Eggen’s dodge makes a total mockery of the access to information law

And the one-time giants of  press freedom let a lone reporter fight their battle for them

What exactly is news? I addressed this question to my father in the late fall of 1945, when at the age of seventeen I had decided to go into the newspaper business. I thought my father, having been in it for more than 25 years, would have a ready answer, and he did. “Anything somebody’s trying to get into the paper,” he harrumphed, “is probably not news. Anything somebody’s trying to keep out of the paper is news.”

Let us now apply that journalistic adage to the complex manipulations of Alberta’s current minister of education. He is making, he says, the most sweeping reform of the school  curriculum ever undertaken in the history of  public education in his province. What they’re doing, how they’re doing it. who’s doing it, and what exactly is their goal — all must remain secret, he declares.

Aware that parents might have some interest in what he’s planning to do with — and to –their children, reporter Lucie Edwardson of Calgary Metro News put in a formal request under the Freedom of Information laws for the names of the 300 “experts” who are  making the revision. (The number since then has been raised to 400.)  The minister, clever by half as always, took shelter under a clause in the act and declared an intention to release the information anyway. Ms. Janet Cummings, the “FOIP co-ordinator” (Freedom Of Information and Protection) in the Education Department. announced to Ms. Edwardson she will release the names within the statuary sixty days the law allows.

She didn’t. The sixty days were up last week. “They’ve had a change of  heart,” Ms. Edwardson writes. She quoted the minister’s “reluctance” to release the names because he feared “the individuals will be subject to political attacks.” A candidate for the Progressive Conservative leadership had already raised the issue, he said. So to release the names they’d require the permission of all 400. The process would require at least three months.

Ms. Edwardson did not take long finding people to comment. Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy Access Council of Canada, called the minister’s action “perverse.” He was using an instrument designed to give the public access to information as a means of withholding it from them. “Nowadays, with social media, everybody is subject to being criticized,” she said. By the minister’s reasoning, “every name must be concealed to protect them against ever potentially receiving criticism or being threatened.”

“As a parent, as a taxpayer, and as an educator,” said Ms. Polsky. it is very much in the public interest to know  who they are, what are their views, and what is the expertise and the qualifications of the people who are going to set the curriculum for the next generations — plural — of Albertans. It’s absolutely critical to public interest.”

In short, the minister has made a mockery of a tool it is in the interest of the media to protect. Where are the great defenders of press freedom? Where is the Herald, the Journal, the Sun newspapers? Why are they leaving it all to one reporter to do their job? As noted before in this space, how are the mighty fallen.

In conclusion, reported Ms. Edwardson, the minister announced that they are currently working with the office of the privacy commissioner on  how — if at all– to release the information. Again, he underestimated her. She checked on him. No, said a spokes person at the commissioner’s office, as a matter of fact they had heard nothing of this from the minister’s office. Someone from the minister’s office soon phoned her back with the hurried explanation. They planned to draft a formal letter that very day.

Getting back to the old adage, it’s hard to imagine anybody more fervidly determined to keep something out of the papers than this minister. So the names must be news. But why? As always, when things are kept secret, we’re left to guess. Here are some speculations:

  • The curriculum committees are so jammed with people of subjectivist philosophy, constructionist educational theory, and leftwing political ideology that the release of the names will swiftly unmask it as pure indoctrination, and this will destroy the credibility of the whole exercise.
  • Take note also that the minister may never disclose the names, even after the curriculum is published. And why not? Will the dread peril of the “political attacks” somehow vanish when the curriculum is known? It will not. The same hazards, or worse, will exist then as exist now.
  • Though the committees were packed, were they perhaps not packed enough? Has serious dissidence arisen behind the closed doors? Did some participants discern academic competence being sacrificed on the altar of ideology? Was some of the ideology patently ludicrous? Let these names out and how long would it be before these fights became public? This kind of thing could destroy the whole project. There must be no public discord whatever among the so-called “experts.”  So at all costs, keep the lid on the names.
  • Is it not possible that the minister lacks confidence in his 400 experts? He demands their anonymity because he fears they may crumble if “attacked.” He must view his experts as sensitive, delicate people, unaccustomed to the cut and thrust of the public square, requiring special shelter and anonymity, not offered in other areas where citizens volunteer. Must the lay members of police commissions remain secret, or citizen advisers on the parks board, or the local zoo? Must they all serve under special confidentiality? In other words, behind the minister’s tender concern for his experts’ hurt feelings, it’s hard to avoid the impression he must regard them as a huge assembly of wimps. Are they all this fearsome of public opposition? He must think so. I don’t.

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.

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