By Susan Delacourt and Bruce Campion Smith, Toronto Star, February 11, 2011
OTTAWA—Two University of Ottawa professors, vocal critics of the federal Conservative government, say they have become targets of a new political intimidation tactic, aimed at using their private, personal information against them.
Professors Errol Mendes and Amir Attaran, frequently castigated as Liberal sympathizers by the Conservatives, were notified in recent weeks of two unusually massive freedom-of-information requests at the University of Ottawa, demanding details of the professors’ employment, expenses and teaching records.
The person (or persons) behind the requests remains anonymous under Ontario law, but Mendes and Attaran are convinced that it’s part of an academic witch hunt by the governing party — part of a wider campaign to silence university voices that may be critical of the Conservatives. This hyperpartisan chill descended on the federal bureaucracy years ago — now the concern is that it’s stretching into academia as well.
“I was stunned,” said Mendes, who said the University of Ottawa does not intend to release much of the information requested, since most of it is personal and private and therefore exempt from the disclosure requirements in the legislation.
“I started thinking, my God, this is a McCarthy-like attempt to politically intimidate both of us,” Mendes said — a reference to the 1950s-era crusades by Senator Joe McCarthy to hunt down Communist sympathizers in the U.S. during the Cold War.
Fred DeLorey, a spokesman for the Conservative Party, said “not from us” when asked about the massive information requests on the two professors.
Sara MacIntyre, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s Office, said since the law guarantees the anonymity of the requester, she wouldn’t speculate on who was seeking the information on Attaran and Mendes.
Under the Ontario freedom-of-information law, anyone can make a request for information held by government bodies — including universities — simply by filling out a form and paying a $5 fee. The person making the request does not have to give a reason, state his or her business, include any information about their employer, or declare how the information is going to be used. Neither Attaran or Mendes know the name or names of the requesters, but they have suspicions about the motive.
“It seems like an intimidation tactic,” said Attaran, a frequent critic on the government, notably on the issue of the military’s handling of Afghan detainees.
“The information makes me think it’s somebody who is essentially trying to amass a file on critics of the government,” he said in an interview.
“I have a feeling it’s political.”
Like Mendes, Attaran is the subject of freedom of information requests seeking details about his expense claims dating back to January 2006 along with copies of any assessments, reviews or performance reports during his time at the university. The requests about Mendes date back even farther — 16 years — since he is one of the more senior faculty members at U of O.
“It certainly set off some alarm bells,” Attaran said. “Somebody wants their sticky fingers on me. I just don’t know who it is.
“If I knew who the person was and the person was politically connected, I’d be furious.”
He said the university has been supportive in its handling of the request.
“They seem to agree that it’s meant to clamp down on academic freedom in some way,’ he said.
Last year, the Conservative party issued “talking points” against Attaran, alleging he was close to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff — the two share a Harvard background. Mendes and Attaran were attacked on Conservative websites and by partisan spokespersons after the professors had spoken out about the Afghan detainee issue.
What’s also disturbing is that the fishing expedition for information on these men comes in the aftermath of last fall’s controversy over how Veterans Affairs was gathering personal, private information against one of its critics. Sean Bruyea, an advocate for veterans’ rights, won an apology from the government when he exposed how his medical history was passed around within the corridors of power in Ottawa.
The federal privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, is currently conducting an audit of Veterans Affairs’ handling of personal information and determining whether a wider investigation is needed in the issue.
Heather MacIvor, a professor at the University of Windsor and a longtime researcher and commentator on the Conservative party, said she believes that there is a concerted effort to put a “chill” on academic critics of the Harper government, especially from the hard-right partisans who appear to see campuses as hotbeds of left-wing dissent.
“This government has a hostility toward people who think for a living or people who write for a living,” MacIvor said, noting that Ignatieff’s academic past has made him an object of Conservative ridicule, too.
Last year, at a conference of the Manning Institute, founded by the leader of the old Reform Party, Harper’s former communications director, Kory Teneycke, told a student: “If you have a teacher or examples of teachers who are trying to jam lefty philosophy down your throat, please send me an email. . . I’d love to make them famous.”
MacIvor was recently quoted in the Star, talking about the backlash she felt for criticizing the government, and since then she’s heard from several other professors who have been experiencing the same thing. MacIvor said she’s been told that Conservative operatives refer to her as “Liberal hack” — her detractors appear to have drawn that conclusion because of a brief stint of employment as a researcher with the Liberal caucus back in the 1980s, when she was fresh out of university.
“Here’s the thing. I don’t make that public. I don’t talk about the fact that I worked for the Liberals,” MacIvor said. “I can tell you that my employment record for Parliament Hill is (only) in the National Archives. It takes a lot of work to find it. Somebody found it.”
It was only in the past five years that universities became subject to Ontario’s freedom-of-information laws and since 2007, the University of Ottawa has consistently experienced an unusually high number of demands — last year more than double the number of requests received by the much larger University of Toronto.
The university isn’t saying much about the requests, other than to confirm that it received them for Mendes and Attaran. Nor did spokeswoman Andrée Dumulon want to speculate on why U of O has been receiving a disproportionate share of access requests in recent years. “We don’t know anything about the motives behind the requests,” Dumulon said.
Editor's Note: If this scourge is coming from the Harper government, and there is no reason to doubt that it might be, then they, and we, have reached an extremely low and degraded, not to mention degrading, state in our political life in Canada, when public critics of the government are attacked surreptitiously where they are most vulnerable, in their private lives. It not only evokes the McCarthyism witch-hunt for Communists in the U.S. but also those self-righteous religious fundamentalists who believe it their right and duty to expose the private lives of their clergy who may favour a woman's right to choose, or may oppose the death penalty, or may even be "gay," one of the worst 'sins' imaginable. Scurrilous, secret intimidation by innuendo is a sign of the most corrupt and cowardly acts of the bully, also evoking the gossip of the pre-pubescent teen who destroys her "friend's" reputation with impunity, because she got the desired date with the desired guy.