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Culture of secrecy: 15 stories

Ashley Smith inquest

THE SECRET: Correctional Services of Canada video of Ashley Smith.

THE STORY: Ashley Smith, first jailed at the age of 15 for tossing crabapples at a postal worker, spent the rest of her teens in jails and prisons, mired in a criminal justice system that, in the final year of her life, saw her moved 17 times. In 2007, Smith, then 19 and suffering from mental illness, was in custody at a Kitchener prison when she killed herself under the watch of prison staff. After a preliminary Ontario coroner’s inquest was derailed by delays that culminated in the retirement of the coroner, federal lawyers and a group of doctors fought to limit the scope of a second inquiry, set for January. In question was the treatment of Smith outside of Ontario — much of which had been captured by corrections staff on video — and whether it should be considered at the inquest. The federal government deemed it irrelevant. After years of fighting to keep the videos from being seen, the Harper government, having lost a court decision, ordered federal lawyers to co-operate with the inquest. In late October, video depicting Smith being injected in a Quebec prison with antipsychotics, surrounded by correctional staff in riot gear and gas masks, was released. Three months after that video was shot, Smith would be dead. Last month, the new coroner dismissed a motion to narrow the scope of the coming inquiry.

Read more Star coverage on the Ashley Smith inquest

Bad teachers

THE SECRET: The identities of Ontario teachers who have been disciplined for serious offences but are still teaching in our classrooms.

THE STORY: Who’s teaching your kids? A teacher who shut Grade 8 students in a storage closet to discipline them; a teacher who warned students they would “spend time with a pedophile” and if their behaviour got worse it “would be without Vaseline”; a teacher who called female students “sluts.” The Ontario College of Teachers, the watchdog for the province’s educators, hears allegations against teachers of serious misconduct, imposing penalties as severe as losing a teaching licence. A Star investigation found that a series of policies at the college were preventing these teachers from being named, protecting their identities. After the Star stories were published, these policies were changed following a review by a retired senior judge.

Read more Star coverage of Bad teachers

Federal budget cuts

THE SECRET: How the Harper government is implementing $ 5.2 billion in spending and job cuts to programs and services.

THE STORY: Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, skeptical of the government’s claim that it can make the cuts laid out in the 2012 budget without hurting some of the services and programs Canadians rely on, sought to obtain information from federal government departments on what will be cut. Without timely disclosure, MPs would be voting on the budget implementation legislation without knowing how the Harper government’s belt-tightening measures would impact the lives of Canadians, Page said. For months, the Harper government turned aside Page’s requests, saying he was overstepping his mandate and that the information would be rolled out over 2012 and 2013 in the usual parliamentary spending reports. In October, the government partly relented and said individual departments could comply with Page’s information requests. But on Nov. 22, the PBO said the responses being received dealt with only a fraction of the $ 5.2 billion in budget reductions planned by the Conservatives. As a result, Page said, he had no choice but to seek a reference from Federal Court on whether he has the jurisdiction to order departments to provide detailed budget implementation information. If the court sides with Page, his office is convinced the government would have to bow to his data requests.

Read more Star coverage on Federal budget cuts

Canada Post bonuses

THE SECRET: Canada Post bonuses paid out in 2012.

THE STORY: Canada Post reported in May that it lost $ 327 million, before tax, in 2011, its first financial loss in 16 years. It was blamed on labour woes, a decline in mail, pension costs and a pay equity decision. The Star sought to determine if bonuses were paid this year given last year’s poor performance. Canada Post said some bonuses were paid, but refused to offer specifics. The Star then filed two separate federal access-to-information requests, but financial details were withheld, citing competitive trade secrets, confidentiality and privacy reasons. In October, the Star learned that 7,402 employees received bonuses, including 23 members of the senior management team, but it is still being kept in the dark about how much was paid.

Read more Star coverage of Canada Post bonuses

Champix suicides

THE SECRET: Whether Health Canada has investigated suicides among Champix users.

THE STORY: A Star investigation found 24 Canadians taking the smoking cessation drug have killed themselves since the drug became available here in 2007, putting it among the leading suspected causes of reported suicides linked to prescription drugs. Health Canada told the Star it has conducted a number of reviews of the drug’s safety, but the Star could not verify this as Canada’s drug watchdog would not share the results with the Star.

Read more Star coverage of Champix suicides

Dahla Dam project

THE SECRET: How $ 50 million of Canadian taxpayers’ money was spent to rebuild a war-ravaged irrigation system in southern Afghanistan.

