Defence Department Accused of Using Pandemic to Withhold Info From Parliament

June 3, 2020 Updated: June 3, 2020

OTTAWA—The Department of National Defence stands accused of trying to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to withhold information from Parliament and Canadians.

There has been widespread concern about federal departments failing to respond to access-to-information requests since the crisis first started in earnest in March, but the Opposition Conservatives say the problem is much worse at the Defence Department.

“By far National Defence is the worst offender,” said Conservative defence critic James Bezan. “There seems to be a systemic breakdown in being transparent in the department, or there’s intentional disregard for what Canadians have been requesting.”

The allegation stems from the department’s failure in recent months to respond to a large number of questions on the order paper, which are one of the primary means for members of Parliament to get information about the inner workings of federal departments.

Departments have 45 days to respond to order paper questions, which include everything from the number of veterans receiving government-subsidized Viagra to how much the government spent on advertising to the number of RCMP officers by province.

Yet in more than a dozen recent requests, the Defence Department did not respond. One of those asked how many government ships had broken down in the last year. While the Canadian Coast Guard provided a response, the Defence Department did not.

“During the unprecedented COVID-19 situation, public servants are required to work remotely and have limited access to the tools and files requested,” the department wrote in response to a recent request by Conservative MP Lianne Rood.

Bezan also flagged concerns about testimony from parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux to a House of Commons’ committee last week about the watchdog’s request for updated information on the government’s plan to invest billions in new military kit.

“We were supposed to get the information on time to provide parliamentarians with an update,” Giroux told the standing committee on government operations and estimates on Friday.

“May was the target date for us, but we didn’t get the information on time. … We were told it will be delayed by a couple of weeks, but we have not received it yet.”

The Liberal government’s defence policy unveiled in 2017 promised $553 billion in defence spending over the next two decades, though it has been slow in getting that money out the door.

The Defence Department acknowledged it had failed to respond to 17 order paper questions in April and May and was unable to provide the information that Giroux asked to see about the planned defence spending, citing COVID-19 as the reason.

“Work on the request the PBO referred to has, in fact, been impacted by COVID-19 given the requirements for our analysts to work from secure systems inaccessible from home,” Defence Department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said an in email.

He went on to blame personnel having “limited access to certain records and databases” and “key military staff” being tasked with supporting the government’s COVID-19 response for not responding to the order paper question.

At the same time, Le Bouthillier said officials did respond to 12 order paper questions while Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office said officials helped the budget officer analyze the cost of the military’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in April.

“The Department of National Defence and the women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces have been working around the clock helping Canadians during this pandemic,” Sajjan’s spokesman, Todd Lane, said in a statement.

“Despite the challenges that the pandemic has posed, we remain committed to transparency and being accountable to Parliament.”

Bezan nonetheless accused the government and department of failing to provide information to Canadians and parliamentarians, whose job is to hold the government to account.

“At the beginning (of the pandemic), I would say they had the right to make those decisions,” he said. “But we’re getting to a point now that this has become a government and Minister Sajjan, in particular, stonewalling the accountability aspect of his role.”

If there are legitimate concerns, he added, efforts should be underway to install proper protocols and provide adequate safety equipment to let defence officials return to their offices and “fulfil the obligations the government has to Parliament.”

Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos, who is responsible for public access to government information, sent a letter to his cabinet colleagues last week reminding them of the need for transparency even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The message followed calls from information commissioner Caroline Maynard, the Canadian Association of Journalists and an ad-hoc accountability group for concrete actions to ensure transparency during the crisis.

By Lee Berthiaume