WHITEWASH Unlike many of Canada’s provincial governments, British Columbia blanks rather than blacks out the information it censors from records released under its freedom of information legislation — a practice that could threaten the public’s information rights.
During a recent review of New Brunswick’s own access law, that province’s government found concerns about public bodies using white for redactions, stating:
…white-out makes it exceedingly difficult to know where something has been redacted or how big the redacted section may be. This can be important information when seeking to understand what has and has not been released, and this can infringe on the applicant’s right under the Act to challenge redactions.
In addition, blanked out records are much less telegenic than those that have been blacked out, reducing the impact of showing them during video news reports.
The British Columbia government ministry responsible for handling freedom of information requests didn’t respond to either of those concerns.
But a spokesperson did state in an email that, “Using white for redaction is a long-standing practice in B.C. for optimal readability for applicants.”
The spokesperson added that white “saves on printing costs (photocopies) for both government and applicants.”
SELF-HELP? Last week, a coalition of 22 civil society groups called on political parties to help reduce government secrecy by fixing the country’s broken records access law.
But, even though those repairs are in the public interest and journalists’ self-interest, that announcement got little coverage.
The groups, which included some of the country’s most prominent freedom of information advocates, asked political parties to endorse four reforms to the Access to Information Act.*
Those reforms included making significant changes to the exclusions and exemptions in the Act — loopholes that our public officials use and abuse to hide even the most basic information about their decisions from Canadians.
Such changes are especially important for journalists since access requests are one of the few means reporters still have of obtaining information that hasn’t been spun by the government.
That’s because, in the words of Medicine Hat News reporter Collin Gallant, “Long gone are the days when a simple phone call could put a reporter in touch with the person they needed in the federal government, be they anyone other than a communications handler.”
But despite those frustrations being shared by journalists across the country, Gallant’s op-ed supporting the recent call to fix the Access to Information Act was, according to the Canadian Newsstand database and Google News, one of just two stories published by news outlets about that reform effort.
* = Disclosure: I’m vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, one of the 22 civil society groups calling for freedom of information reforms. I also organized the meeting where those reforms were drafted.
• Maclean’s magazine has published a cover story investigating the crisis in government data.
• “The information commissioner is taking the Prime Minister’s Office to court, accusing it of refusing to release documents about four senators embroiled in scandal,” reports the Canadian Press.
• The Ottawa Citizen reports Health Canada has repeatedly refused to say why it paid a “dodgy” Website in Croatia to publish some of its food safety science documents. The department also hasn’t responded to two 10-month-old access to information requests about that arrangement.
• Burnaby Now’s Jennifer Moreau demonstrates the frustration of dealing with Conservative media handlers by publishing a transcript of her conversation with one of them.
• This Magazine reports on the urgent need to reform Canada’s information legislation, quoting the Centre for Free Expression’s Jim Turk.
• Reuters investigative resources correspondent Mike De Souza tweets that, in response to a recent access request, “the Canadian government censored part of a published media article.”
• British Columbia’s Interior Health Authority won’t say how much it is spending on a new residential care facility, with a spokesperson claiming that information can only be disclosed via a freedom of information request. The Kelowna Capital News also reports the “health authority has even gone so far as to tell the winning bidder not to reveal the figure either.”
• “The Nova Scotia government passed legislation last spring giving Halifax the green light to release a ‘sunshine list’ of the municipality’s top earners,” reports the Chronicle-Herald. “But several months later, city hall is still refusing to release the salaries of senior bureaucrats, citing privacy legislation.”
• Halifax Media Co-op reports, “A group of organizations in Nova Scotia is calling on the provincial government to implement improvements to the access to information framework – improvements they say are both essential and long overdue.”
• “The Alberta government released its list of sole-sourced contracts Thursday, in a publicly searchable database,” reports Huffington Post Alberta.
• According to the Hamilton Spectator, Ontario MPP Monique Taylor’s private member’s bill, which would require the province’s children’s advocate to be notified when a child in-care dies or is critically injured, has passed second reading.
• “Two months after a deadline to produce race and ethnicity data for people stopped by Peel police in 159,303 street checks — a practice known in Toronto as carding — the force has not produced the information requested [by the Toronto Star] under access to information laws.”
• Concordia University’s student newspaper reports the McGill University had previously tried and failed to have access requests for information about its military research classified as frivolous or vexatious. Such a classification would have allowed McGill to not respond to those requests.
• The Winnipeg Free Press reports Mayor Brian Bowman has fulfilled one of his campaign commitments by announcing that, beginning on Sept. 30, council records will be “produced in a format known as machine-readable, which will allow for easier online searching, record-keeping and management.”
• The Winnipeg Sun reports city councillors have voted to spend $30,000 to establish an online submission system for freedom of information requests, something that could save the city $122,000 a year.
• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association will be celebrating this year’s Right to Know week by hosting a Vancouver workshop on filing freedom of information requests.
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.