At the time this article was
written Gianpaola Panusa was a law student at the University of Alberta in
Edmonton and a former Intern with the Alberta Legislative Assembly
In a federal political system,
with many powers shared between different levels of government, it is
imperative to continually explore new, more efficient lines of communication.
Policy issues between jurisdictions can be dealt with more effectively when
parliamentarians can utilize instantaneous methods of communication. As
businesses and individual constituents begin to use electronic communication on
a daily basis, they will insist that interaction with political representatives
be available through an electronic medium. This article looks at both
"one-way" communication for information retrieval and possibilities
for "two-way" communication between parliamentarians across the
One of the main thoroughfares of
the emerging "information highway" will certainly be that linkage of
various computer networks collectively known as the "Internet." The
Internet facilitates information access and retrieval at an enormously rapid
and efficient rate, reducing the time required to locate information resources
to a fraction of what traditional methods required. The Internet allows rapid communication
over great distances. For example, electronic mail, documents, notes and memos
can be transferred quickly and read by the recipient at his or her leisure.
Even more, political colleagues across the country can utilize computer
networks to exchange views and opinions concerning the latest policies which
have been implemented in one jurisdiction and not another. Discussion and
debate can take place over days or weeks without the need for one phone call or
fax message. Further, politicians can maintain a more intimate relationship
with constituents and constituent offices while away; electronic communication
can allow constituent concerns to be recognized and responded to quickly. In
short, the Internet, as it currently exists, provides parliamentarians with the
opportunity to enhance the processes of policy and politics through a new,
powerful method of communication. Indeed, the Federal government has recognized
the growing importance of electronic communication by establishing the
Information Highway Council, which includes 25 representatives from industry,
labour and consumer groups, discussing technology, affordability, and privacy
issues. The establishment of such a council reflects the fact that computer
networks will play a substantial role in the future of Canadian information
One Way Communication
A variety of government-related
information is accessible on the Internet via the gopher protocol. Gopher
allows information to be retrieved from a variety of sources through a series
of menus in a "seamless" fashion; it appears as though the
information is emanating from one location. Such "one-way"
communication, accessible through the Internet, is useful to various
researchers at the legislative level, as well as to members of the public in
general. A few useful federal and provincial government-related gophers are
Communications Research Centre,
Gopher address: debra.dgbt.doc.ca
Although not an
"official" Government of Canada gopher, the Communications Research
Centre provides valuable information. Included are such items as the Open
Government Pilot Project, including textual and visual information on the House
of Commons, Senate, Supreme Court and more. Also included are Industry Canada
resources, Supreme Court members and rulings, listings of MP's from each party
and province, the 1994 Federal Budget, and access to other Government of Canada
National Library of Canada
Gopher address: gopher.nlc-bnc.ca
The National Library of Canada
gopher provides access to virtually every library across Canada. It provides a
link to Canadian Government information and documents such as the Constitution
Act 1867, NAFTA, and the 1994 federal throne speech and budget. As well, there
are links to the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Constitutional Agreement.
Furthermore, access to Canadian Internet resources is provided, including a
range of gophers, Free-Nets, and tools to find people on the Internet. Finally,
there is an "Internet and the World" menu-option which allows the
user to access Internet resources worldwide.
Natural Resources Gopher
Gopher address: gopher.emr.ca
This Natural Resources Canada
(NRCan) federal government department gopher offers a variety of information.
Coverage of natural resources is extensive, including information on the
Canadian Forest Service (menu-item #2), energy sector, mining sector, statutes
administered by NRCan, and access to the NRCan headquarters library, to name
only a few. NRCan also offers gophers from around the world, giving the user
the ability to explore the virtual globe.
Gopher address: talon.statcan.ca
The Statistics Canada gopher
provides information on "e-stat" (i.e. electronic statistics), and
provides access to CANSIM (Canadian Socio-Economic Information Management
System), which contains a wide-variety of socio-economic statistical data.
Service is offered in either French or English.
