be honest about why we’re doing it. (And who can afford the ridiculous New Year’s Eve restaurant and hotel premiums six days after Christmas?)

Though it’s not even the revelry of New Year’s that irks me, but rather the annual self-flagellation rituals in which so many partake. This forms the basis of New Year’s resolutions, the fodder of punchlines now, but which people still seem to make. Self-betterment is a noble goal, sure, but it isn’t coming from New Year’s resolutions.

Toronto Star reported in 2013 that of the 68 per cent of Canadians who made a resolution in 2012, one in five reneged on their pledge within 24 hours.

Just under half abandoned them within a month, with only 19 per cent making it to the end of the year. (If we believe them, that is.)

Weight loss typically ranks at or near the top of New Year’s resolutions, yet North Americans are getting fatter each year.

We seem to mistake the change in year with change in ourselves, which doesn’t have a timeline.

Viewing day one of a new year as a clean slate may be cathartic, but oftentimes this reflection just trudges up 12 months of baggage. Every year, I see people express the same yearning for a better year ahead, but it seems to come from a place of darkness, rather than hope.

If it brings you joy, then don’t let me rain on your parade. But if it’s another social obligation you have to shoulder, join me in celebrating No Year’s Eve.

And with that, this Grinch is out. Until next yea…week, that is.

The real scandal is how Justin Trudeau’s four ethics violations carry no punishment

First published at Global News on December 22, 2017.

It’s official: Justin Trudeau broke the rules.

Canada’s prime minister was found guilty of violating four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act governing public office holders, stemming from two 2016 vacations on Bell’s Cay, a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan.

Beyond the legal wrong-doing, Conservatives are no doubt rejoicing that Trudeau screwed up in the least middle class-ish way — by taking a private aircraft to vacation with a billionaire in the Caribbean.

Trudeau has always promoted himself as a voice for the middle class, but that veneer cracks under the weight of this autumn’s Liberal scandals.

From Bill Morneau’s numbered company-held French villa to Trudeau’s billionaire holidays, this seems like the first period in Canada’s political history in which the country’s elected leaders aren’t even pretending they live like ordinary Canadians.

I remember when a $16 glass of orange juice and a senator taking a loan to pay back improper expenses were all the rage.

Trudeau’s lack of judgment and foresight is lamentable, but the real scandal here is how four ethics violations effectively disappear after the prime minister stammers his way through a 15-minute-long apology press conference on a Wednesday afternoon. Five days before Christmas. While Parliament is out of session for another five-and-a-half weeks.

The ethics commissioner’s report was scathing, but didn’t impose or recommend any penalty, despite the severity of a sitting prime minister breaking federal law.

Our prime minister behaved unethically in the most literal sense of the term, but it seems that his sole punishment is a couple of days of bad news cycles. Oh, and likely a few unpleasant exchanges in Question Period in late January, too. By the time Valentine’s Day rolls around and the Trudeau family yearns for another Bahamian holiday, all will be forgotten.

But despite Trudeau’s acceptance of Commissioner Mary Dawson’s report, and his vow to do better in the future, he and his office have been trying to ignore or trivialize this misconduct for months.

In a May 10 tweet that certainly didn’t age well, Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, mocked the issue, saying, “MPs from all over Canada finally get a chance to ask the prime minister a question. They all ask about his Xmas vacation. It’s May.”

Trudeau himself, even while supposedly apologizing Wednesday, continued to downplay the trip by saying “family” — describing his “family vacation” with “family friend” Aga Khan — more times than I could count.

The real unanswered question is how neither Trudeau nor a single person in his office thought there might possibly be a concern with this trip.

Remember, in 2015, Trudeau advised all of his cabinet members to consult, in advance, with the ethics commissioner on trips exactly like his. As Dawson noted, Trudeau ignored his own advice.

CBC’s Rosie Barton asked Trudeau how he didn’t think his “family vacation” could have posed a problem, and, well, I’ll let his words speak for themselves:

“The fact is, we work, uh, hm— the, um— Sorry, let me just try to re-order— re-order the thoughts. We, um, worked with the, uh, lobby— Conflict of Interest Commissioner, uh, on a regular basis on a broad range of issues when the issues come up. On this issue of a family vacation with a personal friend, um, it wasn’t considered that there would be an issue there. Uh. Obviously— Obviously, there was a mistake.”

And that was after he, um, re-ordered his thoughts.

Trudeau had no personal interaction with this close family friend of his for 30 years, until, coincidentally I’m sure, he became the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Except for his father’s funeral in 2000, the last time before 2013 Trudeau saw the Aga Khan was when he, as a 12-year-old boy, accompanied his father, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, on a family vacation in Greece.

Yet after one encounter in 30 years, Trudeau and his good buddy holidayed together thrice in two years — once as Liberal leader in 2014, and twice as prime minister in 2016, when the ethical lapses occurred.

