Canadian government 404 page says sorry

Earlier this week I wrote about the worst 404 page of all time, but today I’m writing about one of the most concerning 404 pages I’ve come across in a while.

You can play along at home. Step 1: Visit the “Treaties, laws and regulations” page on the Government of Canada website. Step 2: Click on “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Step 3: ???

As of the time of writing this, 5pm EST on Saturday, April 17, 2021, the hyperlink to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms leads to an error. The page is missing.

I am not the only one who has noticed this.

This is mighty convenient given the universally condemned new lockdown measures imposed yesterday by the Doug Ford government that introduce, among other things, restrictions on interprovincial travel and outdoor gatherings with anyone outside of your household.

Source: “Ford announces new restrictions as COVID-19 cases threaten to remain high all summer” (CBC, April 16, 2021)

Now, I may be relatively new to Canada (I moved here from the United States in 2018), but even I have read the Charter a couple of times, and I seem to recall one of the sections dealing explicitly with the mobility rights of citizens. And I’m sure that giving the police carte blanche to stop and harass anyone who dares go outside violates some part of the Charter. Hmm… am I remembering that correctly? I’d love to check, but I can’t; our government’s information architecture has crumbled.

Perhaps this is the red-blooded American in me, but I couldn’t imagine, for example, walking up to the U.S. Constitution display in the National Archives Museum only to see it empty and replaced with the words “We’re sorry! We can’t find what you’re looking for!” Government spaces are government spaces, whether they exist physically or digitally. Something as fundamental as our documented human rights should not be haphazardly “misplaced,” especially one day after those rights were effectively shredded before our eyes.

This is yet another example of the worrying trend that I’ve written about before – important places made of information treated with reckless negligence by those in power. “It’s just a webpage. It’s just a broken link,” might argue some, but that sentiment betrays a lack of awareness about how much all of our lives are increasingly lived in webpages. (Especially during a pandemic when the physical counterpart to a government space is inaccessible even if we wanted to/could go visit.)

Obviously there other places online where one can find the text of the Charter. I don’t need this particular webpage in order to remind myself of my rights. Nor does its disappearance from this website imply that the rights themselves have also disappeared. Contrary to Ezra Levant’s above tweet, it almost certainly wasn’t Justin Trudeau himself who broke the link to this webpage. It may be a genuine mistake that will be corrected as soon as it’s noticed by the Canada.gov webmaster. I can’t even be certain that the Charter webpage wasn’t missing days before Doug Ford’s announcement yesterday.

But that 404 page sends a message. Whatever the reason for this broken link, I’m left frustrated and worried, especially given the timing of it. In her fantastic book How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody, Abby Covert writes, “The most important thing I can teach you about information is that it isn’t a thing. It’s subjective, not objective. It’s whatever a user interprets from the arrangement or sequence of things they encounter.” As users of that site – no, as Canadian citizens visiting the digital seat of our democratically elected government – we are entitled to whatever individual, subjective experience emerges from the content and context that we encounter there. It’s up to the information architects over at Canada.gov to craft a space that will effectively convey whatever message they’re aiming for in such a way that the message successfully travels to any user group, across any delivery medium or context.

As it stands today, the message I’m getting is, “Your rights and freedoms are gone.”