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Centre for Access to Information and Justice
December 21, 2020
Kevin Walby on how data and information activism can strengthen democracy.
Tell us about the Centre for Access to Information and Justice (CAIJ). How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?
What the CAIJ tries to do is show that access to information is closely related to access to justice. The CAIJ undertakes research and organises events to draw attention to the importance of access to information in struggles for justice. The CAIJ advances knowledge of access to information and access to justice to the benefit of people in Canada. There is currently no centre dedicated to the study of access to information or FOI in Canada or elsewhere. In addition, access to justice is an issue that affects all Canadians. Providing a better empirical understanding of FOI and the public sector in Canada will provide academic, cultural, and policy benefits to Canadians.
We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how the CAIJ is responding to the crisis?
The CAIJ has pivoted to investigate issues of information management and secrecy that have emerged during the pandemic, specifically issues of secrecy in government operations and criminal justice processes. We are also looking at access to information regarding prisons and jails and the pandemic in Canada.
Over the past few months we have seen groups seize this moment of uncertainty to advance racial and economic justice in their communities. How is this affecting your work?
The CAIJ is very interested in the defund police movement and is very supportive of local organizing. The defund police movement is tied to struggles for racial and economic justice and it is crucial to make these connections. The CAIJ is also working toward partnering with groups fighting for racial and economic justice who have an interest in data activism and information activism. The CAIJ has a number of community partners in Winnipeg that range from Indigenous groups and associations to immigrant, migrant and newcomer Canadian groups and associations to anti-poverty and anti-homelessness groups as well as prisoner solidarity and anti-violence community groups. In this way, the CAIJ has connections with a broad spectrum of community groups representing diverse identities and diverse politics. It is expected that these collaborations will continue to foster equity, diversity and inclusion through the work of the CAIJ.
What’s one big challenge you see Canada’s democracy facing? How are you working on this challenge, what solutions do you propose?
People are alienated from and cynical about the political system. We need direct democracy and economic justice in Canadian society. The CAIJ is investigating government controversies and scandals to try to show why struggles for justice are necessary and important. Access to information is an issue that affects all Canadians. Canadians rely on information every day. Providing a better empirical understanding of access to information in Canada will provide academic, cultural, and policy benefits to Canadians. That is a part of the mission of the CAIJ.
Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you? This could be related to your work or something you see happening in the sector.
A lot of activist groups are starting to use information and data techniques developed by investigative journalists and data scientists. That is really exciting. Hopefully activist groups, investigative journalists, public interest lawyers, and academics can work closely together more and more in this new field of data activism and information activism. Some forms of information activism and data activism are transgressive and aim to disrupt social norms regarding openness and privacy in a quest to obtain government and corporate records. The use of computer science skills and the realization of how powerful data and information can be is changing the strategies and tactics of social movements and community groups. Activists are also turning to mapping and other kinds of data visualization to enhance their communications and knowledge mobilization. CAIJ can collaborate on such initiatives. This new data activism refers not only to seeking new information but using new technologies to store and protect as well as mobilize older material from organizations and communities, which can enrich action in the present and create continuity. New forms of data activism and information activism can also foster dialogue within and between local organizations in ways that may not happen otherwise.
Tell us about how CAIJ is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers to participation?
We are developing reports, zines, and other clips to connect with local communities and spread the word about access to information and access to justice. We want to connect with communities that may have never heard of access to information before, so it is important to use different approaches and creations. We are trying to mobilize community and university resources to generate new ideas for collaboration and advocacy. Doing this kind of creative and community-based work will help to generate new attention to the overlap between movements for social, racial, economic and environmental justice and the focus on information justice central to the activities and planning of CAIJ.
The Centre for Access to Information and Justice (CAIJ) at the University of Winnipeg aims to be a leading international hub for public interest research on matters of freedom of information (FOI) and access to justice in Canada and beyond. Through local and international collaborative projects, the CAIJ promotes a multi-disciplinary and critical approach to research and policy engagement. The CAIJ advances theoretical, empirical, and policy-oriented studies of FOI and access to justice in the form of workshops, reports, articles, and books produced by its members. The CAIJ’s mission and goals include: Advancing knowledge of FOI and access to justice practices through multi-disciplinary and critical collaborative research projects; Organizing knowledge mobilization and research-driven working groups, workshops, training, and conferences on FOI and access to justice; Engaging in outreach with a community and public interest focus.
This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!
Kevin Walby is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Winnipeg. He is co-editor of Brokering Access: Power, Politics, and Freedom of Information Process in Canada with M. Larsen (2012, UBC Press). He is co-editor of Access to Information and Social Justice: Critical Research Strategies for Journalists, Scholars and Activists with J. Brownlee (2015, ARP Books). He is co-editor Freedom of Information and Social Science Research Design with A. Luscombe (2019, Routledge).