Full blackout: what’s CIRDI desperate to hide?

CIRDI, CIIEID Issues Management Strategy: Confidential.

Fragments of text from an Issues Management Strategy, prepared for CIRDI by strategic communications consultant Patricia Leidl to help the mining institute overcome its unsightly public image, point to disfunction, a problematic structure,  and deeply-embedded conflicts of interest.

To put it mildly, UBC has been cagey about this CIRDI mining institute.

After all, it’s the result of a multimillion-dollar contract with the federal government, and has the potential to attract more cold hard cash from the mining and oil industries. But to any inquiry about it, UBC’s tightly controlled responses have been limited to scripted, public relations soundbites. And formal inquiries for substantive, off-script response are treated with contempt, or ignored outright.

In records released by the federal government to a Freedom of Information Request in mid-2015 (accessible here), we found that mining institute leadership dutifully reported in its CIIEID Annual Report, May 2013 – March 2014 of their progress:

A strategic communications consultant developed an issues management strategy. This strategy provides key information for the Institute’s overall communications strategy. A detailed question and answer briefing was developed for senior management to use for all Institute communication requests. A logbook was established to track media enquiries. The institute developed a management strategy to address student activists.

As responsible members of the university communities, we asked: Why would CIRDI need to spend public development aid money on a “strategic communications consultant” to help its staff spin its message and fend off public inquiry? Why would they develop this “management strategy to address student activists,” instead of simply responding directly, transparently, and in good faith to the questions and issues raised? And why do staff, faculty, and leadership of CIRDI, SFU, and UBC consistently refuse to formally respond to  legitimate concerns and meaningful questions about the institute?

So in November 2015 we formally requested these documents from UBC and CIRDI under BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, legislation that gives the public body a limited timeframe to release the records. Section 6(1) of the Act explicitly states:

The head of a public body must make every reasonable effort to assist applicants and to respond without delay to each applicant openly, accurately and completely.

But the heads of UBC balked at the law, obstructed inquiry, and delayed release until March 2016: withholding the vast majority of the records requested, nearly everything on the remaining pages was blacked out.

UBC cited Section 13 (policy recommendations) and Section 22 (affecting the privacy of a third party) of the Act as why vast swaths of the documents were withheld. We are awaiting a formal review of the blackouts, and have triggered BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner to initiate formal investigations.

This pattern of wilful interference with legitimate public inquiry only fuels concerns that proponents of the CIRDI mining institute have something to hide. And the absurd degree to which content was hidden makes a farce of UBC’s aspirational claims of accountability and transparency.

CIIEID & CIRDI's founding fathers from EPDM, SFU, UBC

CIRDI’s founding fathers from Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, Simon Fraser University, and the University of British Columbia: striking a multimillion dollar deal and dragging their public institutions into a minefield of controversy, conflicts of interest, and disdain for public inquiry.

At a time when UBC’s Board of Governors repeatedly exhibits disdain for the interests of faculty and students, perhaps it is no surprise that university top brass lack the courage to engage in good faith with those asking tough questions and identifying problematic structures, and instead erect hostile strategies to subdue and quarantine challenging lines of inquiry.

In the released Communication Strategy documents, even the Tables of Contents were completely blacked out, and over 99% of CIRDI’s “Key Messages Bible: In response to media or public queries regarding CIRDI’s intentions, activities, or decisions” had been blacked out.

The vast majority of the Issues Management Strategy was either blacked out or withheld entirely. What was left visible in the consultant’s report paints a grisly – if spotty – picture: a fatally flawed contract with the federal government, problematic organizational structure, and a relationship with the mining industry that “amounts to a minefield of conflict of interest.”

CIRDI’s Q&As for Responding to All Communication Requests, a line-by-line scripting of responses for CIRDI and university staff to any and all public inquiry about the institute, is for some reason labeled “CONFIDENTIAL – NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION.” And other than copy-pasted “What is CIIEID” boilerplate, all contents have been blacked out or withheld.

And so far, both CIRDI and UBC are refusing to release documents related to CIRDI’s Management Strategy to Address Student Activists. Its entire Disruptive Engagement Response Protocol (p.16 of the above-linked document) is completely blacked out. Instead, irrelevant Executive Board meeting minutes and 50 pages logging student inquiries were released.

Why the secrets, why the guile? What’s UBC and CIRDI this desperate to hide?

Can its strategy documents be so damning?