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who hide public information from the people and Parliament of

Canada™s Access to Information Act (AIA) was adopted in 1982.29 The
Liberal government led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised
that the law would promote “effective participation of citizens and
organizations in the taking of public decisions.”30
Ironically it was the Conservative Party “ elected in a landslide in
Canada™s 1984 election “ that bore the early brunt of the new law. Its
enthusiasm for openness soon waned. It was later revealed that senior
of¬cials quickly took steps to hide background papers prepared for
Cabinet that drafters of the AIA had intended should be subject to the
law.31 Of¬cials responsible for oversight of the national blood system
secretly shredded records that showed how they had responded to
contamination of blood supplies by the AIDS virus in the 1980s, in
an effort to thwart requests for the documents.32 Cabinet of¬cials
also resisted requests for the results of its public opinion polls on
constitutional reform, arguing that disclosure of polling data would
undermine “the very existence of the country.”33 John Crosbie, who as
Justice Minister was responsible for the Act in its ¬rst years, dismissed
it as a tool for “mischief-makers” whose objective “in the vast majority
of instances” was to “embarrass political leaders and titillate the
The Liberal government elected in 1993 confronted a dilemma. On
the one hand the principle of openness had become broadly accepted,
and had to be acknowledged. (“Open government will be the watch-
word of the Liberal program,” said the 1993 Liberal platform. “The
people are irritated with governments . . . that try to conduct key parts
of the public business behind closed doors.”35 ) On the other hand,
Liberal policymakers shared Crosbie™s impatience with the AIA. The

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country seemed under serious threat “ from secessionist pressures
from Quebec, interregional con¬‚ict, and tensions engendered by new
trade policies and ¬scal controls. The Liberal response to these threats
was to continue concentrating authority at the center of govern-
ment, developing an increasingly sophisticated capacity to gauge pub-
lic opinion and craft communications programs that advanced its
The AIA posed a growing challenge to the government™s capacity
to keep a ¬rm hand on the tiller. “Requests are more probing than they
used to be,” an AIA of¬cer observed in 2002. “There are many more of
them and their requests frequently involve far more, and more sen-
sitive, records. The result is that [the Access to Information Act] is
much more complex . . . more challenging for us and more threaten-
ing for government-side politicians.”37 Senior of¬cials confronted a
work environment “analogous to the perfect storm,” a Liberal advisor
said in 2003. “They might as well be working in a glass house, given
access-to-information legislation, several oversight bodies policing
their work, and more aggressive media.”38
The Liberal government attempted to resolve its dilemma by pur-
suing a policy that honored the disclosure law in principle while lim-
iting its disruptive potential in practice. One tactic relied on litigation.
Throughout the 1990s, the government attempted to block the inves-
tigation of alleged abuses of the disclosure law and argued for more
expansive interpretation of key sections of the law, such as the pro-
vision protecting Cabinet decision making. In a long series of legal
challenges, it attempted to argue that the disclosure law did not pro-
vide any right to records held within the of¬ces of Cabinet ministers,
or the Prime Minister™s own of¬ce.39
A second tactic consisted of repeated acts of omission. The AIA
requires that policy makers add newly created government organi-
zations to a list within the law in order for them to be subject to
disclosure requirements. In its drive to slim central government, the
Liberal government spun off many tasks to new quasi-governmental
organizations that were not listed within the AIA. (The omission
was not inadvertent: Other federal statutes often continued to apply.)
The possibility of a reprise of the controversy over destruction of
blood system records was eliminated when federal responsibilities
were shifted to a quasi-governmental organization that was no longer

