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From private government email accounts to document destruction

A national roundup of the top FOI news this week. [[{“fid”:”3921″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 300px; height: 225px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]]By Sean Holman Is using private email standard operating procedure for those working in government? Why is British Columbia’s government removing penalties for document destruction? And how come journalists in Vancouver weren’t allowed to broadcast pictures…

A national roundup of the top FOI news this week.

[[{“fid”:”3921″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 300px; height: 225px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]]By Sean Holman

Is using private email standard operating procedure for those working in government? Why is British Columbia’s government removing penalties for document destruction? And how come journalists in Vancouver weren’t allowed to broadcast pictures of the room where a telephone town hall was being run?

Those are just some of the many questions raised by stories about freedom of information that made headlines and Twitter posts in Canada last week.

My column, which usually accompanies this news roundup, has been delayed due to teaching commitments. It’ll return next week.



Scott Reid, who served as a senior adviser and communications director to Prime Minister Paul Martin, tweets this observation about how public officials communicate: “Everyone at every level of government, in every party uses private email. It’s SOP. Reflects nat desire to discuss stuff bluntly.” (Hat tip: Merv Adey)

CBC News reports, “Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s dire warning about why the government can’t release certain electronic data under access to information requests seems to have left his senior staff mystified, newly disclosed documents show.”

“A New Democrat MP is asking the federal information watchdog to investigate a former Conservative ministerial staffer’s systematic deletion of emails,” according to the Canadian Press.

The Canadian Press reports, “The Federal Court of Appeal has sent a stern message to government institutions: you can’t just make up any old deadline for responding to requests under the Access to Information Act.” (Hat tip: Dean Beeby)

Everyone “has called for more transparency” in the Canadian Judicial Council’s proceedings. But, according to Canadian Lawyer magazine, “No one can agree on what that means, especially as the CJC clings to extreme confidentiality at the early stages of investigations.”

The Military Police Complaints Commission “has gone to court to challenge the secrecy of Canada’s Defence Department and its refusal to make public its response to the investigation into a solider’s suicide,” according to the Toronto Star.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist writes that “the privacy commissioner of Canada set out to audit the RCMP in the hope of uncovering the details behind” warrantless requests for telecom subscriber information. “What it encountered instead was inaccurate data and an effort to downplay” the commissioner’s public reporting of those problems.

“The bad news for any Canadian politician inspired by Hillary Clinton to set up a do-it-yourself email system is that it could potentially involve the Mounties, handcuffs, and a two-year sojourn in the slammer,” according to the Canadian Press.

National Post’s John Ivison writes that Canada’s parliamentary system is “stacked against any meaningful review of spending, at least until the Public Accounts of Canada are tabled, 200 days after the fiscal year they cover.”

The Winnipeg Free Press’s Mary Agnes Welch makes an argument against bureaucratese, writing, “If we citizens don’t demand clear, simple, precise language from our elected officials, then it’s our own fault if they continue to snow us with words designed to thwart our right to know.”

The Lobby Monitor’s Alyssa O’Dell had this reaction after filing a few freedom of information requests with the European Union via email: “15 day response deadline. Madness?!” Canada’s own Access to Information Law gives the federal government 30 days to respond. (Hat tip: Jeremy Nuttall)

The Globe and Mail has become the first Canadian media organization to use SecureDrop, a “channel for anonymous and encrypted Internet communications that can link potential sources withy investigative journalists.”

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has published its first report on “Internet-related issues of access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy, and the ethical dimensions of the Information Society.” (Hat tip: Kirsten Smith)



The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association reports that British Columbia’s government has introduced a law that will remove existing penalties for destroying government records.

CBC News reports, “Major changes are coming to access to information laws in Newfoundland and Labrador following the much-anticipated release Tuesday morning of a report prepared by an independent commission.”

The Toronto Star reports, “A provincial panel has recommended sweeping changes to controversial legislation that allows Ontario hospitals to investigate critical incidents of patient harm and death in secret.”

Northwest Territories MLAs have passed a motion to “investigate the implementation of a lobbyist registry that would be publicly accessible online,” according to the Northern Journal.



According to the StarPhoenix, a report into a Saskatoon city hall leak reveals “bizarre levels of secrecy that hint at how much our municipal government is shielding from citizens.”

Global News reports a public telephone town hall on Vancouver’s upcoming transit plebiscite was “not as public as some would like. The number to dial in was not immediately available and while journalists were allowed to record an audio feed of the proceedings, they were not allowed to broadcast pictures of the room.” (Hat tip: IntegrityBC)

Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets that a spokesperson was copied on freedom of information request correspondence he received from the City of Vancouver. But, in an email, the spokesperson—Marcella Munro, who works with the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation—stated, “I have nothing to do with FOIs and I have no idea why it was sent to me. As far as I know it was a mistake by the office in Vancouver.”

The Globe and Mail paraphrases Chris Bejnar, the co-chair of a Brampton, Ont., watchdog group, as saying “he has been disturbed by lack of openness he’s seen between city staff and the public. When filing freedom of information requests to find out the square footage of a building in the downtown redevelopment plan, or how the city had calculated the cost per square foot, he was rebuffed by staff and eventually got the information only after complaining to the province’s privacy commissioner.”

Gerard Daly, a board member for New Brunswick’s Regional Services Commission 11, “wants the organization to be more transparent and forthcoming with public information.” The Daily Gleaner paraphrases Daly as saying “a good example of information not being made available centres around a hike that occurred in the rate of the tipping fee—the price paid when delivering refuse to the landfill site. Daly said RSC 11 staff recommended the fee be increased by $10 but, at the end of the day, it was raised by $1.50. No one on the board was prepared to approve it, he said. But none of the circumstances that led to the matter being voted down was ever made public.”

The Telegraph-Journal reports Saint John’s councillors have “unanimously approved” the city’s first open data policy. During that process, they “also gave a green light to a pilot project that will see city staff start to post data online related to six key categories: public safety, energy and utilities, recreation, financial information, municipal planning and economic development.”

CBC News reports Greater Sudbury, Ont., “has joined a growing number of governments to launch an open data program…The first release in Sudbury is three data sets on the city transit system, including the real-time movements of buses.”

City councillors in both Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, B.C., are “looking for engaged citizens to help jump start a conversation on making municipal government more accessible and transparent.”

The Sachem reports Haldimand County, Ont., has “opened an online Open Data Repository” that will provide “residents and those beyond our borders with the opportunity to view maps and other geographic data.

[[{“fid”:”3499″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 114px; height: 155px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]] Sean Holman writes The Unknowable Country column, which looks at politics, democracy and journalism. He is a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, an award-winning investigative reporter and director of the documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline. Have a news tip about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email him at this address.

Photo by Travis Wise, via Flickr.