Silence is golden...for government

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So does democracy die.

When I wrote up a story for the paper on a guards union picketing Springhill Institution, it was obvious the story needed the other side’s voice: the perspective of those being criticized by the union. (See the story we published here:

I’m not pro-union. I wouldn’t say I’m anti-union – that’s too strong – but I have a healthy level of skepticism when it comes to the claims they make. When the union says they’re upset because a guard was reprimanded for objecting to driving on a snow day, I don’t have a lot of sympathy. I drove to Springhill from Amherst to talk to the union!

I wanted Corrections Canada’s viewpoint. I called their spokesperson and left it with him. He had more than an hour to get back to me, but the email he sent didn’t arrive until it was too late. And his response, well, you be the judge:

“CSC respects individuals' rights to express their opinions in a peaceful way.”

“It would be inappropriate to comment on matters related to employee labour relations issues of a CSC institution.”

“The safety and security of the Canadian public, CSC staff and institutions remains CSC’s top priority.”

Sentence one is a meaningless junior civics lesson: We live in Canada and people are free. Sentence three is meaningless blah, blah, blah. The only comment with any meat to it is sentence two, the claim that it would be inappropriate to comment…

…except it wouldn’t be. That’s an utterly absurd claim. Corrections Canada is a public agency you pay for. They owe us an explanation. If there is a problem at Springhill Institution, they should tell us what they’re doing to fix it. If there isn’t a problem, they should offer substantive reassurances, not boilerplate nonsense about safety.

When I emailed and asked the Corrections spokesperson why his agency felt it didn’t need to give the public more information, I got no response. Maybe that email will limp in late, too.

So what’s with my hyperbole about the death of democracy? Well, I hate to admit it, but the government and its bureaucracy are on to something. I hope none of them read this. Here, lean in close and I’ll whisper it: They think they don’t need to talk to us – and they’re right.

Yup, the communications experts have discovered that a combination of obstinate silence and reliance on the short attention span of the public gets their political masters through all but the most acute political crises. Even in acute cases, you should keep your mouth shut right up until the villagers have arrived at the front gate with pitchforks and torches – then offer a quick apology and hide.

Two weeks ago, every headline was about Mike Duffy. Last week, it had shifted to Senate reform. This week, well, we’re on to something else.

Corrections Canada won’t answer to me or you because we’re irrelevant to them. They’re pretty sure a minor labour squabble isn’t going to boil over into broad public outrage – they’re right, it won’t – and if they just stay quiet, we’ll move on to the next thing.

The long and short of this is that Canada’s bloated bureaucracy answers to no one, and our politicians are only required to answer to us every five years.

Is this how people who get a third to a half of your income should behave? 

UPDATE: I heard back from the spokesperson in response to my email - the reply to my reply - and he offered a valid reason for the lack of response. As for the tardiness of his initial response to a request for comment on the union issue, he said it was slow because it needed to be vetted and pass through official channels. I believe him, but it doesn't change the central premise: after getting approval, being vetted, the best Corrections can offer the taxpayer is those ridiculous three points listed above.



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