UBC, SFU, & DFATD: Is there an official mandate to CIRDI secrecy?

CIRDI and UBC are not committed to transparency.

CIRDI & UBC commitment to blocking transparency: all reference to the $15.3 million project with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Mines were redacted from these documents released under Access to Information legislation.

In student-led efforts to understand the mandate and workings of the CIRDI mining institute, we’ve operated with the highest standards of due diligence: first asking questions of CIRDI’s decision-makers and executives of record of the responsible universities, following up on our emailed requests for information, and insisting on emailed responses to ensure accountability to what is said.

When CIRDI and university leadership have refused to respond to emailed questions, we were forced to make Freedom of Information (FOI) requests under provincial and federal Access to Information & Privacy (ATIP) legislation.

In this post, we share the responses to some of those requests, and part of the odyssey students have experienced in our efforts to hold this mining institute publicly accountable.

FOI requests are dehumanizing and embarrassing

They rely on the coercive force of the law to strong-arm a public body to comply with standard requests for information. That the universities reject informal requests made by the public, to whom they are accountable, is degrading. And it is with shame that public institutions must be coerced to share information with their peers.

ATIP legislation is designed as a mechanism by which the people should be able to hold our public institutions accountable. But CIRDI leadership, and UBC and SFU legal counsel, have consistently delayed, skirted, and obstructed release of any information related to the extractive industries think-tank. Perhaps we should have been prepared for the opacity to come by the almost completely redacted CIIEID Memorandum to the Minister released under this 2012 FOI request (CIDA FOI # A-2011-00572). Through most of the memo, only page numbers remain.

Released records to this and other FOI requests are also available for download from our Access to Information page.

Some FOI requests by UBC & SFU students

To set the stage, these 2013 and 2014 requests for information on donations by Goldcorp for the ESSB and the Liu (UBC FOI # 13-162), and contribution agreements for promised donations to UBC in excess of $1 million (UBC FOI # 14-193) returned incomplete and heavily redacted records.

In May 2014, one student made a FOI request to UBC for copies of letters of support (and equivalent) from each of CIRDI’s strategic partners, supporters, contributors, and collaborators. After unnecessary delay, and even a complaint to the Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner (the OIPC), UBC has only released a truncated set of the letters (UBC FOI # 14-078).

A July 2014 request for CIRDI records that mention any initiatives related to Peru that will be performed by, funded by, or performed in collaboration with CIRDI was initially delayed inordinately because of a high number of responsive records. Finally, only a single page of records was released (UBC FOI # 14-127): an incomplete list of CIRDI projects, none of which mention Peru. A formal complaint has been filed with the OIPC.

Another student formally requested a copy of any contract outlining the relationship between CIRDI and SFU, “including financial obligations, research contributions, personnel contributions, advising, decision making, publishing, advertising, and all other conditions, obligations, and expectations of the involvement between SFU and CIRDI/CIIEID as well as the conditions for the initiation and termination of the relationship.”

The student’s request was met with a barrage of excuses endorsed by Blaize Reich, Dean of the Beedie School of Business, for why SFU had no obligation under the law to release a single document. The response concludes: “access is denied in full to all of the records responsive to your request.”

According to the contribution agreement, DFATD requires CIRDI to submit regular financial, performance management, and work plan reports, among others. Obviously, we need to see them all. Response to a student’s May 2015 FOI request for the Compliance Audit Report for CIRDI’s first year of operation was delayed. Finally, when 15 pages of financial statements were released (UBC FOI # 15-123), they were not the report requested. UBC’s cunning obstruction in this regard is being contested with the Commissioner.

In the section on Contingent Liability of the financial statements released, $760,000 in “potential adjustments” are identified. Is this hinting at three-quarters of a million dollars unaccounted for after only one year of operation? What’s being hidden, and what will be revealed in the full Compliance Audit Report?