THE STORY: The Harper government announced in June 2008 that taxpayers would spend $ 50 million to rebuild the Dahla Dam, one of Canada’s three “signature projects” before combat troops and aid workers left Kandahar province in 2011. Critics say the work falls far short of what was promised. Early this year, when the Star set out to find out how the money was spent by Quebec-based firm SNC-Lavalin, Ottawa declined to provide details “because this information is considered third-party information under commercial privacy,” Canadian International Development Agency spokeswoman Katherine Heath-Eves told the Star — even though the project was funded with taxpayer money.

Read more Star coverage of the Dahla Dam project

Downtown deal

THE SECRET: Details about Dominus Construction’s winning taxpayer-funded $ 205-million bid, including financing, to redevelop the city of Brampton’s downtown core.

THE STORY: Brampton council, in a 6-5 decision pushed by Mayor Susan Fennell, awarded the contract to Dominus in August 2011 after a selection process called “competitive dialogue” that some residents and councillors deemed excessively secretive. It was the first time this process, more common in Europe, had been used in Canada. Critics charged that Dominus’s construction costs exceeded industry standards and the city’s plan to pay for the project through Dominus was not a good deal. Councillors and residents tried unsuccessfully for more than a year to learn more about the pricing of the winning bid. In August 2012, a year after a freedom-of-information request by a resident trying to get details was denied by the city, Ontario’s freedom of information watchdog ordered the City of Brampton to release the data, stating that “public accountability” when taxpayer dollars are being spent demands “detailed and convincing” evidence for why certain information should be withheld from the public. Critics say the information released by the city falls far short of what was requested. Construction has begun.

Read more Star coverage on the Downtown deal

F-35’s stealth cost

THE SECRET: The true cost to taxpayers of Canada’s plan to buy F-35 fighter jets.

THE STORY: Canada’s controversial purchase of a new fleet of F-35 fighter jets ran into turbulence early this year when auditor general Michael Ferguson charged that defence officials kept Canadians in the dark about the escalating cost of the planned purchase. The Defence Department knew that the cost of the aircraft had shot up to $ 25 billion by the time of the 2011 election but publicly stuck to a lower estimate of $ 15 billion, Ferguson said in a scathing report. In December, an independent audit pegged the cost of owning and operating a fleet of F-35s at $ 44.8 billion over 42 years, sending federal officials back to the drawing board and launching a new search for Canada’s next fighter jet.

Read more Star coverage of the F-35’s stealth cost

Marineland investigation

THE SECRET: The health and safety of the hundreds of animals at Marineland, the privately owned Niagara Falls zoo and tourist attraction.

THE STORY: Fifteen whistleblowers, all former trainers or supervisors at Marineland, told the Star that problems with the water and lack of staff have led to sickness and death among marine and land animals at the park, leading to a Star investigation. The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) — a charity that receives money from Ontario taxpayers and private donors — and its affiliate, the Niagara Falls Humane Society, ignored numerous messages from the Star and refused to answer questions about the animals’ well-being. Marineland owner John Holer is a major donor to the Niagara Falls Humane Society. Shortly after the Star stories started appearing, the OSPCA — which has police powers, including the ability to lay charges, and is also exempt from Ontario’s freedom-of-information laws — launched its own probe, telling the Star it could not comment because it was investigating. The OSPCA and Star investigations continue.

Read more Star coverage on the Marineland investigation

The mayor’s day

THE SECRET: Rob Ford’s schedule.

THE STORY: Unlike his predecessors, Ford doesn’t release even a basic itinerary of public appearances, leaving the public in the dark about how he is spending his time and reporters unable to find him to ask him questions about city issues. Through freedom-of-information requests, the Star has learned that Ford meets almost solely with councillors who are supportive of him, that he has scheduled hundreds of hours’ worth of one-on-one meetings with average residents, that he regularly makes time for corporate leaders but hardly ever for non-business advocacy groups, and that he had only one appointment on his schedule — a “private” meeting — on the day of a Pride flag-raising he said he was too busy to attend. Ford is appealing a judge’s decision that ordered him out of office over a violation of Ontario’s conflict-of-interest law related to his football charity. He will remain in office until the appeal is decided, likely in January or February.

Read more Star coverage on The mayor’s day

ORNGE air ambulance

THE SECRET: The salaries of top executives at ORNGE, Ontario’s air ambulance service, which receives $ 150 million a year in taxpayer money.

