In June 2017, former Conservative MP Russ Hiebert’s anti-union private members bill, C-377, was repealed by Parliament. Closely modelled on US legislation, C-377 imposed unprecedented financial and other public disclosure requirements on Canadian unions. Hiebert argued that Canadians deserved detailed information about unions, noting in 2013 that “sunshine is the greatest cleanser of all.”
Between 2012 and 2015, we researched the origins of and lobbying for C-377. The findings of this work were reported in a 2015 article published in Labour/Le Travail (Working in the Shadows for Transparency), a National Post op-ed, and in several stories by Peter O’Neil in the Vancouver Sun. Our investigation centred on how key actors (e.g., LabourWatch, an anti-union group) used a flawed Nanos Research poll to construct public support for the controversial bill. We concluded “that the broader campaign to adopt C-377 […] ironically demonstrated a disregard for transparency and accountability.”
We offer this postscript on C-377 for two reasons. First, there have been developments after our 2015 publication that we feel warrant attention. And, second, recent events have rekindled our interest in the actors and organizations involved in the broader C-377 story.
Freedom of information requests denied. Beginning in 2013, we submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to various federal organizations for correspondence and other information related to C-377. While the Ministry of Labour provided relevant correspondence to us, Treasury Board and Russ Hiebert’s office did not, citing exemptions in the federal FOI legislation. Our impression at the time, based on the materials we received, was that Labour was doing its best to distance itself from Hiebert’s private member’s bill. We appealed the Treasury Board decisions but most of our requests were denied in late-2016. The last letter of rejection came earlier this year, nearly five years after the initial request for information.
The glaring lack of transparency concerning so-called transparency legislation is alarming and we think it should be a concern to Canadians. The Liberal government’s recent amendments to the access-to-information system (contained in Bill C-58), which the government claims will improve access and timeliness of access to information, have been criticized for not going far enough. Time will tell if the system improves.
Flawed polling methods continue. Our research documented how a 2011 LabourWatch-Nanos Research poll “primed” respondents (i.e., is provided one-sided information that could condition survey responses) and how the poll’s report omitted some survey results. Pollster Alan Greg stated flatly: “This is not the kind of polling that people in our discipline should be doing”. Other polling experts we spoke to shared concerns about the methods used in the 2011 LabourWatch poll, and, more generally, of the use of priming in public opinion polling.
In March 2018, Dr. Michael Law, Canada Research Chair in Access to Medicines, highlighted “serious flaws” with a recent Nanos poll funded by two health and medicine industry trade groups (readers interested in Dr. Law’s analysis, Nik Nano’s reply, and Dr. Law’s rejoinder, can find information here). Specifically, Dr. Law noted how Nanos’ industry-funded poll, which reported that “fewer than one per cent of Canadians who received a prescription in the past six months say cost is a contributor to non-adherence to prescription medicines,” was at odds with findings from a large scale study that “estimated that 8.2% of Canadians who received one or more prescriptions […] could not afford one or more of their prescriptions over the past 12 months.”
Regarding the Nanos survey, Dr. Law concluded: “Given the number and severity of these flaws, in our view these results should not be considered accurate, and should not be used to guide policy decisions.” Sadly, sustained tangible oversight of standards in Canada’s polling industry has been and continues to be weak to non-existent (see our next point).
Demise of a polling association. In late-July of this year, the association for Canada’s polling industry, the Market Research and Intelligence Association (MIRA), ceased operations due to financial problems. The MIRA claimed to ensure the integrity of the work of its members, however its complaint process was complex, lengthy, and secretive, with complainants required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Independent pollster, Janet Brown, recently told the CBC: “If you were a pollster who didn’t care about standards, you didn’t join the MRIA. […] If you were a pollster who did care, you didn’t join because the MRIA didn’t enforce its standards.”
Our research described a complaint filed by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) with the MRIA regarding the 2011 LabourWatch-Nanos Research poll. After one year, the MRIA stated that its Complaint Panel found that Nanos Research had not violated the MIRA’s Code of Conduct. However, other information we received detailed that Nanos was instructed by the panel to take steps to disclose more information about the poll’s results, but LabourWatch, which owned the data, refused to comply with requests. To our knowledge, LabourWatch never complied with the panel’s decision. In our view, the evidence suggests that Canadians are ill-served by the polling industry’s self-regulatory model.
From transparency to cryptocurrency. The champion of C-377 retired from federal politics in 2015, and recently emerged as the co-founder and board chair of Canndollar (Silver Blockchain Inc.), a business that has plans to offer a cryptocurrency backed by purchases of Canadian silver coins. C-377 is now in the rear view mirror. Canndollar’s website highlights some of Hiebert’s roles in federal politics, and notes that: “Russ has developed a worldwide network of contacts in business and foreign governments. He has the ability to connect people with key decision makers, joint venture partners and investors, for the purpose of developing trade and other business opportunities.”
The story of C-377 is one that illustrates attempts by think tanks (Fraser Institute), law makers (Russ Hiebert), and right-wing lobby groups (LabourWatch and Merit Contractors) to establish a U.S.-style anti-union movement. In response, an odd alliance of unions, representatives from the finance sector, elected officials from across the political spectrum, and others rallied to oppose the ideologically-driven legislation. Our research also exposed the polling industry’s uneasy relationship with industry lobby groups and its inability to enforce quality and reporting standards, and adds to a large number of stories that chronicle problems with our federal access to information system.