Federal departments not allowing employees to speak to media

Getting information from the federal government can be difficult at the best of times, but since the election began earlier this month, some departments have taken a new approach — stop talking to the media at all.

CBC North was not allowed to speak to military personnel about Operation Nanook

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay talk with a special operations member of the Canadian Forces during Operation Nanook near Churchill, Manitoba in 2012. Normally the subject of extensive media coverage, military officials are tight-lipped about Operation Nanook this year because of the federal election. (Adrian Wyld/Reuters)

Getting information from the federal government can be difficult at the best of times, but since the election began earlier this month, some departments have taken a new approach — not talking to the media at all.

Last week, the Department of National Defence confirmed that they could not speak publicly about their annual training exercise, Operation Nanook.

"It is paramount that Public Service Employees and Canadian Armed Forces members do not act in a way that could influence or be perceived as influencing the outcome of the federal process," military spokesperson Anna Muselius said.

Operation Nanook is one of the largest military exercises in Canada's North. This year, it's taking place in Inuvik, Uluhaktok, Tuktoyaktuk, and Sachs Harbour, N.W.T. The government issued a news release, but would not speak further.

The operation is usually well publicized and extensively covered by the media. This year, according to Bruce Valpy, the managing editor for Northern News Services in Yellowknife, their reporter was also denied interviews because of the election.

The policy is not confined to the North, or one department. CBC journalists in Calgary and Winnipeg have run into similar issues with employees of Parks Canada and Environment Canada. Parks Canada did not respond to a request for clarification of their policy.

'Lame Excuse'

Experts are divided on how common this sort of communications policy is during an election.

Neil Nevitte, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says it's standard practice.

"Those employees receive directives on this point, sometimes repeatedly," he wrote in an email.  "I suspect governments like to control what messages are going out about government activities during campaigns. These are sensitive interludes for governments in office."

Regardless, another University of Toronto political science professor says that there's no formal requirement for government employees to cease communication during an election campaign.

"Civil servants are expected to respond so long as the responses are not perceived to being partisan in any way," says Nelson Wiseman.

Wiseman added that he was not surprised by the communications lockdown.

"This government has been very tight, very centralizing about any and all information that is communicated," he said. "It's not as if they've been very liberal with their communications over the last nine years."

Tom Henheffer, the executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, said departments are being too broad in their interpretation of communications policy.

"It's a completely lame excuse," Henfeffer said.  "It's a convenient way for the government to exercise messaging control and prevent and potentially negative message from getting out. It's ridiculous and it's just another way that they're politicizing everything in the civil service."

About the Author

Hilary Bird


Hilary Bird is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She has been reporting on Indigenous issues and politics for almost a decade and has won several national awards for her work. Hilary can be reached at hilary.bird@cbc.ca