Recent Calls for “Clarity” and “Transparency” Ignore Reality, Fundamental Democratic Principles 

, , Comments Off on Recent Calls for “Clarity” and “Transparency” Ignore Reality, Fundamental Democratic Principles 

Former prime minister Jean Chretien had a clear winner when he introduced the Clarity Act. The legislation was part of his ten-point national unity plan, drawn up in the aftermath of the too-close-for-comfort 1995 Quebec referendum on independence. Public opinion polls repeatedly found overwhelming support for the bill, not only in the rest of Canada but in Quebec. As former Chretien cabinet minister Paul DeVillers remarked, “The genius of the act was the name. How could you oppose clarity?”[i]

DeVillers was right. Framing the act’s purpose as a measure to ensure clarity for voters in any future referenda, thereby avoiding the type of chaos that transpired in 1995, was a sure winner. And clarity is definitely seen as a positive virtue in politics generally, as demonstrated by the emphasis on clarity and transparency that led all liberal democracies to establish merit-based professional bureaucracies with standardized rules and procedures, and then to introduce access to information acts.[ii]

So how could any calls for more clarity and transparency be counterproductive? The answer, of course, is when they are made in situations where they are either inappropriate or inapplicable to begin with. This is almost always because their proponents fail to take into account important practical, technical or legal constraints or, in some cases, ignore the fact that these two concepts may actually clash with other important democratic principles that must take precedence. Many of those who are enthusiastically clamouring for more “clarity and transparency” on current issues also appear to be expecting immediate gratification. Here too they either fail to recognize that this may be neither possible nor legal. The only question is whether their position reflects profound ignorance or wilful blindness. 

Sadly, in the past few months Canadians have seen several of these scenarios unfold. And these strident calls for clarity and transparency – which implicitly raise the spectre of coverups and conspiracy theories — are undoubtedly adding to the public’s growing uncertainty and declining confidence in fundamental democratic institutions, something that is already a serious problem.   

Unfortunately the mainstream media in Canada are currently among the most zealous and indiscriminate proponents of ‘clarity and transparency’. Although their focus has been largely on federal and provincial politics, the municipal level has not escaped their attention entirely. Take, for example the unlikely topic of a broken watermain. Since Calgary’s water crisis began three weeks ago the city’s residents have been briefed on an almost daily basis by the Mayor, the Chief of the Emergency Management Agency, the General Manager of Infrastructure Services and the city’s Chief Administrative Officer. Together they have provided regular updates on the status of repairs, often with detailed graphs and charts. They have answered countless questions from the press, explained timelines and provided clear directions for residents on how to reduce water usage. They have also clearly underlined the potential consequences of failing to achieve that reduction. In addition, the mayor and other spokespeople have quite rightly refused to speculate on the possible causes of the breach, instead  setting up an expert panel to examine the situation and provide a detailed technical report.

If there is one thing that could NOT be claimed about this crisis, it is that there has been a lack of clarity on the part of the responsible officials. Indeed, many would argue Calgary’s leaders have delivered a master class in how to communicate effectively with the public.  And yet, in one of the most absurd examples of the current media obsession with “clarity and transparency”, the Globe and Mail editorial of June 18 declared “Calgary Needs Clarity on Its Water Crisis”[iii]. Incredibly, even after outlining all the measures city officials have taken to communicate, the article then declared there needed to be more, somehow implying important information is being withheld from the general public.     

Of course the mainstream media are hardly alone in this folly, although they could arguably be accused of leading the way, driven by a desperate desire to create headlines and sell their product in the wake of growing social media dominance. As a result, and not surprisingly, the terms “clarity” and “transparency” have now become key buzzwords in much of civil society as well and, again, they are often used blindly, whether or not they are relevant to a situation.

Another case in point that serves to highlight this problem is an item found on the list of demands made by virtually all of the various student groups involved in the nationwide university encampments over Gaza. The protesters insist that universities must be more transparent about their financial dealings, by making public all the details of their trust/endowment investments, in order that the protesters can then demand that they divest any holdings the protesters deem unacceptable.

Unfortunately nothing is clear cut in this situation, and in fact there are several problems with their single-minded emphasis on transparency:

 First, university trusts and endowments are not cloaked in secrecy, as the protesters appear to believe. Most universities already provide some information about their investment holdings. Many have also requested that their fund managers comply with ESG principles as outlined by the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investing. But there are numerous technical, financial, practical and legal constraints limiting how much they can actually disclose.

Second, in many cases universities will not know precisely where their money is invested, since it is typically handled entirely by major fund managers, and often in many countries. In the case of the University of Toronto, for example, its endowment is distributed among 44 fund managers in eight different countries, each of whom is responsible for investing a large pool of money in a mix deemed a corporate secret. A similar situation exists at McGill, (where investments over $500,000 are distributed by arms-length money managers among 270 corporations), and UBC, (where some 900 corporations make up just .01% of total investments.)[iv]

Third, a significant problem arises in determining what investments are unacceptable. The encampment protesters want universities to divest from any armaments or other military product manufacturers, and any corporations located in or doing business with Israel. But many large corporations make a range of products, (such as aviation, transport and electronics) that have both civilian and military applications. As well, many large corporations may be based in North America but have branches around the world, including the Middle East. Indeed, in the era of economic globalization almost all major corporations are international and are part of highly complex networks, making clarity and transparency difficult if not impossible.

