Alberta government interferes with freedom of information requests, email reveals

An Alberta Justice internal email uncovered by CBC News reveals political interference by the NDP government in a freedom of information request.

Alberta Justice asked for copies of requests submitted by journalists and opposition, CBC News learns

Sean Holman, a freedom of information specialist who teaches at Mount Royal University, says surveillance of requests opens up the potential for abuse. (Sean Holman)

An Alberta Justice internal email uncovered by CBC News reveals political interference by the NDP government in a freedom of information (FOIP) request.

The email, also obtained through a freedom of information request, reveals that a senior civil servant ordered junior FOIP officers in January to provide the minister's office with a copy of all records requested by journalists and opposition politicians.

"My ADM, Gerald Lamoureux, has advised me that the ministry's office would like to receive a copy of records release packages for access to information requests made by opposition parties and the media," reads the email from Richard Marks, the director of FOIP records management.

Experts worry about political staff meddling in the processing of access to information requests by non-partisan civil servants.

In 2011, the RCMP were called to investigate meddling at the federal level. Stephen Harper's Conservative government came under fire when political aides scrutinized — and even inappropriately censored — documents requested under the Access to Information Act by The Canadian Press. 

"Surveillance opens up the potential for abuse. If government knows who is filing the request… it opens up the door to treating those requests differently than they would any other request," warns Sean Holman, a freedom of information expert at Mount Royal University. 

"It's only necessary if government is worried about the public finding out its secrets and it's only necessary if the government is worried about preserving that secrecy."

'Lack of respect'

CBC News's freedom of information request to Alberta Justice did not identify the applicant as a journalist.

Politicians, the news media, advocacy groups and individual citizens frequently use Alberta's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act as a tool to expose wrongdoing and hold governments to account.

"Democracy," stresses Holman, "is based on the idea that you have informed citizens.

"Our marketplace is based on the idea that you have informed consumers and when you see any institution frustrating those information rights, it is deeply troubling."

Alberta's independent information and privacy commissioner, Jill Clayton, blasted Alberta's Rachel Notley government for a "lack of respect" for freedom of information in February, and last year's annual report by the commissioner warned that Alberta's access to information system is approaching a "crisis situation."

Chronic staff shortages, delays in handling requests and accusations of political interference have plagued the system aimed at providing Albertans access to records held by public bodies.

Wildrose critique

At the beginning of April, the Wildrose Party called on the government to fix the province's "broken FOIP system." 

The opposition party also accused the NDP of interfering politically in access requests. It recommended eliminating the involvement of the province's Public Affairs Bureau and Justice Ministry in the processing of all FOIP requests.

"The government likes to claim that they are running an open and transparent government — but nothing could be further from the truth," says Nathan Cooper, Wildrose's democracy and accountability critic.

Wildrose MLA Nathan Cooper accuses the NDP government of being secretive. (CBC)

Earlier this month, Clayton concluded her office's investigation into possible political interference in the processing of freedom of information requests was unreliable due to obstruction by the previous long-serving PC government. 

New Democrats decried the Progressive Conservatives' handing of freedom of information requests while on the opposition benches. 

As a rookie opposition MLA in 2011, Notley accused the governing PCs in the legislative assembly of being "far too secretive" and "shredding holes in access to information."

'We should not be surprised'

The Wildrose Party says the NDP is no better than the PCs. 

"This government is very secretive. They are interfering politically at every opportunity," says Cooper.

Holman said a reversal in attitudes is normal. 

"We should not be surprised," he says.

The MRU professor says opposition parties often posture about freedom of information.

"But when they do actually get into power, we find very quickly that they behave in exactly the same way because secrecy is addictive," he says. 

Holman and the Wildrose Party both want the NDP to stop singling out requests made by the news media and opposition politicians.

"All requests for information should be treated equally. There's no reason why a request from the opposition or the media should be handled differently because it might have a negative political impact on the government," the MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills told CBC News. 

NDP rejects interference allegation

The NDP government, for its part, calls it standard practice to send copies of finalized access requests to the minister's office for "information purposes."

"There is no place for edits or other changes to be made by a minister's office," a justice spokesperson told CBC News in an email statement.

"The process of informing ministers' offices of information being released is a responsibility of government departments," it adds.

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said Monday that minister's offices are given a heads up after FOIP packages have been approved, so if there are follow up questions staff are prepared to answer them.

"As far as I'm aware we are not notified until the package is already finalized, so until decisions have already been made in terms of what's going out, and we're certainly not asked our opinion on it," she said.

"We're only told what's happening, not asked whether we're OK with it."

On mobile? Read the email here


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?