NL·CBC Investigates

We asked teachers in Atlantic Canada about the pandemic. Education officials weren't keen.

A CBC News questionnaire sent to teachers about their experiences during the pandemic sparked correspondence — and consternation —  among education officials in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Questionnaire sparked flurry of activity, internal emails show

Education officials across Atlantic Canada were not enthusiastic about a CBC News questionnaire sent to teachers in the region about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

It began with a questionnaire sent from CBC to the public email addresses of approximately 22,000 school staffers in eastern Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

It ended with a series of CBC News stories based on the responses of more than 2,000 teachers, many of whom expressed concerns about returning to schools during a pandemic.

But in between, it sparked correspondence — and consternation — among education officials in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Some of them appear to have been suspicious of CBC's effort.

Using access-to-information requests, CBC News obtained more than 300 pages of emails generated by top education and school board officials across Atlantic Canada in the days after CBC journalists sent the questionnaire out.

The documents reveal a flurry of internal consultations and information-sharing among the four provincial governments on how to handle the situation. 

There was displeasure expressed by some that CBC reporters had contacted teachers directly, without getting permission from them first.

There were concerns about whether this constituted a privacy breach. Lawyers were consulted. One senior government official somewhat ominously mentioned "other legal options."

Returning to school looked a lot different amid a pandemic, and teacher responses to the CBC questionnaire highlighted stress and uncertainty. (Rachael Blakey)

The resulting stories, which ran in late October, provided a window into the thoughts of teachers in the time of COVID-19. Those teachers had been contacted by email, through addresses found on public school websites. They shared feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed or exhausted. 

Emails written by education officials as the CBC's questionnaire was circulated reveal unease that the questions were even being asked.

'Harmful to intergovernmental relations' 

One province initially didn't want correspondence with other colleagues across the region revealed to CBC at all.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District and the province's Department of Education both invoked sections of transparency legislation designed to stop the disclosure of information "harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations."

However, snippets of that correspondence were revealed by other provinces. 

No state secrets appeared to have been involved.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District and the Newfoundland and Labrador government initially declined to release emails because they could be 'harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations.' (CBC)

After CBC News raised questions about the redactions, officials in Newfoundland and Labrador ultimately reversed their initial decision to black out the correspondence.

Here are excerpts from some of the emails that had at first been deemed too harmful to release:

  • "There has been a mass distribution to our teachers."
  • "We are working to get screenshots of the questionnaire."
  • "Here are the screenshots!"

For some reason, an email from the New Brunswick Teachers Federation to its members cautioning them about talking to the media was also redacted as harmful to intergovernmental affairs in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In an email, the school district said those redactions were done in consultation with the provincial government, and steered inquiries to them. The Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education did not provide a response before deadline.

Potential legal issues 

As news of the questionnaire travelled, education officials across the region zeroed in on two issues: how did the CBC get all of those email addresses in the first place, and what questions were being asked?

"We are looking at potential privacy breaches or other legal options," George Daley, the deputy minister for anglophone schools in New Brunswick, wrote to his counterparts in the other three Atlantic provinces. 

It is not clear what those "other legal options" were, and the New Brunswick government did not directly address that in response to inquiries from CBC News.

New Brunswick government officials worked into a weekend to deduce how CBC obtained teachers emails. They were listed on public school websites. (Rachael Blakey)

Nevertheless, efforts appear to have continued to figure out how the CBC managed to send out all of those emails.

The work in New Brunswick went into a Saturday, two days after the questionnaire first went out. Finally, an answer — nothing nefarious had occurred.

"The majority of our schools have … contact info on their website so easy enough to do if you are willing to take the time," an internal email noted.

Another email added, "Not much we could do on the IT side to prevent that from happening."

Asked about those efforts, the New Brunswick Department of Education stressed that information is a "valuable asset that is critical to the delivery of government programs and services," and teachers are "expected to follow best practice" when it comes to information security. 

"This includes not to click links or open attachments unless they come from a trusted source. Similar comprehensive policies are in place at private companies and media outlets for employees to follow," spokeswoman Tara Chislett said in an email to CBC News.

"It is always suspicious any time a system-wide, mass-distributed email from outside government is received. They raise concern of a potential breach of the system and the possibility of a breach in privacy of employees."

Chislett also noted the low response rate to the questionnaire among New Brunswick teachers.

'Nothing unusual about this practice'

Farther east, the English school board in Newfoundland and Labrador was provided legal advice from internal counsel, although that email is entirely blacked out and it's not clear exactly what the lawyer had weighed in on.

Board officials indicated in earlier correspondence that they believed the CBC emails contravened their policies.

School district brass in Newfoundland and Labrador and the province's teachers' union appeared to be on the same page about the questionnaire — they shared their draft messages to teachers with each other before sending them out.

In a statement, the NLESD said it "routinely consults with the organization's executive members, relevant public bodies and its educational partners on a variety of matters of mutual interest. There is nothing unusual about this practice."

"Similarly, our in-house legal counsel provides a wide range of advice on matters related to the application of provincial legislation, collective agreements, policy implementation and more."

The CBC News questionnaire was sent to the public email addresses of about 22,000 school staffers in eastern Ontario and Atlantic Canada. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Meanwhile, civil servants in Prince Edward Island were able to crack the mystery of exactly what questions were being asked.

According to internal emails, a government official logged into the questionnaire and posed as a teacher, so they could complete it — then took screenshots of all the questions and passed them along.

The verdict from P.E.I was split.

One communications official wrote, "Questions seem fair. I think we will come out near the top really." But those views weren't shared universally. "Some 'loaded' questions for sure," was the verdict from the deputy minister, Bethany MacLeod.

1 of 4 ministers respond

The documents obtained by CBC News show officials discussing how to co-ordinate their responses to the questionnaire.

"If it is bigger than one province, it may be good if all [provinces/territories] had the same messaging," Newfoundland and Labrador's then deputy minister of education, Bob Gardiner, wrote to his three Atlantic colleagues.

In the end, only one provincial education minister in Atlantic Canada granted an interview request when stories about the questionnaire were published: New Brunswick's Dominic Cardy.

CBC News obtained 300 pages of emails from education officials in all four Atlantic provinces via access-to-information requests. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Cardy's deputy minister, meanwhile, had a simple solution for his three counterparts in the other Atlantic provinces, as to how they could handle all of this.

"Here you go," George Daley wrote. "Just go take the survey. Write in the DM [deputy minister] is awesome for the end comments!"

The spokesperson in New Brunswick had this to say about that: "As for the deputy minister, he went to the site to determine if it was a closed site controlled by email credential or a survey that was open to anyone. He found that anyone could access the site and submit a response whether they were a teacher or not, which could call into question validity of the survey."

After receiving that email, CBC News reviewed the questionnaire responses it received from New Brunswick. 

No one replied that the deputy minister is awesome.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.

With files from Karissa Donkin, Shaina Luck and Brittany Spencer