Government of B.C. - Information
Gopher address: cln.etc.bc.ca
The focus of information found here
relates to the Community Learning Network (CLN) project, a pilot project of the
Education Technology Centre and the Ministry of Education. Examples of
information include an electronic government directory, press releases,
statistics, documents and ministry objectives covering almost every ministry of
the B.C. government. As well, gateways are provided to other gopher servers,
Free-Nets, library resources, and news.
Government of Ontario Ministries
Gopher address: govonca.gov.on.ca
This relatively new gopher contains
only three ministries at the present time, they are: Agriculture and Food,
Economic Development and Trade, and Environment and Energy. Decisions and press
releases are available, as well as connections to other agricultural and
environmental gophers, and a white pages for Canadian organizations.
Ontario Ministry of Education
This gopher is designed to provide
information about the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training. For example,
it includes vast amounts of information regarding education and research,
gophers by subject area, access to SchoolNet, the Ontario Institute for Studies
in Education (OISE) and information about Ontario universities and colleges.
Gopher address: wiretap.spies.com
Although not Canadian in focus, the
Internet Wiretap contains a variety of useful government and trade documents.
For example, the text of NAFTA, the Maastricht Treaty on European Union,
various United Nations Resolutions and Clinton Press Releases are available,
along with a plethora of other U.S. and world information.
E-Mail and Two Way Communication
It would seem logical to expect
that legislators at all levels would be embracing information technology
offered by the Internet.
As an intern with the British
Columbia Legislature, I fully expected parliamentarians, their support and
research staff, and officers of the House to have electronic communication
lines open to their counterparts in other provinces and at the federal level.
In an attempt to discover which
legislatures were actively connected to the Internet, I contacted various
computer systems administrators across the country. I discovered that
parliamentarians are not currently utilizing electronic communication to any
great extent, though some jurisdictions are planning implementation in the near
A Systems Analyst for the Alberta
legislative assembly, stated that, "there are no direct internet
connections for members of the Assembly as of yet, though it is a possibility
for the future. Most other provinces are in a similar position, without
internet connections for parliamentarians to communicate electronically, but
open to possibilities for future development. The Director of Legislative Information
Systems for the Ontario legislature, indicated that, "although members do
not currently have internet access, we are in the early stages of developing
connections." In Saskatchewan the Director of Personnel, Administrative
Services noted, "there is no e-mail communication," and went on to
say that, "there are no plans for implementation in the near future."
New Brunswick is attempting to take the lead among provinces by getting members
on-line, starting with the Premier Frank Mckenna (firstname.lastname@example.org). However,
not all members of that House are currently communicating electronically.
At the federal level one a number
of projects and studies are underway but as one MP, Reg Alcock, stated,
"At the present time, the "hill" does not have a node [on the Internet].
There is a proposal to establish one and I expect that we will be hooked up
soon. I don't think it will change much in the near future. At the present
time, as far as I can discern, I am the only member who makes use of the
Internet; I have a lot of constituents on the Internet as I represent a
university in my riding."
It is clear that legislators are
not making much use of the Internet. If computer network communication is
indeed part of the "new economy," it is imperative that legislatures
adopt this new technology to be able to function more efficiently and
effectively in this new information era. Further, as political issues in the
areas of trade, technology and communication become increasingly complex, the
necessity of rapid communication lines between policy makers across the country
becomes essential. Finally, as growing numbers of Canadians begin to access and
utilize electronic communication, they will increasingly demand electronic
interaction with their representatives.
The importance of legislative
institutions adopting computer communication technology is indisputable.
However, there are several factors which will have to be overcome before the
use of information technology among parliamentarians becomes widespread. For
instance, it is always difficult to change established methods of
communication. Tools such as the telephone, fax machine and post-office mail
are comfortable and familiar. In contrast, electronic mail and protocols are
unfamiliar and thus intimidating. It is likely that a fear of new technologies
creates hurdles to their implementation. Parliamentarians must take the
initiative in directing the implementation of computer information technology;
they must communicate their needs to the appropriate computer systems personnel.