A fourth problem involves the protesters’ demands for instant gratification in the name of transparency. They argue universities should divest their problematic investments immediately, (“we want commitments, not committees”),[v]  blithely ignoring the various internal administrative and legal procedures in place that must be followed. Universities normally have specific arms’-length committees and boards that handle endowments, including the placement of investments with money managers, and a specific process that must be followed for divestment.  As U of T President Meric Gertler explained, “The protesters have been invited to pursue the process clearly spelled out in the university’s divestment policy, but they have chosen not to do so. We cannot override our policies and procedures, (much less) adopt a pre-determined conclusion guided by only one viewpoint.”[vi]

Needless to say, the insistence of many of the protest groups on this categorical approach has been a primary cause of the drawn-out conflict at many universities, and will likely not be resolved until they are prepared – as some of their counterparts at other locations have been – to accept that their concept of clarity and transparency is not well-suited to this specific situation.

An even more egregious example of the inappropriate use of these two terms can be found in federal politics, where several politicians who should know better have also been calling for ‘greater transparency’ by demanding the immediate release of a list of names allegedly referred to in a report on foreign interference in Canadian politics. It is, frankly, difficult to know what is more disturbing about this reckless bandying about of such demands, which are verging on the McCarthyesque. 

To begin with, as Green Party leader Elizabeth May stressed in a valiant but vain attempt to bring reason and order to the debate, there is no such “list”. Moreover any reference to individuals in the report is apparently within the general context of “witting and unwitting” behaviour, making it impossible to distinguish between the two. Regardless, the democratic principles of rule of law, due process and the concept of innocent until proven guilty, must surely apply in this case even more than in ordinary legal cases.

Moreover, as both the current and former heads of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) have repeatedly stressed, the report is based on the conjecture, assumptions and rumours compiled by individual security agents. As such it in no way provides certainty or, as the RCMP have also stated, there is likely nowhere near the level of “evidence” required to lay charges. [vii]  As former CSIS Director Richard Fadden stressed, “I don’t believe that a person’s career and life should be ruined on the basis of some piece of intelligence…Those accused should be given a chance to explain themselves in private. In this country, we believe people are innocent until proven guilty, and we believe in the right to privacy.” [viii]

As if this were not sufficient reason to refrain from calling for release of the names on the pretext of transparency, the existence of national security legislation in the form of the Security of Information Act should surely have done the trick. As Public Safety Minister (and lawyer by training) Dominic LeBlanc has repeatedly pointed out, any individual who publicly identified these names would be subject to charges and arrest under this act. His position was reinforced by the current head of Canada’s spy agency, David Vigneault, who specifically “cautioned members of Parliament against releasing the names, saying doing so could make the future work of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service more difficult, which… would damage national security.” Vigneault also noted that publicizing any names would inevitably lead to putting agents at risk and compromising Canada’s position within the Five Eyes network.[ix]   

Meanwhile NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, after reading the report, did little to assuage concerns by declaring not only that he was “deeply concerned”, but that those mentioned in the report should be considered “traitors” to Canada. And this despite the clear explanation of former CSIS Director McFadden that none of the activities described in the report could be considered treasonous. [x]

Interestingly, Richard McFadden’s alternative solution to making the names public is the same as Prime Minister Trudeau’s, namely, that all party leaders in the House of Commons should request security clearance in order that they can read the report and take appropriate action within their respective caucuses. To date all but Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre have done so. Poilievre remains inexplicably and stubbornly opposed to seeing the report, at the same time that his voice is the loudest in calling for the public release of the names.[xi]

As Minister Leblanc has pointed out, Poilievre is only too well aware of the many reasons why the Liberal government cannot release the names, especially since the Conservative leader was once a minister in the Harper government. Worse still, Poilievre’s vitriolic language on this issue is becoming increasingly provocative, counting on the ignorance of most Canadians on matters of national security and declaring, for example, that “all of parliament is under a cloud” because of the government’s “refusal” to release the names. What else can we conclude but that his position is based on a blatant calculation of political advantage, regardless of the damage it inflicts on parliament and democratic institutions?  

[i] B. Jeffrey. Divided Loyalties. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. P. 320.

[ii] Of course these values may be ideational, as many critiques of the current implementation of federal and provincial information acts have pointed out

[iii] “Calgary Needs Clarity on its Water Crisis” Globe and Mail. June 18, 2024

[iv] J. Friesen. “U of T Protest Demands Complicated By Funds”. Globe and Mail. June 19, 2024.

[v] Friesen

[vi] Friesen.

[vii]   See also