Civic duty and the values of an informed society

How the government’s action regarding the long-overdue FIPPA reform reflects our collective attitudes towards political issues

“International justice and privacy” by EFF-Graphics is licensed under CC BY 3.0 US

By Carlo Javier

We have an interesting relationship with our rights – especially those dealing with our freedom to access information and privacy. On one hand, conversations around such issues have certainly become more welcome in the general Canadian discourse, and on the other, conversations are ultimately just that – conversations.

I bring this to attention after quite an inspiring event took place at this year’s Right to Know Week. With the signed support of several important figures from Canada’s host of esteemed advocacy groups, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BC FIPA) called on Premier John Horgan and Minister of Citizens’ Services Jinny Sims to immediately act on the long-overdue reforms for the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act (FIPPA).

Said reforms reflect recommendations made by a review committee commissioned by the Legislative Assembly in 2016, and focus on four primary pillars:

  • To do away with an ‘oral government’ and implement a ‘duty to document’ under FIPPA’s jurisdiction, which would mandate government officials to maintain accurate and detailed records of their work;
  • To refine existing provisions – especially in sections 12 and 13 – and alleviate exploitation of loopholes;
  • To bring all subsidiaries of educational and other public bodies within the scope of the FIPPA;
  • To create real repercussions for government officials who impede freedom of information rights processes.

Notably, BC FIPA asked that the law reform be implemented before the next provincial elections (2021) and that the government commit to a tangible timetable.

In their official response, Minister Sims wrote that the government is “committed to openness and transparency” and that dramatic improvements on a legislation that dictates how the government handles and shares records cannot be done with haste. Furthermore, the response included that “updating policies, regulation and legislation” are necessary tasks prior to any actual reforms. While there is no mention of the requested timetable, Minister Sims did note that feedback from their consultations with both internal and external stakeholders should arrive in the “coming months.”

The response may seem like a strategic communications reply, but it is progress nonetheless.

Among the most resonant parts of BC FIPA’s letter to Premier Horgan and Minister Sims was a critique on how government bodies tend to react to inquiries that challenge their stance on transparency, accountability, and the right to know. For the most part, responses will be rich with endearing and supportive messages of hope and promise, but empty of meaningful and substantive action – the things that lead to actual legislative changes.

One of the signatories of the letter is Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy. Toby reiterates a critical view of the government’s commitment to FIPPA reform, noting that although politicians may be keen on discussing their priorities, “concrete promises to take action” don’t exactly come as often.

“Unfortunately, Minister Sim’s letter falls precisely into this talk without walk category,” he says. “She speaks eloquently about the importance of transparency and notes that her government is ‘examining’ practically every aspect of this issue, but significantly fails to actually promise anything. We do not need another examination.”

In fairness to the government, the delay could very well be attributed to the possibility of including privacy matters and the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) to any impending reform. Such reasons would certainly be understandable considering the gravity of the act, but if the delay is ultimately just a means to stall, then it is only right for us to expect and demand for better.

According to Toby, FIPPA has been researched exhaustively and its shortcomings are all abundantly clear. BC’s FIPPA is especially lacking, scoring just 97 out of 150 in its Right to Information (RTI) Rating – putting it 14 points behind Canada’s top scoring jurisdiction in Newfoundland and 43 other countries around the globe.

By no means do I intend to be scathingly critical of government action or inaction, but what I can be critical of is how such attitudes – which some might even describe as bordering on apathetic – are eerily reflective of our collective mentality as citizens.

We deeply value our ability to protect our digital privacy and our right to access information. So much so that conversations within these issues are no longer happening exclusively among privacy and FOI advocates, but the general public, too. Just this year alone, we saw considerable uproar after Facebook came under fire for security breaches and data harvesting. The same reaction was directed to Air Canada and Statistics Canada after their own respective security and privacy practices became subject to controversy.

Maybe BC FIPA’s critique on government can be applied to society as well, speaking on transparency, accountability, and the right to know is one thing, but meaningful action is another.

It is baffling how these issues have so provocatively permeated the public discourse, yet meaningful progress have been so stagnant. The issue could be with how we see and accept the realities of our rights. Ideas that feel so personal and so close to home are infinitely more accessible than any acts and legislation full of legalese and political jargon. I have only been with BC FIPA for a short period, but I have seen the depth and the magnitude of our rights to protect our privacy and our rights to access information.

The two intrinsically linked ideas may seem inherently about the digital world, but it is a tremendous understatement to say that they are much more than that. FOI and privacy are our couriers to a true democracy. They are among the institutions that keep us well-informed and equipped to participate in the political environment. Nothing captures this notion better than the revelation that data collected through Facebook was used to manipulate voter choices in the 2016 US Presidential Elections and the Brexit campaign – two incidents that feel nothing short of violation of democratic rights.

