The fight to win power in this building didn’t include many blows over freedom of information. (Photograph by Timorose)
Alberta’s freedom of information law is weak and underused. Yet, in an election where one of the most important issues is government accountability, there has been surprisingly little discussion about reforming that law – despite a proposed policy change that could further threaten the public’s right to know.
Alberta has historically been a stranger to freedom of information legislation, which allows access to internal government documents. That access is important because the public can then find out things the officials they elect and the institutions they pay for don’t want them to find out.
But, according to the Globe and Mail, Peter Lougheed – Alberta’s premier between 1971 and 1985 – claimed such legislation was unnecessary because his was one of North America’s most open administrations. His successor Don Getty also rejected and later delayed introducing an access law, stating government information was already “made available by the wheelbarrow loads” in the legislature.
“We mail it to people. It’s provided on a day-to-day basis,” he added.
But there were many outside government who disputed such claims. For example, in 1992, the Calgary Herald reported the Association of Alberta Taxpayers delivered 20,000 coupons to Getty’s office “from individual citizens demanding an information law.”
At the time, association spokesperson Kevin Avram was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “The most difficult government to get information from is right here in Edmonton.”
Getting that information became easier when Ralph Klein’s government finally introduced a freedom of information law in April 1994, making the province the second to last jurisdiction in North America to do so.
But it remains an access laggard.
According to a 2012 report from the Centre for Law and Democracy, Alberta tied with New Brunswick and the federal government for having the worst freedom of information law in the country. In that report, the centre stated the loopholes in Alberta’s legislation create “enormous amount of wiggle room for recalcitrant public officials who would seek to avoid disclosure of embarrassing information.”
In addition, it costs $25 just to file a freedom of information request in Wildrose Country. In Canada, the two territories are the only other jurisdictions with that high of an application fee. And that price tag doesn’t include the additional costs often associated with actually obtaining those records.
I can’t help but think that Alberta’s application fee is one reason why the province’s access law is so underused.
According to the most recent statistics available, in fiscal 2012/13 Alberta government ministries received 60 general freedom of information requests per 100,000 people in the province. By comparison, in Ontario, where the application fee for those requests is $5, that number was 87 in 2012. And, in British Columbia, where there is no charge, that number was 106 in 2012/13.
But, troublingly, Premier Jim Prentice has a plan that could further suppress such access requests in Alberta even further.
Right now, an individual who files a freedom of information request is the only one who receives the records responsive to it. That means reporters and others can get scoops from making those requests – a reward for the considerable time, effort and sometimes money spent on them.
But, in February, CBC News revealed the premier moved to take those scoops away by “personally” ordering government to post responses online for everyone to see, including competing reporters. And if you don’t think that’s a disincentive, just think how you would feel if someone else could constantly claim credit for work you were responsible for.
Prentice’s order has yet to be carried out.
Nevertheless, it’s another reason why opposition parties should be promising to reform the province’s freedom of information legislation, a law that’s benefitted them during the election campaign.
For example, thanks to that law, Wildrose found out the government had spent more than $950 million on sole-source contracts in fiscal 2013/14. Similarly, the Alberta NDP learned of “skyrocketing” ambulance service delays in Calgary and Edmonton.
Both revelations were used to attack the Tories on the campaign trail, where – according to a telephone survey of 758 Albertans conducted for CBC News by the polling firm Return On Insight – accountability is the second most important issue for voters.
Yet the platforms for the Alberta Party, the NDP and the Alberta Liberals don’t include a word about strengthening the province’s freedom of information law. Only Wildrose’s platform promises such a change, while the Greens have a plank that commits them to a “radical overhaul of rules around transparency and accountability.”
Nor have journalists talked much about the need for reform either, perhaps because they believe too many believe Canadians don’t care about that issue – a self-defeating notion, even if it may sometimes be a truthful one.
But what all this amounts to is, at the very least, a missed opportunity to change that indifference, raising awareness among Albertans about why their information rights are important and how those rights can prevent another 44 years of unaccountable governments in this province.
