Documents shrouded in secrecy - N.L. government least transparent in the country on cabinet decisions

James McLeod
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Andrew Parsons

The Newfoundland and Labrador government appears to be more secretive than any other provincial government in Canada, based on certain documents it refuses to let the public see.

In fact, according to one Memorial University professor who studies politics and government, current government policy when it comes to cabinet decisions is so restrictive it calls into question whether we live in a democratic society.

The critical documents in question are called “orders in council,” and in every other province in Canada, they’re publicly available in one form or another.

But after more than two weeks of trying to get a straight answer from the Newfoundland and Labrador government, The Telegram was unable to determine whether citizens in this province have the same rights.

An order in council is a formal decision of cabinet, which the lieutenant-governor signs off on. It is a legally binding document, and has almost the same status as a piece of legislation.

The orders only contain the decision of cabinet; they do not in any way give a reason for the decision, or reveal the deliberations of cabinet that led to the final order.

The federal government posts all orders in council online, as do most provincial governments.

A few provinces have websites that direct citizens as to who to call, or what office to visit, to view copies of the orders in council.

But no such information exists on the Newfoundland and Labrador government website.

When The Telegram filed an access to information request for orders in council in 2011, several documents were either partially or totally censored by government officials.


The Telegram first inquired Feb. 7 with communications officials in Executive Council on how a citizen would go about getting copies of orders in council.

A day later, we were told the question should be directed to Minister Keith Hutchings who is responsible for the Office of Public Engagement, which takes in Access to Information and Protection of Privacy legislation.

When The Telegram spoke to Hutchings Feb. 14 — a week after the initial query was made — he said he didn’t know whether orders in council are publicly available documents in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Hutchings directed The Telegram to the cabinet secretariat — which falls under Executive Council, the department The Telegram originally contacted.

“I can’t clarify that,” he said. “If you’ve made a request to cabinet secretariat and they've turned you down, that’s the answer to your question.”

The Telegram made a request early this week for copies of several orders in council — including the ones that were blacked out in the 2011 access to information request — and several days later, we have still not received any documents from the cabinet secretariat.

An official sent an email to The Tele­gram saying something would be provided early next week.

Hutchings said some of the orders could only be released based on the restrictions of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act; since the government amended that law in June, it has been widely criticized as one of the most restrictive access to information laws in the country.


Memorial University political science professor Kelly Blidook seemed a bit flabbergasted.

He said in the structure of government, an order in council is basically equivalent to a law, and the idea that it might not be public is problematic.

“It’s laws. There can’t be a limitation on which citizens get to know which laws are in place. It just sounds so weird to me,” he said. “The law has to be available to everybody, and it has to treat everybody in an equal manner.”

Blidook said one of the fundamental principles of a democratic society, going all the way back to the Magna Carta, is the idea that everyone is equal under the law — the notion that certain legally binding orders of government would only be available to some citizens but not other people seems to contradict that.

“That only occurs in undemocratic systems,” he said. “As a citizen, I get to know what the laws are, right?”

But if orders in council are currently kept secret by the government, that’s not necessarily anything new.

David Vardy, who was clerk of the Executive Council from 1978 to 1985, said back in his day, they were not public documents.

“It wasn’t a big issue. I think it was just accepted at the time that orders in council were confidential, and that was that,” he said, but added he doesn’t think that should still be the case.

“I think it reflects, sort of, an antiquated approach to government — a very protective, secretive approach.”


Liberal MHA Andrew Parsons said the fact the government will not make the documents public further confirms his impression that the government is committed to holding back as much information as possible.

“It’s the most secretive government in the history of this province,” he said.

“It’s one thing to make their decisions under cover of night, but now they’re not even going to tell you what they’re doing?”

Twitter: TelegramJames

Organizations: The Telegram, Executive Council, Office of Public Engagement

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

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Recent comments

  • Allan
    February 26, 2013 - 08:34

    For a province to succeed, we have to get with the times. Push forward, covering up the sins that we make or keeping them secret isn't going to do anything for the future. A statement was made by Dave, " Governments like Unions need people to run and needs to run the people". The problem that arises is, Governments like Union keep their buddies in the system and everyone else pays the dues and don't get anything !