It’s undeniable that the Aga Khan, whose foundation has received more than $300 million in Canadian government money since the 1980s, has a business relationship with Canada that is relevant to the prime minister’s work. Even if they were genuinely friends, that’s all the more reason to clear the trip through Canada’s ethics channels.

With friends like these, who needs lobbyists?

Thailand’s private sector is driving conservation, thanks to tourism

First published at Global News on December 15, 2017.

BANGKOK— If you want something done, do it yourself. That’s the ethos embraced by some tourism sector companies in Thailand when it comes to the environment.

In North America, activists may frame corporations as the environment’s enemy. But here, the opposite is true.

Thailand welcomes more than 30 million tourists each year, ranging from culinary to cultural. As travellers seek to be more environmentally conscious, some companies have decided to make investments into the protection of the country’s flora and fauna.

One initiative that stands out is the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui’s new Coral Conservation Project.

Located in the Gulf of Thailand, Samui is Thailand’s second largest island, and, as such, is a hot spot for tourists and locals alike. Samui boasts 20,000 hotel rooms, meaning its shores are subjected to a constant barrage of swimmers and boaters, in addition to the already-robust fishing operations around the island.

For Samui’s coral reefs, this traffic can be deadly.

So the island’s Four Seasons, one of the Toronto-based luxury chain’s properties, has staked a claim to a reef near its own shoreline and hired two full-time marine biologists to oversee the project, which launched earlier this year.

The biologists not only plant coral in the underwater nursery and relocate them to the reef when strong enough, but also serve as ambassadors to marine life for resort staff and guests.

“We can’t stop swimmers and fishers but we can educate them,” said Benjawan “Benji” Sansittisakunlird, one of the biologists. “We’re concerned about the marine ecosystem because we have a lot of marine life here. We’re willing to pay to protect the coral reef.”

Healthy reefs aren’t just about pretty colours, she told me — they allow populations of fish and other marine life to grow by protecting them from predators. Reefs benefit humans as well, by reducing the force of currents, thus mitigating property damage, flooding, and coastal erosion.

Sansittisakunlird said guests have embraced the project, showing up for semi-weekly beachside “Coral Talks” and going on guided snorkelling tours with the biologists.

I can’t tell you how delighted I was to learn I wasn’t the only person who, during a vacation, opted to sit in on a biology lecture (made all the more enjoyable by drinking out of a coconut throughout, albeit.)

The government has endorsed the Four Seasons’ initiative, but wasn’t the driving force behind it.

On the other side of Thailand, there is no public sector support for a company trying to save the country’s national animal — the elephant.

From gift shop trinkets to large sculptures, reminders of the endangered Thai elephant (a subspecies of Indian elephants) are everywhere, despite the plummeting population. In the last 30 years, the number has dropped from 6,000 to an estimated 3,200 nationally — a decline linked largely to illegal poaching and habitat encroachment.

As silly as it sounds, elephant unemployment has also played a role. Like horses in North America or camels in the Middle East, elephants were traditionally work animals in Thailand, used largely in the forestry sector before logging was banned in 1989.

Many elephants ceased to be useful to their owners and were left to die. The tourism industry has given them new purpose, but not without exploitation, sadly.

Chiang Mai’s Patara Elephant Farm has emerged as one of a small, but growing, number of operators leveraging tourists’ money and interest in elephants with the need for conservation and repopulation.

The sanctuary will buy and breed elephants to give them a safe haven on its privately-owned land. The program is funded by tourists, who pay to volunteer around the sanctuary and learn about elephant care.

I only spent a few hours at the camp, but during those I learned about several aspects of elephant health and wellness — most notably skincare, and the severe sunburns that can plague elephants without proper protection.

I learned about elephants in the greatest possible way — surrounded by them.

Owner Theerapat “Pat” Trungprakan doesn’t describe himself as an activist. In fact, he said activists, which occasionally target his business, have very little understanding of elephants, or the environmental realities affecting them.

His long-term goal is to boost the elephant population. This is only possible through tourists, who generally pay about $225 for the day-long programme, which sees them paired up with one of the farm’s elephants. Full disclosure: My wife and I were invited to participate in an abbreviated experience as members of the media, at no cost to us.

“Today, I want you to make friends with an elephant,” Trungprakan said. And that I did. My size makes it easy to mistake me for an elephant in some Thai villages, so it was an easy kinship to forge.

There are still concerns raised by some online commentators that selling access to elephants is inherently exploitative. But without the tourism, there wouldn’t be the money to invest in elephant care and repopulation at all. (And, it’s worth noting that elephants were able to roam free, even if they decided they wanted to get away from people.)

Conservation requires an investment, and, in Thailand, it’s tourism that has made that sustainable.