Nova Scotia

N.S. fisheries minister says his department has addressed info access issues

Keith Colwell said it’s important for people to have trust in his department, particularly when it comes to decisions related to aquaculture, and so the department wants to make as much information available as possible to the public.

Province preparing to embark on a review of freedom of information legislation

Keith Colwell is Nova Scotia's minister of fisheries and aquaculture. (CBC)

Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Keith Colwell says he's confident officials in his department have resolved their problems when it comes to conforming to Nova Scotia's access to information legislation.

The province's privacy commissioner released a report on Thursday that takes Colwell's department to task for refusing to release documents to an applicant.

The refusal was based on the premise those documents would soon be available to the public. But it took 15 months rather than the mandated 30 days.

Colwell told reporters on Thursday that his department put a new policy in place about a year ago. Anytime the department gets a freedom of information request, officials look at how much of that information can just be posted on the department's website so it becomes available for everyone.

"I made that decision some time ago and it took us a while to get it in place," he said.

"That way, everybody can see the information that's out there and it makes it a fair playing field for everybody that requires that information."

Justice Department begins review process

It's not the first time the privacy commissioner has found the department in violation of the act, but without the power to make orders the office cannot compel government departments to act on recommendations.

The act hasn't had a major review since it was created.

As part of his mandate letter, Justice Minister Randy Delorey is creating an advisory committee to do just that. The group will be charged with making recommendations on how it and any related legislation can be modernized.

Delorey told reporters on Thursday that officials in his department are determining what the committee will be asked to look at and from there they'll determine who is a part of the committee.

The minister said it's too soon to say if the review would consider the recommendation from successive privacy commissioners that the role be made an officer of the legislature, which would create order-making authority, or if it would consider the multi-year backlog in the commissioner's office to process appeals.

"I would be surprised if they weren't looked at by the committee but, again, I'm not going to speculate as to the work of a yet-named committee and the work that they're going to do as part of their review and where their priorities are going to be."

Questioning government's sincerity

There's no timeline for the work.

Tory Leader Tim Houston said he doubts the government's sincerity in dealing with this issue.

"They don't take the public's right to know very seriously," he said. "They don't respect the freedom of information process."

Houston's party had to take the government to court to get it to release information about The Cat ferry service, information the privacy commissioner previously ruled should be disclosed.

The NDP recently drew attention to a series of freedom of information requests it made of Premier Iain Rankin's office related to pandemic expenses, childcare for essential workers and COVID case reporting.

Rankin says no policy to avoid FOIPOP

None of them yielded documents, prompting NDP Leader Gary Burrill to question how the premier's office operates.

Former premier Stephen McNeil openly acknowledged that he avoided using email at times so it would not be caught up in the freedom of information system.

Rankin told reporters on Thursday that no such policy exists in his office. He said no records existed for the NDP requests because those topics are covered during regular conference calls with government officials.

Meanwhile, Colwell said it's important for people to be able to trust his department, particularly when it comes to decisions related to aquaculture. The industry has been contentious in many coastal communities in the province and so the minister said he wants to make as much information available as possible on the department website.

"We find it works very well," he said.

"It stops a lot of questions people have and it really does help build trust."

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