  • Don
    February 24, 2013 - 21:10

    This bill will go down as the biggest mistake that Dunderdale and the Justice Minister of the day Felix Collins has ever made. I am surprised that a lawyer like Collins would not have seen the negatives of adding this bill to the present day dictatorship. I can understand Dunderdale signing off on it as she is easily buffaloed, but Collins should have known better. If this government is voted out in the next election this bill will have been the issue. Shame on this government for misleading us and keeping our business out of reach.

  • Leah
    February 24, 2013 - 12:03

    John Smith, What Dunderdale has been doing, and will continue to do, isn't one bit funny, and it's all far from a joke.

  • J
    February 24, 2013 - 09:28

    "David Vardy, who was clerk of the Executive Council from 1978 to 1985, said back in his day, they were not public documents." So, if this was a normal practice since the late 1970's, why does this only make Dunderdale's PC party secretive? This has obviously been they way of every party in power since at least 1978.

    • Joe
      March 02, 2013 - 22:42

      Back in the 1970's most people didn't question what government did because they didn't under stand the political system, but today most people are educated and understand every word that government speaks or writes, and to day people want to know what government is doing and according to the constitution all documents in government are supposed to be made public. No questions asked. What is this government hiding and who are they protecting from redicule? Typical PC government. No I am not a liberal.

  • shirley ryan
    February 24, 2013 - 04:18

    democracy, please do not make me laugh , plutocracy government is what we have, if you do not know what that means look it up...PLUTOCRACY , A GOV'T RULED BY MONEY, WHICH THEY LINE THEIR OWN POCKETS THICKER AND THICKER, TAXPAYERS FOOT THE BILL, INSTEAD TAXPAYERS SHOULD BOOT THE BILL

  • catherine altini
    February 23, 2013 - 17:51

    Secrecy in the government has gone back to the 1940s. Secret plans between Britain and Canada governing Newfoundland's democracy.The ones in power now have had great role models from the past. Its up to the Newfoundlanders to get more involved in the politics and demand to know what is going on.If enough pressure is put on them they will have to open their files..Secrecy has no place in a democratic society.

  • Jack
    February 23, 2013 - 17:12

    When you think about it, almost every province in the country is either backwards or outdated. Let's use Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba as an example. While other provinces take the time to reflect those whom sacrificed their lives for our freedom, these provinces don't have Remembrance Day as a statutory holiday. Although Nova Scotia doesn't have Remembrance Day as a statutory holiday, its regulated under its own legislation, Remembrance Day Act, requiring many businesses to close that day. Second example are Nova Scotia and PEI. Nova Scotia was the last province to eliminate Sunday Shopping, and this ban was stopped with help from Sobey's and Loblaw's waging war on their outdated government and won, and PEI only allowed beverages in glass bottles in the past but got rid of that outdated law. At the end of the day, if you think long and hard, every province has their outdated ways.

  • Jack
    February 23, 2013 - 17:03

    This secretive attitude is one of many reasons why Newfoundland and Labrador is in deep financial trouble, especially Muskrat Falls and Hebron. The only way to change this arrogant attitude is don't vote for the Progressive Conservatives in 2015, and implement a ban on this party if they lose.

  • Wilf
    February 23, 2013 - 17:02

    Kermit strikes again. Ribbit, ribbit

  • sc
    February 23, 2013 - 15:20

    This is just further proof of how backwards this province is compared not only to the rest of Canada, but also to the rest of the developed world. Such behaviour is typical of a government that is so arrogant that it feels it unnecessary to be either accountable or transparent. It also proves how dysfunctional it is with no one knowing what procedures ought to be followed. Or, is this apparent confusion just typical Conservative behaviour? The government considers us, the taxpayers, as mere inconveniences that ought to be grateful for any morsel of information that it wishes to share. I sure hope that voters remember this government's attitude at the next election -- provided that this government doesn't abolish elections. Would anyone be surprised if it tried to do this?

    • Cazador
      February 23, 2013 - 18:27

      Run another poll with the question "Do you believe the PC's are running the provincial government effectively?"

