Manitoba Sustainable Development "unreasonable" in freedom-of-information response failure

The provincial ombudsman says Manitoba Sustainable Development acted unreasonably when it failed to respond to a freedom-of-information request about unsuccessful efforts to prevent zebra mussels from colonizing Lake Winnipeg.

Provincial ministry rapped by ombudsman over complaint that spans two provincial governments and media outlets

Zebra mussels are now found in Lake Winnipeg's north and south basins.

The provincial ombudsman says Manitoba Sustainable Development acted unreasonably when it failed to respond to a freedom-of-information request about unsuccessful efforts to prevent zebra mussels from colonizing Lake Winnipeg.

In a report dated July 4, the Manitoba Ombudsman upheld a complaint against the provincial department formerly known Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, which was asked to provide documents about the provincial efforts to use potash to control zebra mussels.

In 2014, the province spent $500,000 on an experiment that involved the application of liquid potash to four Manitoba harbours in an effort to kill zebra-mussel infestations. 

Former NDP MLA Gord Mackintosh, the conservation minister at the time, initially declared what he called "operation mussel out" a success. But in 2015, provincial officials confirmed the presence of zebra mussels in both the north and south basins of Lake Winnipeg, among other bodies of water in Manitoba.​

In October 2015, the Winnipeg Free Press filed a freedom-of-information request seeking documents about the potash experiment, its effectiveness and its success. Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship did not initially respond.

After a complaint was made to the Manitoba Ombudsman in March 2016, Manitoba Conservation assured the ombudsman a response was coming. That response eventually arrived in May 2016, 208 days after the initial request was made — and after the reporter who filed the request had moved to CBC Manitoba.

The maximum timeframe for responding to a freedom-of-information request is 30 days, according to provincial legislation.

In the report into the complaint, the ombudsman's office said it sought an explanation for the lengthy delay but did not receive any from the provincial department, which was renamed Manitoba Sustainable Development by the Pallister government following its election in April.

The ombudsman's office also found no attempt was made to contact the reporter who filed the request. The ombudsman concluded the complaint was warranted.

"In the absence of representations from the public body which explain the failure to contact the complainant concerning his request for over three months, and the lengthy interval between the request and the eventual response to the complainant, our office found that Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship failed to fulfil its duty to assist the complainant," he said.

"Our office further found that the exceptional delay in responding to the complainant's access request was unreasonable."

The belated response from Manitoba Sustainable Development, which did not include most of the requested documents, yielded a separate denial-of-access complaint by CBC Manitoba. That complaint remains under investigation by the ombudsman's office. 

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.