Inside the Kenney Government Privacy System
Since taking office in Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government has been criticized for its secretive and undemocratic practices that limit access to information about the workings of government.
The most publicized example is the so-called Energy War Room, created as a private company to escape public scrutiny through freedom of information and privacy protections. The progress report recently revealed that Invest Alberta, with its multi-million dollar budget, is also not subject to FOIP.
Now three former and current senior UCP politicians have told The Tyee that the Kenney government’s attempts to stymie transparency and accountability extend to day-to-day operations – and are unlike anything they have seen during their many combined years of work for other governments.
In interviews, staff members described an enforced system designed to evade FOIP requests and limit the risk of leaks by deleting emails, communicating through regularly cleared Slack and WhatsApp channels, and using home phones. to conduct the business of government.
“The directive would come from PMO staff in regular weekly and daily meetings, reminding everyone to ensure they are up to date on their ‘records management,'” a former senior manager said.
“‘Records management’ was a code to delete emails.”
Another senior manager described his understanding of the directive from the Prime Minister’s Office.
“To delete everything, to have no recordings,” they said. “So no one can get any of our information.”
“No justification was given. It was: ‘Manage your records, delete your stuff, make sure you have nothing’. Use Slack to communicate. Don’t use your work phones.
Another current senior official said the Prime Minister’s Office generally encourages staff not to create documents so they cannot be obtained through FOIP.
“There’s always encouragement from the Prime Minister’s Office to pick up the phone because there are no records,” the staffer said.
Another staffer said the unwritten directive applies to all political staff at the PCU, which includes ministers, press officers, chiefs of staff, issue managers and advisers.
They said WhatsApp is used by chiefs of staff while press secretaries and other staff communicate with Slack, which is deleted at least once a week by a staff member in the Prime Minister’s Office.
A former staffer said ministers and MPs also often use their personal phones for government business.
Kenney’s publicist, Justin Brattinga, declined a request for an interview and instead provided an emailed statement that did not address the specific allegations.
“Staff receive training from the FOIP office in management and record keeping. Staff must manage their records in accordance with Government of Alberta policies on records and information management.
“There is no obligation or legal requirement to retain transient records once they are no longer needed. Transitory records contain information in any format that is of temporary or limited use – for example , a response to the media.”
But Sean Holman, a University of Victoria journalism professor and freedom of information expert, said: ‘It seems that at the very least these people operating at this level are extending the definition of what constitutes a transient record in a way that is politically advantageous in terms of keeping government information confidential from the public.
FOIP requests trigger removal orders, says former insider
The staff members spoke on condition of anonymity as it could affect their current and future employment.
All three independently said it was clear the redactions were specifically aimed at thwarting FOIP and ensuring that politically damaging or embarrassing information could never be published. Two former staff members said they saw FOIP requests, including from the media, which did not yield responsive materials because they were removed under this unwritten policy.
A former staffer has described how ministers and chiefs of staff manipulated the release of information via FOIP to make it look like they were complying with the law while deliberately excluding information that did not match a narrative predetermined government.
“When it comes to an issue where there obviously should be some sort of record, the ministers’ chiefs of staff will orchestrate the sending of certain emails to demonstrate that there is a real paper trail. But it’s orchestrated in a way that’s not embarrassing to the minister’s office or the minister.
That same staffer said ministers’ offices often receive 24 hours’ notice when a FOIP request has been made.
“So everyone also has 24 hours to delete all their emails, and that’s because not everyone does it all the time.”
Holman said the suppression and selective publication of documents defeats the very purpose of FOIP.
“The whole point of freedom of information is that the government doesn’t have the discretion to choose what information the public has and what information the public doesn’t have about its operations,” he said.
Holman said he was not shocked by the Kenney government’s attitude toward freedom of information because governments have always sought to circumvent laws.
“We have seen a steady erosion of the spirit of these laws since these laws were passed,” he said. “So it’s part and parcel of a general trend, both in Alberta and across Canada, as governments have become more secretive, less open – and by extension, less democratic.”
Holman said Alberta’s information commissioner should conduct a thorough review of how political staffers handle records.
A spokesperson for Commissioner Jill Clayton said her office was unaware of the allegations.
“These are the public records”
In British Columbia, a 2015 investigation by that province’s Information Commissioner found that former Premier Christy Clark’s BC Liberal government behaved very similarly to the Kenney government. of 2022.
Former commissioner Elizabeth Denham discovered that Clark’s deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, had deleted all of her emails every day. Cadario had asserted that the legislation allowed deletion of “transitional” emails and she maintained that each email was transient.
But commission investigators recovered emails that should have been released.
Two of the former Alberta employees told The Tyee that there is often no distinction between transient emails and emails that should be kept: all are deleted.
Alberta has a long history of freedom of information scandals, especially under the long-ruling Progressive Conservatives.
Documents released in 2013 showed that then-Deputy Prime Minister Thomas Lukaszuk instructed press officers to gather information on FOIP requests that might embarrass the government. During a subsequent investigation by Alberta’s Information Commissioner, many departments simply refused to turn over relevant records, citing solicitor-client privilege.
Internal emails also showed that former Deputy Minister of Executive Council Peter Watson, the government’s top civil servant at the time, personally directed several departments to submit FOIP requests to his office so he could dictate what information might be disclosed.
And, as Clayton has repeatedly said publicly, successive provincial governments have chronically underfunded FOIP, pushing the system — and his office, which handles appeals — to breaking point.
Alberta employees, however, said the Kenney government directive is essentially a policy of exclusion and suppression from public information.
The three Alberta staffers said they decided to speak out because they viewed the directive as undemocratic.
“It’s a democracy and people should know what their government is doing and how they come to those decisions,” one said.
“These are the archives of the public. These are not government records; they belong to the people.