Last week parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux spoke about a request for updated information on the government’s plan to invest billions in new military kit, in a June 3, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Defence Department accused of using pandemic to withhold info from Parliament

Department fails to respond to many questions

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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2020.

Federal Government

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Comments are closed

Just Posted

Ponoka RCMP lay charges following home invasion

On July 2, the Ponoka RCMP located and took one male into… Continue reading

57 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Alberta on Friday

Central zone remains at three active cases

PHOTO: Stampede Cattle Raffle winner

Rimbey couple take home cash instead of cattle

Man arrested in Maskwacis for second degree murder

42-year-old Arthur Trinity Brown was located and arrested on June 30

Red Deer remains at two active COVID-19 cases

Alberta confirms 94 new cases over past two days

PODCAST: Black Lives Matter in central Alberta Part 2

More insight into the Black Lives Matter movement of central Alberta

Water supply update from ECN Chief Craig Makinaw

Ermineskin Cree Nation newsletter update

‘You have to show up:’ NDP MP questions virtual attendance of Alberta Tories

NDP MP McPherson says she’s disappointed Tory MPs haven’t been participating in virtual meetings

Flood warning, mandatory evacuation for people in remote Alberta hamlet

A flood warning has been issued for the rain-swollen Smoky River near the Hamlet of Watino

Stop enforcing sex work laws during COVID-19, Amnesty, sex worker advocates say

‘We need to make sure the existing laws on the books aren’t enforced’

Protesters return to St. Louis area where couple drew guns

Protesters return to St. Louis area where couple drew guns

Heavy rain floods southern Japan, leaving over dozen missing

Heavy rain floods southern Japan, leaving over dozen missing

At Rushmore, Trump says protesters seek to ‘defame’ heroes

At Rushmore, Trump says protesters seek to ‘defame’ heroes

Most Read