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October 7, 2007

Make Information Available

"There are a number of things that I think we do need to do to reinvigorate our public institutions, to re-establish trust in our public institutions. Freedom of information is really one of the easier ones. It's direct; it's simple. It says simply: make information available when people request it, as opposed to trying to stop them and sending them large bills to get the simplest information."
Gordon Campbell, Hansard, July 22, 1998

At the Second Annual BC Information Summit held on October 5th, Olga Ilich, the Minister responsible for the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, announced that the government will proceed with Bill 25 in the fall sitting of the Legislature, which will commence on October 15th. The Bill makes amendments to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act but, in the form Bill 25 was first introduced in the Legislature, it failed to correct a major problem with section 13 of the Act. Hopes are high, including the hopes of Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis, that the Campbell government will address this.

The problem with section 13 is due to a December 2, 2002, B.C. Court of Appeal decision in the "Dr. Doe case" - or College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Information and Privacy Commissioner). Two paragraphs, numbers 110 and 111 of that decision, are particularly important; that's where the Court essentially stated that the word "advice", used in section 13 of the Act, should be given broad interpretation so as to include factual material. Since that decision was rendered government has frequently used section 13 as an excuse for not providing information, e.g. blanking out 14 of 15 pages in a request for information about BC Place Stadium's roof. A government that is open would have promptly amended the Act so as deal with what Commissioner Loukidelis described as "the Court of Appeal's crabbed view of public access to information rights". Government backbencher Blair Lekstrom chaired a Legislative Committee which echoed the Commissioner's concerns and recommended that the Act be amended to correct the Court ruling.

In her remarks to the Information Summit, Minister Ilich didn't say whether the section 13 problem would be corrected, and she left shortly after her speech. Colin Gablemann, former BC Attorney General, who was responsible for introducing the Act 15 years ago, spoke next. Gablemann made his remarks available (click here) so they can be considered by a wider audience. In a nonpartisan spirit, he pointed out that erosion of the Commissioner's budget began under an NDP government in 1998; the Campbell government made the situation worse with its cuts. In addition to recommending that section 13 be amended, Gablemann spoke about the problem with the culture within government.

I was an MLA when the Act was introduced. I'll never forget a briefing we received where those responsible for working on the Act said it would lead to a change in attitude throughout the public service so information would be freely available and resort to the use of the Act would be unnecessary. The exact opposite has happened. Frequently, the response to a request for information is to be told: "FOI it". Then the games begin, with lengthy delays followed by the receipt of pages of blanked out paragraphs stamped with the section of the Act, frequently section 13, which is used as authority for denying access to information.

Section 13 needs to be fixed, but even more importantly government needs to adopt a culture of openness. Premier Campbell should follow the advice of Opposition Leader Campbell, who spoke so eloquently about access to information in 1998.


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