Message Discipline

subject to the law. A host of other functions “ air traf¬c control, man-
agement of major airports and the national pension plan, disposal
of nuclear waste from electricity generators, major research granting
programs “ were excluded from the AIA in a similar way.40
Changes in administrative policy also led to a weakening of the
disclosure law. Cuts in bureaucratic resources for processing infor-
mation requests led to widespread problems of delay; the consequen-
tial spike in the number of complaints about delay overwhelmed
the Information Commissioner of Canada, the independent of¬-
cer responsible for investigating cases of noncompliance. Declaring
the problem one of “crisis proportions,” the Commissioner served
subpoenas on senior of¬cials to account for their management of
information requests “ an action that prompted improvements but
also corroded relations with the bureaucracy even further.41
All of these responses to the disclosure law had the advantage of
being easily observed. At the same time, however, the government
developed elaborate procedures for handling potentially contentious
requests for information. The internal rules for dealing with dif¬cult
requests were largely unknown to Canadians until 2003, when jour-
nalist Ann Rees obtained documents through the AIA that showed
how one major ministry, the Department of Citizenship and Immi-
gration, had recently re¬ned its procedures. Subsequent AIA requests
revealed comparable routines in several other ministries.42
The procedure for handling politically sensitive requests within
the Immigration Department “ and many other ministries “ is known
as the “amberlight process.” (Some other departments used different
color schemes: In the Privy Council Of¬ce (PCO) “ the secretariat
to the Canadian Cabinet “ sensitive cases are called “red ¬les.”) The
name of the amberlight process signaled its intent; the aim of the
procedure (one senior communications of¬cer explained in 2002) is
to “achieve the objective of proactive issues management” on sensitive
AIA requests.
As in other ministries, the Immigration Department™s amberlight
process begins the moment an AIA request is received by the depart-
ment. A “risk assessment of¬cer” reviews incoming requests to
identify those that are potentially sensitive. In practice, there is a
presumption of sensitivity for requests submitted by journalists or
representatives of political parties, including the of¬ces of opposition

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legislators. The amberlight process requires that notice about incom-
ing media or party requests should be sent to the Minister™s Of¬ce and
the ministry™s media staff within one day.
In addition, the AIA of¬ces of several departments circulate a
weekly inventory of new requests that have been ¬‚agged for poten-
tial sensitivity. In the Justice Department, for example, the weekly
inventory is sent to the Minister™s Of¬ce, the Deputy Minister™s Of¬ce,
the Parliamentary Affairs Unit, and the Communications Branch. The
inventory serves as the basis for a weekly review meeting, as an of¬cial
from the Public Works ministry told a public inquiry in 2004:

I took part in a weekly meeting “ normally, there was a person
from the minister™s of¬ce, a person from the of¬ce of the deputy
minister, a person from communications, a person from the of¬ce
of the corporate secretary, and a person from access. The goal of
the meeting was to review the requests in progress.43

If participants in the meeting decide that a request is particu-
larly risky “ that there is “potential for the issue/incident to be used
in a public setting to attack the Minister or the Department” “ then
it may be tagged for special attention, or “amberlighted.” In some
departments, the proportion of requests that are amberlighted may
be very high: According to internal memoranda, the Department of
Foreign Affairs and International Trade amberlighted between 50
and 70 percent of its AIA requests in 2002.
The of¬ce that holds the documents sought by a request “ known
within the bureaucracy as the of¬ce of primary interest (OPI) “ is
immediately advised when a request has been amberlighted. AIA staff
work with the OPI to “identify and assess issues for sensitivity and
media product development,” while communications staff develop
“media lines” “ a memorandum that outlines key messages that
should be emphasized by departmental spokespersons in response to
questions raised after the disclosure of information. “House cards”
are also prepared that provide the Minister with responses to ques-
tions that may be raised in Parliament.
The complete “disclosure package” “ including the documents to
be released to the requester and the “communications products” “
is sent to the Minister™s Of¬ce for review. The role of the Minister™s
Of¬ce at this ¬nal stage is a sensitive matter for AIA of¬cers. The
formal position is that the purpose of this review is simply to give the