• Writing in the Hill Times, lawyer Michael Drapeau questions what role information commissioner Suzanne Legault has played in the “diminishing importance” of Canada’s records access system. Drapeau critique’s Legault’s appointment of a new “commissioner-in-residence” at a time when she’s complaining about budget cuts. Those cuts also have him questioning why Legault decided to initiative a “wall-to-wall review” of the Access to Information Act, an “ambitious undertaking” that likely diverted “significant resources and management attention” away from overseeing the functioning of that legislation.
• Fort William First Nation governance coordinator Damien Lee is looking to access the 250 research studies written for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was established in 1991. Those studies were previously made available on a CD-ROM that provided a “database program that allowed one to search for and through the research studies.” But, according to Lee, these days “accessing the CD-ROM is nearly impossible on the average person’s computer.” So he’s filed a request for that information to be provided in a PDF format. (hat tip: Alexiss Rusnak)
• Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia vice-president Aubrie McGibbon compares the differences between freedom of information and open data advocates, writing, “Where FOI is often characterized as individual requests for information, open data is characterized as a digital platform where a catalogue of data can be accessed. A second difference is one of culture – FOI advocacy is often characterized as being driven by lawyers and journalists, but open data is been driven by the technology sector.” (hat tip: Scientists for the Right to Know)
• The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Aaron Wudrick endorses Legault’s recommended reforms to the Access to Information Act, although he writes that not every one of them is a “slam-dunk.” Wudrick states “opening the system up to people outside of Canada, for example, seems unnecessary.”
In an email, he explained, “Our basic starting point is that since Canadians fund government, they therefore should be the ones prioritized when it comes to queries. Foreign entities or persons can already file ATI queries using an agent; propsed changes would just let them do so directly. Our general concern is that this would encourage even more requests into an already strained system, and we think Canadians should have priority when it comes to having their queries answered.”
• The Globe and Mail’s Andrea Woo tweets that when she filed a freedom of information request with the United States’s National Archives, she got a response in “two(!) days.”
• Vice News’s Justin Ling tweets, “In this ATIP, they redacted…the crown in the RCMP logo.” (hat tip: Kirsten Smith)
• Wilfred Laurier University political science professor Christopher Alcantara writes, “When it comes to demands for greater detail about the salaries and expenditures of politicians and public servants, the amount of time and effort involved would be best spent elsewhere, given the limited benefits that would accrue from such policies.”
• PEN Canada has relaunched its Censorship Tracker to coincide with World Press Freedom Day. The tracker allows for the mapping of free expression violations across the country.
• The Times Colonist reports Saanich, B.C. police are “refusing to confirm who is responsible for a murder-suicide in a Cordova Bay house last week.” According to a police spokesperson, that’s because no criminal charges have been laid so both individuals have privacy rights – a position that has been criticized by the newspaper, as well as the province’s children and youth representative.
• The Times Colonist reports, “Despite employee complaints of bullying, mismanagement, low morale and high turnover in the province’s civilian police watchdog, the B.C. government’s human resources branch will not release results of its investigation into the Independent Investigations Office.”
• The Times Colonist reports, “For the second straight week, the (BC NDP) Opposition produced documents that show one senior [government] official denying the existence of records only to have another person release them.”
• Nova News Now reports the Nova Scotia government is promising to give the public more information about aquaculture. But Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Keith Colwell has also “admitted veterinary records will be exempt under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.” That’s controversial because it means information on fish diseases that is publicly available in New Brunswick will be secret in Nova Scotia.
• The Coast reports the Nova Scotia government is late in filing its annual statistical report on freedom of information requests filed in that province. That report was last published in 2012. But, according to the newspaper, “the province says it identified ‘greater difficulties and discrepancies’ while reviewing 2013’s numbers.”
• “The Saskatchewan Party government has refused to turn over nearly two dozen records applied for under access-to-information laws, according to the Opposition NDP,” according to Global News.
• “Along with the job of holding the B.C. Liberals to account, the New Democrats used the spring session of the legislature to lay out a dozen reforms to be implemented if the party forms government after the next election,” writes the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer
• British Columbia’s Civil Forfeiture Office has been forced to disclose the names of its employees, the Globe and Mail reports. Law student Jeremy Maddock had filed a freedom of information request for those names, information the office claimed would put its employees at risk. But the province’s information commissioner decided against that claim. And now a judge has dismissed a justice ministry attempt to appeal that decision.
