|Probe International Press Release
||June 6, 2001
Government secrecy threatens Canadian democracy,
puts Third World lives at risk
Probe International issued a stinging rebuke of federal government secrecy in its submission to the Federal Access to Information Task Force last Friday.
"The Canadian government's predilection for secrecy is alarming," says Probe International Executive Director, Patricia Adams. "It threatens Canadian democracy fundamentally."
The Government makes excessive and unreasonable use of certain clauses in the Access to Information Act to protect corporations it awards contracts to from public scrutiny at the expense of the public interest, says the Toronto-based environmental and foreign aid watchdog.
Last August, the federal Government set up the task force to review how the Act is working, and how federal departments can improve the public's access to information. The task force is expected to release its final report this fall.
Not only does Probe argue that the government should apply the access law more in the interest of public accountability and public safety, it should also apply the law to the Export Development Corporation, which is presently exempted. EDC is a Crown corporation that subsidizes Canadian exporters and foreign investors involved in such notorious projects as the Three Gorges dam in China and the Omai gold mine in Guyana.
To illustrate the need for disclosure, Probe cites the case of the Chamera I dam in India, financed with a $645 million joint loan from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Export Development Corporation (EDC) and completed in 1994 but under repair until 1999.
Probe obtained some 1,600 pages of project-related documents from CIDA using the Access to Information Act, but approximately one-fifth of those pages were severed, often on the grounds that the information contained in them was submitted confidentially by a third party. What was released, however, shows that the $1.3 billion Chamera I dam project has been plagued with problems so severe that consultants hired by CIDA warned about geological instability around the dam site that "could lead to a catastrophic event involving not only a major shortage of power production but, more important than all, potential losses of lives in the communities installed downstream of the dam."
"This information has never been released before, despite its obvious importance to the public interest," says Patricia Adams. More troubling, a second dam 30 kilometres upstream of Chamera I is now under construction. But this time only EDC, which is exempt from the Access to Information Act, is financing it with a $175 million loan. EDC is legally obliged to release nothing, says Probe International, and under EDC's draft Disclosure Policy -- due to become official policy at an EDC board meeting in September -- virtually all of the same types of documents that divulged extensive problems with Chamera I, would be classified as confidential for Chamera II and kept under wraps.
The Canadian International Development Agency also came in for heavy fire from Probe International for bowing to corporate clients' demands for confidentiality instead of upholding the public's right to know.
In one case Probe cites, CIDA refused outright to disclose the feasibility study for a Vietnamese hydro dam, Dai Ninh, part of which CIDA paid for and SNC-Lavalin carried out, because SNC-Lavalin didn't want it disclosed. Yet CIDA is empowered by the Access to Information Act to release information such as this, despite corporate objections, if it is "in the public interest as it relates to public health, public safety, or protection of the environment," points out Gráinne Ryder, Policy Director of Probe International. "There is a clear case for disclosure here," says Ms. Ryder. "The project plans are not available for review in Vietnam and yet if the dam is built thousands of Vietnamese peasants will lose their livelihoods."
In the case of another Vietnamese hydro dam, CIDA's consultants failed to examine how downstream communities would be affected once the dam began operating. Last year, when the dam did start up, erratic water releases drowned 32 people and livestock, and washed away the crops and fishing gear of thousands in downstream Cambodia who were unaware and unprepared. Early disclosure of the CIDA consultants' technical, economic and environmental review of the project would have forewarned citizens that proponents had neglected to assess the risks to downstream communities.
"Secrecy robs citizens of the information they need to scrutinize government actions," says Ms. Adams. "As such, the government has created an environment where poorly- informed decisions are repeated with impunity, and unchecked risks can be taken with public health and safety."
Probe International has submitted approximately 100 Access to Information requests to nearly a dozen government departments over the past 15 years.
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