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DND earns Code of Silence Award

Canada’s Department of National Defence has been selected as the 2023 recipient of the federal Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy for taking three years to respond to an access request by an Ottawa researcher who inquired about the cost of a controversial program to build new Canadian warships.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux has estimated the cost to taxpayers of the ship-building contract, which would see 15 new warships built for the Royal Canadian Navy as part of the Canadian Surface Combatant program, will be about $84 billion. According to data cited in a January 2024 story published by The Ottawa Citizen, the project is currently behind schedule and experiencing huge cost overruns.

“Even though this project is still stuck in the dry dock of the Irving Shipyards, it feels like a project that’s already sunk in terms of accountability and transparency,” said Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ).

“Misleading journalists and returning 1,700 pages of censored documents to a researcher asking a simple question is both Kafkaesque and indefensible. It shows a galling level of disrespect for the intelligence of Canadians and their right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.”

As the Citizen’s story notes, officials with Public Services and Procurement Canada issued a directive that firms interested in maintenance work on the Canadian Surface Combatant Program could not talk to journalists and instead must refer all inquiries to the department. This directive was altered after the Citizen began reporting on the so-called ‘gag order.’

In addition to the troubling lack of basic disclosure associated with the Canadian Surface Combatant program, the Code of Silence Award jury also noted another intriguing submission, citing the Department of National Defence’s penchant for secrecy.

This submission focused on how it took the department three years to complete a request for information under the Access to Information Act about a ‘hoax memo’ that raised public fear about wolves being released into the woods near Annapolis Valley, N.S., in 2020.

A CBC News story about the release of 1,500 pages of documents reads: “Leaked ‘wolf letter’ leaves military sheepish, internal emails show.”

This year’s jury also wishes to bestow a dishonourable mention to the federal Cabinet Office for their efforts, in partnership with the Australian government, to secretly undermine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2003.

According to a report from Britain’s The Guardian, cabinet records showed that the Australian government sought to water down the declaration’s language from “self-determination” to “self-management.” Amendments, similarly, were being pursued without Indigenous consultation.

“It is an international embarrassment that Canadians must turn to the documents kept by other countries to understand how decisions were made by our national government on critical files such as those involving Indigenous Peoples,” Jolly said.

“When Canada abandoned the proactive disclosure of cabinet records during the 1980s it, in one fell swoop, took us back to the stone age in terms of transparency. It was an ill-conceived decision then and one that continues to undermine our collective right to know every single day.”

The Code of Silence Awards are presented annually by the CAJ, the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University (CFE), and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The awards call public attention to government or publicly-funded agencies that work hard to hide information to which the public has a right to under access to information legislation.

Last year, the Canada Border Services Agency was recognized as the federal winner for its failure to disclose basic information about how the controversy-laden ArriveCan app’s cost to taxpayers ballooned beyond figures disclosed in original public cost estimates.

The remaining 2023 Code of Silence Awards will be handed out bi-weekly. This year’s winner in the provincial category will be announced on May 22.


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