Governments are often fearful of freedom of information laws, but they shouldn’t be

For governments, dealing with freedom of information laws can be like juggling dynamite — one wrong move can have explosive results.

For governments, dealing with freedom of information laws can be like juggling dynamite — one wrong move can have explosive results. For investigative journalists, opposition parties and groups such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), these laws are indispensable for digging up documents to defend taxpayer interests. Virtually every accountability issue, from the federal sponsorship scandal to former Alberta premier Alison Redford’s sky palace, involves documents obtained through freedom of information laws.

Today, we’re seeing both important advances in, and serious threats to, government transparency. On the plus side, Canadians will now be able to send access to information requests to the federal government for no cost beyond the $5 filing fee. In the past, the government imposed fees for requests deemed large or complex, which totalled $56,000 in 2014-15.

This is good news for Canadians because fees are often used by governments to discourage digging. It’s also silly to charge taxpayers for documents they already paid to produce. As a report released last year by the Office of the Information Commissioner in Ottawa stated, fees “are also contrary to the concept that government information is a national resource that has been funded by taxpayers.”

The government of British Columbia has been dogged by criticism over how it handled freedom of information requests, after it was found to have delayed responses and deleted emails. The government responded by committing to major reforms, including proactively releasing more information and restricting political interference. It’s also thinking about waving the $60,000 in fees it collects each year.

Unfortunately, the Saskatchewan government is keeping documents in the dark. The provincial government is facing questions because the Global Transportation Hub, a Crown-owned inland port, purchased 204 acres of land for $103,000 per acre and then sold it to the provincial Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure for $50,000 to $65,000 per acre. The CTF filed freedom of information requests for documents associated with the deal and got hit with fees totalling $7,240.

That seemed outrageous to us, but it gets worse. CBC Saskatchewan also submitted requests and the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure responded with a fee demand of $69,645 and the Global Transportation Hub went even higher with a charge of $111,842.

Across the border in Manitoba, the new Progressive Conservative government is taking a different approach. During the election, the Manitoba Conservatives promised to “create an open data portal to provide government-collected data, that is non personal or confidential, in an accessible, machine readable and free basis.” In other words, Manitoba’s new government won’t just wait for citizens to ask for documents or pay fees; instead, it will proactively provide more information online for free and in easy-to-use formats, such as spreadsheets.

And while it is commendable that some provinces are taking steps to improve access to information, we shouldn’t forget that people living in First Nations communities also have a right to learn about how their chiefs and band councils are spending public money. Yet, when Shauna Buffalo Calf asked for receipts justifying her chief’s $83,646 in expenses, as well other basic documents pertaining to the  First Nation near Maple Creek, Sask., she was told that no information would be released. In fact, her band responded with a letter saying it’s only obligated to release information that’s subject to the First Nations Financial Transparency Act — a piece of legislation that Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has announced the federal government will no longer enforce.

It’s understandable that governments are often fearful of freedom of information laws, but they shouldn’t be. For every government brought down by scandal, there are many others that stay out of harm’s way because these laws keep them within appropriate bounds. It’s vital to both governments and those who hold them accountable to protect and strengthen these laws.

Todd MacKayPrairie Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation