CBC Investigates

9-year-old emails deteriorating in government archives; may be inaccessible

The ministry of social services says emails written between Donna Harpauer and senior ministry staff in 2008 and 2009 are on tapes that “deteriorate and breakdown over time” which means “there may be no viable tapes available for that time period.”

Government charging CBC $96K for Donna Harpauer and Laurie Pushor email access request

The ministry of social services says minister Donna Harpauer's emails may not be accessible through a freedom of information request because they're stored on tapes that may have deteriorated. (Stefani Langenegger/CBC)

The ministry of social services says emails written between Donna Harpauer and senior ministry staff in 2008 and 2009 are on tapes that "deteriorate and breakdown over time" which means "there may be no viable tapes available for that time period."

Last month, CBC filed freedom of information requests for all 2008-2009 emails between then-social services Minister Donna Harpauer and her assistant deputy minister Tim Korol. CBC also requested all emails between Korol and Harpauer's Chief of Staff Laurie Pushor.
The ministry of social services is charging CBC $96,000 for the email correspondence of Donna Harpauer and her former chief of staff Laurie Pushor. (Government of Saskatchewan)

CBC made the request following a series of stories which revealed the three had done government business through their private email accounts.

In a letter earlier this month, the ministry said "in order to process your access request, the fees total $96,000."

The ministry explained that because of the age of the files, the province's IT service "will need to engage a third party company that specializes in this type of work."

Furthermore, the ministry said, because the records are so old they may no longer be accessible at all.

"All current backups utilize physical tapes which deteriorate and breakdown over time," the official explained.

"The current condition of these tapes is unknown and there may be no viable tapes available for that time period."

Saskatchewan 'the wild west': access to information expert

Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and nationally recognized expert in access to information lawyer says he's shocked the ministry may not be able to access nine-year-old emails. (Christian Patry/CBC)

Michel Drapeau, one of Canada's leading access to information experts, says this "boggles the mind."

"I guess it gives a new meaning to the words 'wild west,'" said Drapeau.

He said Canadian governments are required to preserve key documents, including emails, and it's incomprehensible that they would have difficulty locating nine-year-old correspondence.

"I can have records of the First World War and Second World War and treaties before confederation," he pointed out. "Think of it."

In a recent ruling, Saskatchewan's information and privacy commissioner reminded the government of its obligation to have emails and other records in an easily accessible format.

He pointed out the government's own rules say "emails created and received as part of government business are considered government (public) records and must be managed in accordance with the Archives and Public Records Management Act, which states that records must be retained in a useable and accessible manner until their approved disposal."

Earlier this week, the premier himself pointed out the government's obligation to archive records during question period.

"So long as all of the emails that we send to anybody on government business are available for the provincial archives. That's an important test," he said in response to an NDP question about the premier's use of his private email account.

Expert calls for auditor's review

Drapeau said it's crucial that these records are preserved in order for the sake of history.

He said, even more importantly, the RCMP or the provincial auditor may need to access these records at some point and it's unacceptable that they may not be around.

"Every law office in dealing with Saskatchewan have now got to be very much aware of that, that in Saskatchewan if you want to withdraw emails from the government this is the kind of cost and they say there's no guarantee that you're going to get it. I find that astounding."

He said, in his view, the provincial auditor needs to investigate this.

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About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.

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