My Journey through ‘Access to Information’

A short while ago, one of my esteemed colleagues shared an article with me that outlined Canada’s abysmal record in providing its citizens with access to government documents. Ranking a shameful 51st on a list of 89 freedom-of-information rankings taken in June 2012, Canada languished behind Angola, Columbia, and Niger in government openness. This is particularly disgraceful given that Canada was at one time among the world’s leaders in government openness.

I, for one, am appalled by this statistic, but unfortunately know firsthand why it is invariably and absolutely true.

Canada’s Access to Information Act took force on 1 July 1983, and allows those interested to pay $5 per request to access a variety of records in federal files – from correspondence and reports to briefing notes and hospitality receipts. Departments and agencies are supposed to respond to requests within 30 days, but often take large extensions of up to half a year or much (much) more. Often little information – if any – is released even after a lengthy wait.

I began my journey through Access to Information over a year ago and have been battling several different federal agencies (DND, DFAIT, and Library and Archives Canada) to gain access to documents pertaining to my research. Unfortunately, the journey has been difficult and I have been resisted at every turn. I continue to have my requests rejected or returned full of blank pages (the information having been redacted), but most of the responses I receive are extension notifications of “up to 500 days” from the date of receipt to respond to my requests.

Now, besides the fact that listing these extension notifications in days as opposed to the nearly TWO YEARS that they actually represent is slightly insulting, I happen to know for a fact that the documents I wish to view are of an entirely bureaucratic nature and have absolutely nothing to do with operational security. It should really not be a problem to allow me access to these documents. And in case you think I’m wrong or am being overly sensitive, I would like to point out that I am not the only person facing these challenges – I know several researchers who have been refused, asked to provide exorbitant amounts of extra money for the information they request, or are given ridiculous extensions, one of up to FIVE years.

Recently I made several official complaints to Canada’s Information Commissioner regarding these extensions and rejections – the legal recourse available to all requesters of Canadian government documents. Yesterday I received notice that “having sat with the agent dealing with several of your requests for a couple of hours, we have determined that there is already over 1600 pages of documents we can make available to you by 30 November 2012. He will no longer be requiring the 500 days initially given for replying to your request.” … apparently when you put your mind to it… and throw in a little effort… 500 days can become two hours… just saying.

While I am ecstatic that some of my documents will soon be arriving, it is upsetting to me that the system our government has established to ensure openness and accountability is failing. Miserably. And I am not the only one appalled by this. Toby Mendel, president of the Centre for Law and Democracy – the group responsible for ranking the effectiveness of access to information laws worldwide – recently spoke with officials devising an access law for Morocco. They asked him what the Canadian government had proposed in the area of access reform as part of the global Open Government Partnership initiative. Mendel told them that Canada had suggested allowing access requesters to apply electronically, dispensing with the current cumbersome practice of a paper application form and a $5 cheque or money order.

“Literally, I could see their jaws dropping,” Mendel said in an interview. “Because it was incomprehensible to them that a country like Canada would not already have electronic requesting possibility.”

Recently, simple improvements, such as allowing for electronic applications to replace the current cumbersome paper form and online access to previously requested documents, have been proposed by the Harper administration, but they have yet to be implemented as they have been in other places. It remains to be seen whether our current government will succeed in making changes to this flawed system. Despite posturing to the contrary, a succession of Canadian administrations has failed to upgrade the access act since its inception.

It is understandable, perhaps, that governments are reluctant to open their doors to requests for information that might compromise them, but it is unacceptable that so much information that Canadians have a right to know is being systematically kept out of sight.

The moral of this story: if you are going to have need for Canadian government documents through the access to information process, start early. It may take a while. And if you encounter resistance, complain. Write a letter to the Information Commissioner regarding the process and your experience. Not only may you have your wait time cut from 500 days to ONE, but the more voices of discontent our government receives, the more likely it will be that change may one day actually occur.

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The Adm. Gorshkov – Not ‘Just’ a Standard Frigate

Some may consider the new Admiral Gorshkov frigate being built for the Russian Navy ‘just’ another standard frigate.

Well, it’s not.

It’s an attempt, I think, to combine the best of both Udaloy I and Udaloy II destroyer designs. Udaloy I was designed as a primarily ASW asset, with 8 massive anti-submarine rocket/missiles (SS-N-14 Silex – max range 50km) in those four-tube launchers on either sides of the bridge.

A starboard bow view of a Soviet Udaloy I class destroyer underway.

Udaloy II, of which only one (Admiral Chabanenko) was built, replaced these 8 ASW rockets with the SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missile launchers – the same kind equipped on the Sovremenny class dedicated anti-surface destroyers, colloquially called “aircraft carrier killers” due to their Mach 3+ speed and size.