THE STORY: ORNGE insiders — paramedics, pilots and others — raised serious concerns about mismanaged public money and high salaries, prompting a Star investigation that revealed CEO and founder Dr. Chris Mazza was earning $ 1.4 million. The Star found the salaries were hidden from the public when the government-funded, non-profit agency created a series of for-profit consulting companies. One of those companies, ORNGE PEEL, paid the executives as consultants, and ORNGE officials said this excluded them from having to disclose to the public how much they earned. Following the Star stories, Health Minister Deb Matthews, whose ministry funds ORNGE, said she asked her staff to explain to her why the salaries of Mazza and other executives were being kept secret. “It’s not clear to me. I can’t say that I have seen this arrangement before,” Matthews said. The veil of secrecy was not lifted until management was replaced, a new board was installed and three provincial investigations began.

Read more Star coverage of ORNGE air ambulance

Passport coverup

THE SECRET: Where Canada’s new electronic passports will be made, and the value of the new contract.

THE STORY: In early October, Cornwall, Ont.-based Columbia Finishing Mills, which has produced Canada’s gold-embossed passport covers for nearly 30 years, lost the contract to Ottawa-based Canadian Bank Note. The Star set out to verify the value of the new contract, as well as the claim that the Ottawa company would subcontract some of the work to a firm headquartered in the Netherlands. Passport Canada referred the Star to Public Works and Government Services Canada, the federal department responsible for issuing tenders and contracts. Public Works referred the Star to the Department of Foreign Affairs. A Foreign Affairs spokesperson referred all questions back to Passport Canada. When the Star again inquired with Passport Canada, it was met with silence. A vice-president with Canadian Bank Note also refused to tell the Star where the covers would be made, and said no one in his company would comment. The Star left telephone messages for the company based in the Netherlands, but heard nothing. To this day it remains unclear where exactly Canada’s passport covers will be made.

Read more Star coverage of Passport coverup

Russell Williams

THE SECRET: The dates when DNA samples from the Russell Williams case were collected, received, processed and registered in the national DNA database.

THE STORY: In October 2010, Williams, the former commander of CFB Trenton, pleaded guilty to raping and killing his colleague Cpl. Marie-France Comeau, 38, of Brighton, Ont., and Jessica Lloyd, 27, of Belleville. He is serving a mandatory life sentence at Kingston Penitentiary. In October 2011, the Star filed a freedom-of-information request for key DNA dates in the case to try to determine whether DNA samples were tested in a timely manner, an issue that came to prominence in the Paul Bernardo case. A judge’s inquiry conducted after Bernardo’s 1995 conviction found that his DNA sample, which would have linked him to a series of sexual assaults, disappeared into a “black hole.” He went on to kill three teenage girls. Could Williams have been caught sooner, preventing the loss of his second victim’s life in early 2010? In August 2012, nearly a year after the request, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services denied the Star access to the dates, citing “an unjustified invasion of personal privacy,” apparently Williams’ own. The Star is appealing, arguing that the requested information relates to public health and safety.

Read more Star coverage of Russell Williams

The Canadian spy

THE SECRET: Canada’s military and security secrets that navy spy Sub.-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle, a 41-year-old intelligence officer from Halifax, sold to the Russians over five years.

THE STORY: The RCMP arrested Delisle on Jan. 13, 2012, and charged him with violating the Security of Information Act. The case largely disappeared into a black hole of secrecy and court-ordered silence, with the Star denied access to even the most minor piece of information. Even after Delisle suddenly pleaded guilty to espionage nine months later, Canadians are none the wiser as to exactly what information he sold to the Russians.

Read more Star coverage of The Canadian spy

Toronto’s schools

THE SECRET: How much Toronto taxpayers pay for maintenance work at Toronto’s schools.

THE STORY: Replacing a pencil sharpener: $ 143. Installing a school sign: $ 19,000. Replacing a simple electrical outlet: $ 2,900. A Star investigation revealed taxpayers are paying high costs for simple maintenance jobs at Toronto’s schools and set out to determine how widespread the problem is. The Star asked the Toronto District School Board for all work orders covering a three-year period and was told it would have to file a freedom-of-information request to get the information, which it did. The school board then told the Star it would release the information — for $ 3.6 million. Four months later, following negative publicity about the fee, the board handed the information over to the Star — at no charge.

Read more Star coverage of Toronto’s schools

Donovan: Culture of secrecy keeping Canadians in the dark

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