Information commissioner strangely silent on muzzled scientists

Suzanne Legault owes the public a report on her investigation into muzzled scientists before her term ends in December.

Let me ask again: What has become of Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault’s investigation into the muzzling of federal scientists?

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault launched an investigation into the muzzling of federal scientists in 2013. (Image Source: National Observer)
Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault launched an investigation into the muzzling of federal scientists in 2013. (Image Source: National Observer)

The investigation was launched more than four years ago on March 27, 2013, following a complaint from Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic. There have been only a few public statements that the investigation is still underway, and Legault’s 2017 annual report is strangely silent on the issue. Legault is due to leave her post in December.

I first became worried that the investigation had stalled in September 2015 and wrote an essay about it. The investigation was launched amid a torrent of reports that federal scientists were being muzzled by the then Conservative government of Stephen Harper (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). These cases were uncovered by investigative reporters. No doubt there was more for Legault to find and this would take time.

But how much time is reasonable? The investigation had been underway for two and a half years when I wrote the essay, and there is little evidence of progress in the year and a half since.

The 2015 Annual Report of the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) said, “In 2015–2016, the Commissioner intends to complete and report on this systemic investigation.”

The OIC’s 2016 Annual Report said, “This investigation is in its final phase and the Commissioner intends to report the results of this systemic investigation to Parliament 2016–2017.”

The OIC’s 2017 Annual Report released June 8 has nothing to say about the muzzling investigation. Not a word.

Results of the investigation are important

After reviewing the 2017 report, I wrote to the OIC, and was told “the status of the investigation has not changed.” This is the same answer that I have received since 2015. I followed up with a question about the omission from the annual report. I was told that “we decided not to give an update on this investigation as the status of the investigation has not changed.”

The results of the investigation continue to be of interest. If Legault finds that the Harper government’s muzzling of scientists was illegal, then this sets a standard to which future governments must adhere. If she finds, on the other hand, that the muzzle was legal, then this exposes a significant defect in the law that should be remedied by the Trudeau government. It is important to give them the opportunity.

Legault has recently criticized the Trudeau government for “signs of decline” in transparency. The same critique can be reasonably made of her own office. If lack of resources, political measures, or other impediments are thwarting the investigation’s progress, then Legault has a duty to say so.

Legault has long been a champion for freedom of information in government. Progress in convincing government to reform antiquated information rules has been difficult to achieve. Release of a report on the muzzling investigation, on the other hand, would be a notable milestone that would impact the conversation for years to come.