• “A staff member of the Centre for Law and Democracy is praising recommended changes to Newfoundland and Labrador’s access to information legislation,” reports CBC News. “Michael Karanicolas, legal officer with the centre, said the changes will make the province a world leader when it comes to access to information.”
• The Leader-Post reports Saskatchewan’s privacy commissioner is “investigating the premier’s office over the release of a Saskatoon care home aide’s personnel information.” According to the newspaper, “On April 20, Kathy Young, chief of operations and communications for the executive council, sent an email to reporters saying Peter Bowden, a care aide at Oliver Lodge in Saskatoon, had been suspended with pay. Bowden had appeared at the legislative building in March to raise concerns about his workplace, after which Premier Brad Wall guaranteed he would not be disciplined for speaking out.”
• The StarPhoenix writes that the government’s actions toward Bowden “highlights a problem that afflicts politicians who are in office for a long time.” According to the newspaper, Premier Brad Wall “like many others before him, has begun to equate what’s in the best interest of his political party and what’s in the public interest, and has taken moral umbrage at anyone who dares to question his actions.”
• CBC News’s Charles Rusnell tweets he’s receiving letters every day about extensions the Alberta government is taking on providing responses to his freedom of information requests. “Embarrassing to govt.,” he writes, adding, “It’s an election tradition in Alberta.”
• In response to calls by the NDP to create a lobbyist registry, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski was quoted by CBC News as saying, “This government is not going to make it harder for people to talk to the government.”
• Privacy and Access Council of Canada president Sharon Polsky is running as the Wildrose’s election candidate in Calgary-Varsity. In the Calgary Herald, she has been quoted as saying she’s running because “through my career I have worked to protect Canadians’ democratic rights and freedoms, so accountability and transparency are very important to me. I know that under the PC government ‘accountability’ has become a meaningless buzzword and freedom of information isn’t free.”
• Metro reports, “Calgary spent more than $320,000 handling 197 freedom-of-information requests in the last six months of 2014, according to a new city report, prompting one councillor to renew his call to raise the fees of such requests.” That $25 fee is currently among the most expensive in the country.
• Calgary Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart has suggested the city could cut those costs by making the result of all freedom of information requests immediately public. According to Metro, the following exchange took place between her and Mayor Naheed Nenshi:
“I raise this because … a lot of the inquiries are generated by the media,” Colley-Urquhart said. “And they want an exclusive on the story but the minute that it’s going to be simultaneously released and become public information…”
“…They lose their scoop,” Nenshi said, finishing her sentence.
“Yeah,” Colley-Urquhart continued. “And there’s a decrease in the number of these things. So I just want to know if this is possible and what the merits of this would be.”
• “The head of Ontario’s school bus association says his Toronto members should disclose their collision records,” according to the Toronto Star. The statement comes a day after the newspaper published a story showing those numbers were being kept secret. The Toronto Star has also published an editorial calling for such a disclosure.
• London, Ont.’s new integrity commissioner “will be directed to examine whether the city needs a lobbyist registry,” according to Metroland News.
• Commenting on a proposal to create a lobbyist registry in Collingwood, Ont., town clerk Sara Amas stated it could impact how member of council interact with residents. The Collingwood Connection has quoted her as saying, “Not only does it capture developers and contractors, it could include ratepayers and how they interact with council and it could get quite complicated.”
• The Hamilton Spectator reports two rookie Hamilton, Ont. politicians have won their colleague’s approval to study the rejected idea of recording the city council’s closed-door meetings.
• Brampton, Ont. “wants residents to weigh in on proposed lobbyist and gift registries,” according to the Brampton Guardian.
• “The University of Guelph’s senior administration and its board of governors should be ashamed of how they resolved to carry out one of the most important meetings at the institution this year,” according to the Guelph Mercury. “After a student protest spurred a shut down of an April 16 meeting to settle the university’s next operating budget, these parties arranged a closed session last Sunday to conclude the process.”
• In response, the university’s association vice-president of student affairs Brenda Whiteside writes that “the board had no option but to hold this meeting in closed session” because protesting students “made it clear that they had no intention of engaging in a dialogue; rather, their intent was to shut down the board.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.