In Ford’s Own Image: Re-shaping Ontario’s Government Web

By Nicholas Worby, February 22, 2019

Picture yourself as an activist or a journalist five years from now in Ontario…You need to research climate change policies during the transition from the Wynne to Ford governments. Where do you begin? A Google search? A trip to the library stacks? I work as a librarian supporting government information research. These questions are my bread and butter.

A researcher looking for physical copies of 2019 documents in a library several years from now will likely come up empty-handed. The Ontario Government has progressively distributed fewer and fewer titles in print over the last fifteen years. Why would they? Is not the web the pre-eminent public dissemination channel for government information?

For a variety of reasons, electronic government information is neither stable nor is its access guaranteed. Material can be removed for the sake of currency like outdated driver’s handbooks, for compliance with accessibility standards, as a result of changes to web technology or because of a lack of perceived interest. However, government websites are not simply non-partisan clearinghouses for documents. Government web content also shifts around with the priorities of those in power. Students and citizens may fall prey to the assumption that public documents, once published online, are perpetually accessible with a click of a button. In the United States, such assumptions have been challenged by the Trump administration’s rapid and well documented censorship of the Environmental Protection Agency.1234

Similar to Trump, Ontario’s recently elected premier campaigned on ending environmental protections, including the provincial Cap and Trade Program and loosening environmental regulations to better suit the needs of business.567 The original version of Bill 66 was a realization of Doug Ford’s campaign rhetoric as the Bill sought to enable “open for business” by-laws to circumvent or repeal much of Ontario’s existing environmental protection legislation. Like Trump and the Environmental Protection Agency website, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (now Environment, Conservation and Parks) website is now a reflection of the Ford government’s stance on environmental issues. Anyone needing access to online content from the previous Ontario Government is at a significant disadvantage. The web changes fast and stakeholders interested in this information have limited time to capture these changes.

On June 29th, Doug Ford assumed the premier’s office and his cabinet was sworn in. Web archived versions of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) website shortly before June 29th and the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MOECP) website shortly after June 29th reflect a drastic refocus of the Ministry’s objectives. University of Toronto Libraries captured these initial changes by harvesting the websites before and after the change of power (see Appendices i-iv).

The first and most obvious change is the renaming of the Ministry and the subsequent change to the URL.

The next most significant change is the removal of any mention of “climate change”. Within four days of assuming office, the only mention of climate change on the MOECP website was a reference to the now repealed Climate Change Mitigation and Low-carbon Economy Act.

Flagship policy documents like the Wynne government’s Climate Change Action plan were moved from the MOECP site to generic Ontario.ca pages. Similarly, reference to all climate change mitigation initiatives were removed. For example, the Green Ontario Fund, which was a “not-for-profit provincial agency” tasked with distributing funds from the Ontario carbon market into greenhouse gas reducing initiatives, was cancelled on June 19. The Agency’s own website, including the Agency’s memorandum of understanding with the provincial government, was scrubbed of content the same day.8 Currently, the memorandum of understanding can only be found on web archived versions of the Agency’s site.

Casual viewers of the June 27 MOECC site and July 3rd MOECP site will be struck by the lack of content on both. Most ministry websites were already streamlined when they were transferred to a common Ontario.ca template. The Ontario.ca ministry sites generally aim to only contain the last three years content, resulting in the removal of years of historical material.9 Even with limited historical content, these sites continued to contain critical information for researchers and members of the public wanting to understand the actions of government at the ministerial level.

The absences pre and post June 29 are more than a bit of additional whitespace. There are and continue be significant omissions in all iterations of the MOECP site following the transition to the Ford government. Since Ford came to power, current mandate letters issued by the premier to individual ministers outlining their objectives for the year have not been added to ministry websites. The Ford government has refused to release the letters, which were once available to the public openly online, even in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.10 Also missing are the Wynne era Published Plans and Annual Reports. These reports detail ministry priorities, the year’s work plan in broad strokes and outline the performance of each ministry over the last fiscal year. The last few years of Published Plans and Annual Reports can be found online through searching the main Ontario.ca site; however, to do so requires insider knowledge of titles and government publication practices. In effect this means that the documents remain buried in the archives. Design choices made by the Government further hinder finding the documents through web archived versions of the site.11 While the Ford government wanting distance from Wynne era policies is not surprising, the extra effort required to find Wynne era reports significantly complicates the work of Ontarians wanting to fact check Ford administration claims about the previous government.