Udaloy II – Admiral Chabanenko at sea

The new Gorshkov is equipped with 16 large-diameter vertical launch tubes in front of the bridge, allowing it to, I guess, carry both the Silex and Sunburn missiles (or rather, their successors) in one hull in the same quantities as the Udaloys in a single hull. However, because of hull size limitations, Gorshkov’s anti-air missile complement is halved – from 64 on the Udaloys to 32. These 32 missiles will be launched from smaller VLS tubes in front of the large-diameter tubes – I’m going to assume that this set of smaller tubes is dedicated for anti-air work. I will also venture to say that the missiles that go into these 32 cells will be better (esp. in terms of range) than the 64 SA-N-9s that the Udaloys carry, especially in combination with the phased-array radars that Gorshkov will have.

So, Gorshkov can have 32 SAMs and some combination totalling 16 Very Deadly anti-ship cruise missiles or anti-submarine rockets. She’ll be a beast – a stealthy beast with very long arms.

These are just some conjectures on my part, however; I would really like more concrete info to become available because once a ship gets my attention, I can’t stop paying attention.

Also, enjoy the following pics. The second pic was taken from the deck of Gorshkov and shows the two VLS types on the bow. These pics were taken during 2012 – not quite sure exactly when. But which nonetheless point to something else – there’s no way she’s ready for sea trials right now, as was reported. According to this:
http://www.militaryparitet.com/ttp/data/ic_ttp/3633/ , the news reports confused Gorshkov with one of the Stereguschiy class corvettes, which do use composite structural elements as opposed to merely composite coverings on top of steel structure. It is also said that Gorshkov would not be ready for sea trials until at least November.

— Tim Choi, MSS Candidate

Rise of the Resume Builder

Ahhh it’s that time of year again. Fall. All the undergrads around campus diligently scamper from class to class (not to worry, a reduction in attendance correlates to the arrival of cold weather). Profs duck out early to take advantage of the last few weeks of good weather. And for the graduate students, the arrival of fall heralds another year of conferences. Oh conferences. The place where you can present your ideas in front of your peers and complete strangers who haven’t the slightest clue what contrived notions you are spouting. It’s an inescapable part of the graduate experience. Sadly, it has become extremely difficult to present your research at many of the larger events. Rejection from conferences is part of the game. You get used to it and try not to take it personally. There are a variety of reasons for rejection. Politics (if it’s a small field), topic (even I admit some of my stuff isn’t exactly riveting) and panels (square peg, round hole). But the newest and largest problem has become the Resume Builders (RB). These are the people who view conferences as just that. They are distinctly different from the Researchers. RB’s are the ones who spam submissions panels with half-baked ideas with no research basis. Let me demonstrate.

 

Figure 1: A half-assed drawing for a half-assed topic.

 

See, an RB just needs to get TO the conference. They do not need to present well or impress upon people the importance of their research. If they can put on their CV that they presented at ‘The Greatest Conference EVARRRRR’ then it’s job well done.

I am sure that you are now saying “well there has to be a way to defend against these academic couch potatoes.” Sadly, no. Admissions to conferences are decided in one page or less. Any good writer can BS enough to fill a page with concrete information. It then becomes a crap shoot for organizers. So things like PhDs over Masters students becomes a factor. That used to  guarantee you a good presentation, but no longer. Grad school has become the thing to do as a result of the craptacular economy and there are plenty of people out there who are doing it in lieu of a job. As someone who has substantial research to tell people about, it’s frustrating to know that an RB is going to present in your place. People will whisper in the crowd “That wasn’t very good” or “They don’t sound confident”. But then life will go on. And the few chances for real researchers to impress their peers will slip away.

Your supervisor will yell at you for not doing conferences, resulting in your funding to drop. Funding drops mean that you have to get a full time job, which erodes the quality of your work further. And then you drop out. Another grad school burn out. Yay! Meanwhile, the RB has lots of conferences on their CV. They appear to be a flourishing academic. They get well funded and complete their degree. They then quit academics and move to private industry because the economy has picked up and there is money to be made.

SO rejoice! You can sleep well. Rest assured that you are aiding someone, somewhere, in building their resume so they can jump right into that junior executive position.

New and Improved

Hello all,

We’d like to take a quick moment to let you know about a few changes that have been made to the format and structure of The Blog of War for the upcoming school year, which we hope will improve your reading and perusing experience.

First, we have instituted a new system of categorizing our posts by subject. Our posts will continue to be published all together on the main page, but they will each be given a category heading that will give you an idea of the type of post you are reading. There will be three categories in which we post our thoughts: Student Life, Research and Opinion, and Rants.

Student Life will focus on anything related to our journey through grad school, including our experiences at CMSS, in our classes, extra-curricular activities, CMSS sponsored events, conferences, publications, hobbies, and all things related to the joys and stresses of trying to live a balanced life as a graduate student.

Research and Opinion will consist of posts discussing our research and opinions on current events, theory, and policy. Essentially, this will be our editorial section.

Rants will include discussions that are slightly more controversial in nature, focusing on issues on which we have strong opinions and require an outlet through which to vent our frustrations.

The second change, is the addition of a new links section, which will include links to separate blogs run by current and former CMSS students. It appears that our students still have plenty to say outside the realm of graduate student life. Not exactly surprising!

So stay tuned for our future musings within this new format… we hope you continue to enjoy!