On May 9, 2004, during the 26th annual Canadian Association of Journalists’s awards ceremony in Vancouver, Health Canada received one of the CAJ’s most illustrious awards. While all the nominees were worthy, said CAJ vice-president Michelle MacAfee during her presentation speech, it was Health Canada that truly went above and beyond the call of duty in this particular category. But when MacAfee announced the winner, no one stood up or approached the stage. No one from Health Canada was even present at the ceremony.
MacAfee wasn’t surprised. Health Canada had won the CAJ’s annual Code of Silence award, a satirical prize recognizing the most secretive department of Canadian government. The unwanted honour, a plaque bearing a chain and padlock, has gone unclaimed by past winners since its inauguration in 2001. It’s an award that’s both embarrassing and disgraceful; and while the Code of Silence is attracting the attention of the government, it’s the Canadian public that’s getting pissed off.
The Code of Silence award, explains former CAJ president Robert Cribb, was created to raise public awareness about government secrecy and the obstacles Canadian journalists can face when attempting to access government controlled information. Prior to the creation of the award, there was little media coverage of what seemed to be an industry specific problem, and reporters found it difficult to get government stonewalling on the public agenda. Because the public wasn’t filing access-to-information requests and facing the same frustrating results as Canadian reporters, the “journalists’ water cooler stories” went largely undocumented.
“There are so many stories of journalists running into closed doors,” says CAJ president Paul Schneidereit. “Instead of griping, we decided to shine a spotlight on them.” So in 2000, the CAJ created the award to “honour” the departments that shrouded open government. Each February, deserving candidates are nominated by journalists and the general public. Once nominations have been accepted, the CAJ does background research on each recommendation and whittles the list down to the four or five most deserving cases. A three-judge panel then selects a winner based on impact, media attention, and national significance.
The award has been a hit with journalists, who are happy to finally see government secrecy exposed. More notably, the public is interested as well. Outraged citizens are hearing, in some cases for the first time, just how secretive the Canadian government can be.
Health Canada earned its Code of Silence award by repeatedly denying meaningful access to a database ofharmful prescription drugs. The database could have allowed researchers to analyze trends involving harmful medication. However, Health Canada refused to provide the information in a format that facilitated such analysis until the parliamentary all-party standing committee on health publicly attacked Health Canada for its secrecy and demanded changes in April 2004. After winning the award, the department was inundated with media requests for comment, and its secretive behaviour fuelled angry columns and investigative features in publications nationwide.
Other 2004 finalists for the award included the RCMP for what a CAJ press release describes as “efforts to stifle the use of confidential sources by journalists in Canada.” Such efforts included attempts to obtain documents sent to National Post reporter Andrew McIntosh regarding the Shawinigan affair, the controversy surrounding former Prime Minister Jean Chr?tien and the supposed ownership of two properties in his riding. While the RCMP didn’t win the award, McIntosh values the Code of Silence objective. “The award is important because of the message it sends to the organizations that are nominated,” he says. “Open up, answer media questions, explain your actions, and be more accountable for them.”
While the call for government transparency is fundamentally important, the dubious honour of winning a Code of Silence award doesn’t appear to be effecting legislative change. In 2003, the Nova Scotia government won the Code of Silence award for instituting the country’s most expensive access-to-information requests. Despite winning the award, says CAJ director Murray Brewster, the province’s legislation regarding access-to-information requests remains unsatisfactory. While a review committee was formed to recommend improvements to the province’s Freedom of Information Act and its fee structures, changes have yet to be implemented. Individuals seeking information continue to face costs of up to $25 for an application and $30 an hour for research.
Charlottetown’s city council was a 2004 nominee for refusing to admit reporters to its committee meetings. After the Code of Silence nomination, the council did eventually open its doors to local media, albeit with severe restrictions on access in place.
While the award may not be changing legislation in favour of Canadian journalists, Cribb says that’s not the issue. The Code of Silence award, he says, exists to educate the public about accessing government information in Canada. “This is not a journalism issue,” says Cribb, “but a public issue at the foundation of democracy.” Each year, after the prize has been awarded, the CAJ receives requests for to appear on radio call-in shows about access to information. These broadcasts, says Cribb, “reveal stunning outrage from the public.” Many Canadians have no idea a citizen from this country cannot access fundamental records. According to Cribb, it is because of the attention the Code of Silence award generates over specific examples of government secrecy that access to information now remains on the public agenda. “The intent has been accomplished beyond our wildest dreams,” he says.
A call for nominations for the 2005 Code of Silence Award was posted on the internet in February, but the CAJ already has potential winners in mind. Charlottetown city council’s repeat offence puts the department in a favoured position among board members, but the CAJ is sure to receive hundreds of other nominees from disgruntled journalists and members of the public across the country. “We generally don’t have problems getting suggestions,” MacAfee says, with a laugh.