BC FIPA’s letter to Premier Horgan and Minister Sims ends with the suggestion that quickly acting on the FIPPA reform will give the government an opportunity to exhibit “true leadership.” And if the government were to provide these reforms with the promptness and effort it deserves, maybe that approach will reflect itself in us too, as citizens, and as members of an informed society.

Actions speak louder than words and you don’t have to wait for legislative reform to take action, click here to exercise your democracy now.

Carlo Javier is the new Community Awareness and Outreach Coordinator at BC FIPA. He is a graduate of Capilano University’s School of Communications and is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Capilano Courier. 

FIPA’s submission on ATIA reform

November 1, 2017

FIPA’s Submission on ATIA reform (Bill C-58)

The long-promised Liberal amendments to the Access to Information Act (ATIA) were finally revealed just before Parliament’s summer recess, and the reaction was swift and overwhelmingly negative.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault (who was not consulted by the government on the proposed legislation) was also highly critical, saying “If passed, it would result in a regression of existing rights.”

Commissioner Legault issued a special report which detailed her many criticisms of what the government is proposing.

FIPA sent our own extensive criticisms in our submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

NEWS RELEASE: Proposed Law Leaves Lots of Holes in Outdated Access to Information Act

MEDIA RELEASE
June 19, 2017

Proposed law leaves lots of holes in outdated Access to Information Act

VANCOUVER, June 19, 2017 – The bill tabled late this afternoon by the three ministers in Ottawa does not meet the promises made by the Liberal Party of Canada in 2015.

What was announced today will make some useful improvements to Canada’s outdated Access to Information system, but there will still be black holes in the law that will prevent information from being released.

“Today’s announcement doesn’t even meet what the Liberals promised in the last election,” said FIPA Executive Director Vincent Gogolek. “There are some significant improvements being proposed, but there are lots of shortcomings.”

Some significant points include:

  • The Information Commissioner will be given the power to make orders, but will still be prevented from even looking at documents the government claims are cabinet documents. These will continue to be excluded completely from the ATI process.
  • There will be proactive release of a variety of types of information from Ministers’ offices, but Canadians will still not be able to request information from those offices and appeal to the Commissioner if the government refuses to release the documents.
  • There is no indication that the government is going to introduce a duty to document as recommended by every Information Commissioner in the country.
  • There will be a Legislative review of the Access to Information Act every five years, as promised.
  • The government will continue to charge $5 per ATI request, despite the fact the Commons ETHI committee recommended it be abolished, partly because each $5 cheque costs $55 to process.

“If we are called to testify on this legislation, we will have a number of recommendations to improve it,” Gogolek said. “We hope the government will be open to improvements, because this bill certainly needs them.”

 

BC Government keeps important environmental records behind closed doors

MEDIA RELEASE

BC government keeps important environmental records behind closed doors

Environmental Law Centre and FIPA ask Information Commissioner to investigate

VANCOUVER, February 24, 2017 – In a report released today, the Environmental Law Centre (ELC), and the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), called out the BC government for failing to proactively disclose a wide range of important environmental records.

Over the past decade the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the Ombudsperson, the Forest Practices Board and the Auditor General have all specifically recommended that certain classes of documents should be disclosed proactively — but those recommendations have often been ignored.

For example, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations is still not posting contravention decisions to show how our forest practices laws are being broken — contrary to the recommendations of the Forest Practices Board. And the Ministry of Environment is not publishing copies of its compliance orders across most of the Province.

“So you can go to a website and promptly find every Vancouver restaurant that has broken a minor health regulation in the last year – but you can’t find those who have broken the rules on Crown land,” said FIPA Executive Director Vincent Gogolek.

Proactive disclosure is essential, because the enforcement of BC’s environmental regulations relies heavily on the public to raise issues and complaints. Without proactive disclosure, citizens and groups are forced to go through the Freedom of Information system to obtain the information necessary to launch a complaint – if they receive it at all.

For example, when the ELC tried to get copies of Government authorizations for liquid manure spraying above the Hullcar drinking water aquifer in 2015, Government officials said it might charge the ELC up to $600 for such orders.  And then release of the orders was unreasonably delayed – in contrast to other jurisdictions that promptly make such orders available.

The types of documents that the groups say should be proactively released include environmental orders, permits, contravention decisions, and policy manuals. Public disclosure of regulatory penalties is also important for the penalties to have a true deterrent effect and promote compliance.

“The public availability of such documents is absolutely necessary to keep government accountable and protect both our fragile ecosystems and the health of British Columbians,” said ELC Executive Director Calvin Sandborn.

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Contact:
Vincent Gogolek, Executive Director
BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
vincent@fipa.bc.ca  | (o) 604-739-9788 | (c) 604-318-0031

Calvin Sandborn, Executive Director
Environmental Law Centre
csandbor@uvic.ca  250-472-5248

For a copy of the full submission asking the Information Commissioner to take action to ensure more government transparency, go to www.elc.uvic.ca .