Parallel requests in June 2015 of DFATD for documents and reports received from CIRDI have met the same stonewall. DFATD officers have recently advised that the Compliance Audit Report will soon be released, but will be completely redacted at the request of CIRDI!

Another request was made of the federal government for documents comprising CIDA’s 2012 Consultation Note for development of the CIIEID request for proposals, the list of individuals and organizations that had submitted feedback, the comprehensive set of submissions received by CIDA, and CIDA documents summarizing the feedback from the consultation note. Though a small subset of this information is already in the public sphere (in this 2013 review of CIIEID consultation process), the comprehensive set will shed light on whether the federal government made substantive changes to the CIIEID mandate in line with public feedback. Release of this information has also been delayed.

A similar request was made of UBC for documents received by the CIIEID Steering Committee for proposal development, to get an idea of the responses made by the UBC community to the federal government’s call for proposals. The names of those comprising the Steering Committee was also requested. To date, only a one-page list of committee membership has been released (UBC FOI # 15-139). A fee of $1,260, and other clever tactics to game the system, are being used to block access.

A student’s July 2015 formal request of UBC for all records related to the Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research (CCGHR) 8th “Spring” Institute for New Global Health Researchers (SI-8) in Mongolia returned several pages of records, few of which provide meaningful insight into the  structure, activities, leadership, participants, literature, or outcomes of CIRDI’s contributions to the forum. Instead, receipts, flight itineraries, and an already-public annual report were released (UBC FOI # 15-145). This misdirection is being contested.

Another student made a July 2015 FOI request for the Memorandum of Understanding between CIRDI and the Coordinating Ministry of Strategic Sectors of the Republic of Ecuador (MISCE), plus any and all other documentation that further elaborates on the collaboration. UBC returned the 4-page MOU (UBC FOI # 15-150), but levied a fee of $450 before any more information will be released.

Another request, for copies of contracts between CIRDI and each of its graduate research assistants, to give context to the brief introductions on CIRDI’s website, was made of UBC. A 13-page document was released, containing the Terms of Reference for five grad students’ mandates (UBC FOI # 15-149).

An August 2015 request was made for copies of agreements and correspondence between CIRDI and Ethiopia’s Ministry of Mines, relevant to the recently-announce additional $15.3 million funding from DFATD. The degree to which the 14 pages released (UBC FOI # 15-162) was redacted is especially revealing: only CIRDI’s logo is left unredacted on each page of the $15.3 million project’s 7-page summary! That’s an image of it at the top of this post.

A Canadian brand of corruption

A recent meta-FOI request – for the records released from ten past requests about CIRDI – returned records from only five of them (one complete, the others incomplete or heavily redacted).

The other 50% had been abandoned because of fees the students were unable to pay.

If a student finds that the fees (that run in the hundreds of dollars) are out of their financial means, a request can be made to the very body that levied the fees to have them waived. The public body will then judge – behind closed doors and on the basis of no publicly available standards – the merits of the student’s plea and submitted proofs of her or his inability to pay. If the student is unhappy with the decision, a complaint can be filed with the OIPC. Unobtrusive “investigation” of the complaints have taken many months, and none have led to further release of information.

Benevolent-sounding legislation, but designed to protect the powerful from public inquiry: this is corruption at its most Canadian. With our universities doing everything in their power to refuse accountability, we are forced to liberate the information in other ways. If you find yourself in a position with access to any current or old information about CIRDI (previously called CIIEID), we ask that you send it to us at info@stoptheinstitute.ca, or to otherwise make it public.

Those responsible for this mining institute are refusing to make good-faith releases of information to members of the university community where it is headquartered, and behave with impudence toward their concerned peers.

We would be foolish to then allow this intransigent and unaccountable CIRDI to venture abroad, out of sight of the Canadian jurisdiction. Nothing to date has demonstrated that CIRDI is structured or prepared to work in matters as delicate and high-risk as the resource extraction governance of other countries.

Academics, Canadians, Members of Parliament, the evidences are many: it’s time to close Harper’s CIRDI.