  • Biggest Dickus
    February 23, 2013 - 14:09

    Is that harold from the big bang theory? More like the Big Blame Theory

  • John Smith
    February 23, 2013 - 14:07

    You guys are hilarious...keep em' comin' I laugh so hard i cry...too, too it!

    • wayne r bennett
      February 23, 2013 - 19:44

      John Smith Who are you?

    • Whaddaya At
      February 26, 2013 - 22:05

      OK John Smith, so you laugh so hard you cry; do you pee yer pants too ?. lol

  • chris
    February 23, 2013 - 12:57

    i have never voted not once in my 41 yrs for my own personal can be sure DONEderdale has done one thing..made me a more responsible first vote EVER will be Liberal or NDP in 2015.This crowd of liars cheats and common senseless egotists should be hauled out never mind voted out

  • CJ
    February 23, 2013 - 12:18

    Can't wait to give Lorraine Michael a vote next time....... credibility, common sense and education gets my vote.....NDP will do some serious damage to the PC is only a matter of time!!!!!

  • Don II
    February 23, 2013 - 11:31

    Newfoundland and Labrador is not a real democracy and anybody who thinks it is or ever was is deluded or sadly mistaken. It appears that Newfoundland and Labrador has been run by dictators and despots since 1610! The legislated and systemic secrecy which exists inside the Government of Newfoundland surpasses even the secrecy practices of the former Soviet KGB and the US CIA ! I have spoken with a number of people who told me that they have written letters to Ministers of the Dunderdale Government and the Ministers did not have the courtesy to send a form letter acknowledging receipt of their letters! Talk about arrogance gone mad!

  • Winston Adams
    February 23, 2013 - 10:47

    How often does one hear the phrase "the law of the land" and the law should apply to everyone in the counrty. That the law could be kept secret from us should be unacceptable and is it not a violation of all our Charter Rights? Are they not breaking the law by doing this? I learned a couple of decades ago that actual "administration of justice" is assigned to each province, so it appears the law need not be administered equally. In 1989, I sought to file a Victim Impact Statement, as it was Canadian law for 3 years already. I was denied, in part because, if memory serves me correctly, that no Order in Counsel had made here to make that law legal in Nfld up to then. I guess that served the justice system as administered here. Charter of Rights be dammed. And our soldiers fight for our democracy?

  • Corporate Psycho
    February 23, 2013 - 09:15

    2015 will not come soon enough. What scares me the most is this government knows they are finished. How much damage will they do to us until then?

  • Foghorn Leghorn
    February 23, 2013 - 08:47

    You have to realize it is only for all of our protection. We are only feeble minded mere mortals who need someone to guide us through our daily lives. That is why we elected the Dunderdale Regime in the first place.

    • Kev
      February 23, 2013 - 10:42

      Dunderdale isn't doing anything Danny never. There's a reason some people called the place "Dannystan" when he was in. He left before the poo hit the fan. Dunderdale gets to take the fall.

  • saelcove
    February 23, 2013 - 08:47

    Any luck at all the dictators will be gone next election

  • Will Cole
    February 23, 2013 - 08:27

    Done-derdale... how apt. Is she done come the next election? You betcha!

  • Dave from Mt Pearl
    February 23, 2013 - 08:05

    Typical of this government, they assume that you and I are under educated fools who will follow there every word as if it were gospel. That is why it is imperative that during the next election there be a clause or a law put to a vote that enables us to recall our members and give us the ability to ensure that our voices are heard, similiar to BC, which I might add is the only province without a combined HST on everything because it was voted down in the last election by the people. Government like unions need people to run and needs to run for the people. Holy smokes all this could be avoided if only the members would listen to the people the people that elected them. To listen to the upper ministers and premier while addressing the people is an embarassment, we the people are not so easily led as they think we are.

    • Don
      February 23, 2013 - 13:12

      We as the people of this province should have every right to access to any information that we request from the newfoundland government.They have bankrupted this province. Dunderdale will not be relected next term. so don't get too comfortable priemer as your days are numbered. and your idiot side kicks will also be gone!