Message Discipline

Minister™s Of¬ce a warning about the impending release. In practice,
however, the Minister™s Of¬ce may raise questions about disclosure
decisions as well as the communications strategy. After approval by
the Minister™s Of¬ce, the disclosure package is returned to the AIA
of¬ce, and documents are sent to the requester. At the same time,
an e-mail notice that contains the communications products for the
request is sent to senior managers within the department.
These amberlight procedures rely signi¬cantly on new informa-
tion technologies. Within ministries, software initially acquired to
aid in the management of AIA caseloads has been adapted to facili-
tate the handling of politically sensitive requests. The software allows
requests to be categorized as coming from journalists, political par-
ties, or legislators.44 The capacity to classify requests in this way is
important because, under Canadian law, AIA of¬ces are generally
barred from disclosing the identity of a requester to other parts of
the ministry. However, there are no prohibitions on the disclosure of
the requester™s occupation.45 The software also allows requests to be
categorized by their sensitivity or amberlight status.46 These features
make the process of managing the inventory of sensitive requests
much simpler.
In 1990, the Conservative government added another, govern-
ment-wide database of incoming information requests, known as the
Coordination of Access to Information Request System (CAIRS). Gov-
ernment policy requires all ministries to enter information about new
requests “ including details on whether the request was made by a
journalist or legislator “ into CAIRS within one day of receipt.47 At
the time of its adoption, CAIRS was criticized as a tool for “com-
puter surveillance” of the entire federal AIA system.48 Government
of¬cials argued that the database would allow it “to monitor the
progress of Access to Information (ATI) requests made, facilitate the
coordination of responding to requests with common themes, and
facilitate communication and consultation with central agencies and
The monitoring capacity of the CAIRS database is used most
heavily by central agencies of the Canadian government, and is a
key component of a centrally run process for overseeing potentially
sensitive requests. A PCO of¬cial conceded in 2003 that it actively
manages the government™s response to sensitive requests received
throughout government. (“It is our role,” the of¬cial said, “to make

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sure that . . . the department releasing the information is prepared to
essentially handle any fallout.”50 ) A former Liberal Party of¬cial said
that the task of overseeing requests within the PCO was handled by a
“communications coordination group” that included representatives
from the Prime Minister™s Of¬ce, other senior ministerial aides, and
top communications of¬cers. The group was “[an] egregious exam-
ple of bureaucratic politicization,” said the of¬cial. “While the CCG™s
mandate is supposedly to ˜coordinate™ the government message, in
practice much of the committee™s time each week is taken up dis-
cussing ways to delay or thwart access-to-information requests.”51
The PCO™s power to oversee ministries™ handling of AIA requests is
clear. “When Privy Council Of¬ce says they want to see a release
package,” an Immigration communications of¬cer explained in an
internal note in 2001, “I am not at liberty to do anything but what
they ask.”52
These surveillance and review procedures have signi¬cant effects.
The ¬rst, as empirical analyses have now shown, is substantial delay
in the processing of sensitive information requests. A review of AIA
practices within Canada™s Department of Human Resources Devel-
opment showed that sensitive requests received from journalists or
political parties took an extra month for processing, even when other
factors (such as the breadth of the request or type of information
sought) were taken into account. Many of these requests were for doc-
uments relating to allegations of mismanagement in a major grants
program, which were caught “ in the Information Commissioner™s
words “ by the department™s “re¬‚exive need to control the story.”53
A broader study of AIA practices in several ministries found com-
parable effects: In the Immigration Department, for example, media
requests required an extra one-and-a-half months, even when other
factors were taken into account. Even the Justice Department, with
oversight responsibility for the law, treated journalists™ or legislators™
requests unequally.54
In moments of controversy, delay often provides a signi¬cant
advantage to the government. The amberlight process also gave other
bene¬ts: an ability to prepare a brief that minimizes the harm done by
disclosure of documents. Journalists are caught by their professional
norms, which oblige them to seek comment from the department “
and the department is ready, with a spokesperson already selected
and “media lines” drafted.

Message Discipline

There is also evidence that Canadian departments may some-
times go further than simply drafting “media lines,” as Canadians
learned during a 2004 inquiry into political corruption in another
grants program. Four years earlier, a journalist for the Toronto Globe
and Mail, Daniel Leblanc, acting on rumors of mismanagement, had
¬led an information request with the federal Department of Pub-
lic Works, which ran the program. An of¬cial testi¬ed in 2004 that
the department had anticipated the possibility of such requests: Act-
ing on instructions from the Prime Minister™s of¬ce, it kept “min-
imum information” on the program™s spending.55 Another of¬cial
admitted that Leblanc™s request had been caught by the department™s
amberlight procedures, and that Leblanc™s identity was disclosed
within the ministry.56 Leblanc™s request prodded the department to
develop guidelines designed to create the impression that the pro-


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