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.