Your work looking for Wynne era public documents may be even more complicated. Theoretically, documents that are removed from government websites are supposed to be deposited with Publications Ontario. As of writing, the last few years of Ministry of Environment and Climate Change publications have yet to be added to Publications Ontario’s online catalogue. Publications Ontario’s official mandate also excludes important classes of documents including “technical and scientific reports.”12 If you are lucky, you will be able to consult web archives for point-in-time versions of websites containing documents of interest. If you are less lucky, you will have to plumb through the finding aids and records at the Archives of Ontario. If you are truly unlucky, you will need to file a Freedom of Information Request if your records have not yet been destroyed under records retention policies or transferred to the Archives, but cannot be sourced from government or anywhere on the internet.13 Imagine needing to engage in the time intensive and often expensive process of filing Freedom of Information Act requests, navigating internal policies, dealing with wait times and appeals for every four year old public document only recently removed from Ontario.ca? The public documents you need will likely still be available; however, the added labour required of you is a far cry from having access to print government publications placed sequentially on a shelf in your library. This extra work is a disincentive for researchers trying to critically analyze the work of government and runs counter to one of the major purposes of the Archives and Recordkeeping Act: “to encourage the public use of Ontario’s archival records as a vital resource for studying and interpreting the history of the province.”14

Public web archives are an excellent resource for providing access to statements and publications that were once online. Currently the Government of Ontario does not have its own public facing web archive. University of Toronto Libraries, using the nonprofit Internet Archive’s subscription service Archive-It, crawls Ontario Government ministry sites twice a year. This work is done by a very small staff, is contingent on annual funding and is executed without the explicit legislative mandate of government organizations like the Archives of Ontario. Web archives are only a partial solution. They are only effective if the information is ever published.

It remains to be seen if the Ford government will bury or withhold future public information regarding climate change or other topics at odds with its agenda. Reducing or burying web content may seem like a small issue, but if viewed in a larger context of the current government’s approach to controlling scrutiny it is disturbing. Independent offices of the Legislature like the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario have been weakened through mergers.15 Once publicly accessible documents like mandate letters are no longer open-by-default and require Freedom of Information requests.16 Things as basic as press freedoms are challenged by the creation of hyper-partisan government funded news channels and PC staffers disrupting reporters’ questions at press conferences with strategic applause.16 Ontarians are at risk of having fewer avenues of finding information and challenging the discourse around vital issues like climate change. This past year may either be an aberration or it may be a turning point where Ontario stopped taking government transparency seriously. It is possible we may not be able to effectively study the Ford government using public documents at all.

Appendix i

June 27 Capture of http://www.ontario.ca/page/ministry-environment-and-climate-change/

Appendix ii

July 3 Capture of http://www.ontario.ca/page/ministry-environment-conservation-parks/

Appendix iii

June 27 capture of MOECC site

Appendix iv

July 3 capture of MOECP site

Endnotes

1. http://time.com/5075265/epa-website-climate-change-censorship/

2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2018/05/04/it-has-been-more-than-a-year-since-epa-took-down-its-climate-website-for-updating/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c707b045b934

3. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/01/epa-website-climate-change-trump-administration

4. https://ourrighttoknow.ca/international-time-line/#1513879878713-ffcbb0a0-c4f2

5. https://torontosun.com/news/provincial/cap-and-trade-pumping-ontarians-dry-pc-leader-ford-says

6. https://www.thestar.com/news/queenspark/2018/03/25/doug-ford-says-he-will-cut-red-tape-to-revive-ontario-manufacturing-jobs.html

7. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-doug-ford-promises-big-chunk-of-ontarios-greenbelt-to-developers/

8. https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/with-greenon-rebate-cancellation-unbelievable-window-of-opportunity-closes-for-ottawa-business

9. Craig. S., Murphy, M. (2019). Inside track: Challenges of collecting, accessing and preserving Ontario Government publications. In Li, S. & Wakaruk, A. (Eds.), Government information in Canada. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

10. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-government-refuses-to-release-doug-ford-s-mandate-letters-to-cabinet-ministers-1.4802643

11. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/webarchive/guidance/

12. Ontario. Management Board of Cabinet. (1997). Government Publications Directive.

13. Note: Detailed records retention schedules at the ministerial level are currently not available to researchers: https://www.ontario.ca/data/archives-ontario-records-retention-schedule-database

14. Archives and Recordkeeping Act, 2006, S.O. 2006, c. 34, Sched. A; 1(c).

15. https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/ontario-weakening-environmental-oversight-by-merging-watchdog-with-auditor-advocates-1.4202782

16. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-government-refuses-to-release-doug-ford-s-mandate-letters-to-cabinet-ministers-1.4802643

17. https://globalnews.ca/news/4363921/ontario-news-now-twitter/