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Lessons learned by Canada during Arab Spring kept secret

The Canadian government doesn't want you to know most of the lessons it learned in the wake of the Arab Spring.

To recap, Canada's foreign affairs ministry managed responses to a string of emergencies from January to May 2011 as dictatorial governments faced the prospect of overthrow in countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Canada's foreign affairs ministry later commissioned a report to identify the lessons Canadian diplomats learned during the crises.

While those findings are included in the "Middle East and North Africa Crisis After Action Report," the vast majority have been redacted in a copy obtained by The Star under the Access to Information Act. This from a Canadian government that pledged when it took power in 2006 to offer the most open, transparent leadership Canadians had seen in years.

The foreign affairs ministry is willing to share snippets of information, such as "The government's consular response to the MENA emergencies was exceptional, involving the deployment of 47 DFAIT personnel to the region to assist with emergency management and the assignment of over 300 employees to the operations centre mainly to answer telephone calls from concerned citizens."

The report outlines how a brainstorming session was conducted with DFAIT senior management in February 2011, to determine how DFAIT would conduct its after action review. The ministry decided to debrief staff and create an interdepartmental survey.
But most of its recommendations are too sensitive to share with Canadians.

Pages five through nine of the report are blacked out, citing Section 21 (1) a of The Access to Information Act, under which, "The head of a government institution may refuse to disclose any record requested that contains advice or recommendations developed by or for a government institution or a minister of the Crown."

On page 10 of the report, a breakthrough: recommendations No. 15, 17, and 18 have not been redacted:

"15. A dedicated resource should be identified in times of emergency to manage information flow, provide data to CFM and CED so that they can proactively interact with senior government officials, and respond to other inquiries.

17. Systematically record, and periodically update, a message which provides callers with key, general information on the emergency and/or directs callers to DFAIT's website for more information.

18. promote use of the department's online form as a means of registering a concern or enquiry regarding the wellbeing or whereabouts of an affected person."
Page 11 is mostly blacked out, this time citing Section 15 (1), which allows the refusal of information that "could reasonably be expected to be injurious to the conduct of international affairs, the defence of Canada or any state allied or associated with Canada or the detection, prevention or suppression of subversive or hostile activities..."
There is one exception - recommendation No. 19.

"Missions should complete the new MEP in detail, using a whole-of-mission approach. They then should train staff and test their plans, using the resources in CEP for assistsance if they are unsure how to conduct such an exercise."

Pages 12 through 18 are blacked out. And then a breakthrough on page 19:

"Recommendation 40. Emergency resource kits should be created for deployment into an emergency, including individual survival kits and kits to facilitiate operation of mobile offices or command posts. Consideration should be given as to where to locate the kits, i.e., in Ottawa, at missions or with the REMOs. Specific checklists should be made available online so missions can build their own kits."

The next page, No. 20, similarly offers a single morsel:

"Recommendation 42. Include emergency management training in the schedule of mandatory pre-posting training for all CBS going abroad, including those from OGDs."
On Page 24, we learn "Canada evacuated 868 Canadian-entitled persons and 100 foreign nationals from Egypt and Libya during the Arab spring... (and) responded to 24000 emergency related calls."

Pages 25 through 38 are mostly blacked out, too, before the report's final page tells readers that "pages 39 to 111 withheld pursuant to section 26, under which "The head of a government institution may refuse to disclose any record requested ... if the head of the institution believes on reasonable grounds that the material in the record or part thereof will be published by a government institution, agent of the Government of Canada or minister of the Crown within ninety days..."

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead


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