Nova Scotia

Privacy commissioner chides N.S. Fisheries Department for ignoring request

Opposition party leaders say the latest report from Nova Scotia’s interim information and privacy commissioner highlights a weak commitment to transparency by the provincial government.

'The department knows the law and has chosen to disregard it,' says interim official Carmen Stuart

Hands are seen typing on a keyboard
Nova Scotia's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department has violated the FOIPOP Act for more than two months as it refuses to release a decision to an applicant. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Opposition party leaders say the latest report from Nova Scotia's interim information and privacy commissioner highlights a weak commitment to transparency by the provincial government.

In a report issued Wednesday, Carmen Stuart writes about the refusal of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department to deliver a decision on an access request within the 30 days required by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP).

The request was filed Oct. 31 with a response due by Dec. 2, yet the department still has not released a decision because the deputy minister has not signed off on it. Stuart writes that the department ignored repeated follow-ups by staff at Information Access and Privacy Services trying to move things along and has never provided an explanation for the delay.

"The department knows the law and has chosen to disregard it," Stuart writes. "It is not open to government to arbitrarily choose its own timeline to respond to an access to information request."

Stuart noted the situation is not an anomaly and that delays due to sign off procedures "have been the subject of a growing number of review requests." Attempts in the past to address the problem have included clarifying that sign off is not an authorized reason for a time extension and the former commissioner writing to all deputy ministers last July to express her concern.

Tory Leader Tim Houston says problems with the province's freedom-of-information system fall at the feet of the premier. (CBC)

But Tory Leader Tim Houston said the fact delays are still happening speaks to a problem at the highest level of government.

"It tells me that the premier doesn't put a priority on being transparent with Nova Scotians," he said.

"This comes from the top. The premier doesn't respect the office of the privacy commissioner and that filters down through people working in the government."

The Tories are suing the government for its refusal to follow a recommendation by former privacy commissioner Catherine Tully to release information about the management fee the province pays Bay Ferries to operate the Yarmouth ferry.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the situation is consistent with the experience of his own caucus, which has seen increased delays related to access-to-information applications.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says his party has experienced access to information delays that violate the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. (CBC)

Burrill said in a recent request to the Community Services Department, the party had no communication about what was happening with the application for three months until it got the commissioner's office involved.

"That's not good enough," said Burrill.

"Access to information is not an abstraction — you actually can't run a democracy without it. Reporters can't do their jobs, opposition politicians can't do their jobs and the public can't get what they rightfully expect: that the government will be held to account."

Internal Services Minister Patricia Arab, who oversees Information Access and Privacy Services, said her department would look at the specifics of Stuart's report to see if there's anything that could help improve the system.

"We're striving to be better, we're striving to do better and we're striving to learn from all of these reports that come out," she said.

Internal Services Minister Patricia Arab says her department will review the privacy commissioner's report. (CBC)

Arab said government officials generally work hard to be within the requirements of the legislation and noted the province had an 84 per cent compliance rate in 2018-19.

"We're looking like we're going to be even better than that for this coming year," she said.

The minister said she believes deputy ministers understand their requirements and that all of government takes access to information seriously.

"I think it would be very irresponsible of us to not do due diligence with everything that comes through in terms of FOIPOP requests."

Repeated calls for order-making power

Houston and Burrill repeated calls for the privacy commissioner to be made an officer of the legislature and have order-making power, something the premier has repeatedly rejected. Right now, the government is not required to follow recommendations from the commissioner.

"The actions of the department in this case suggest that officials have failed to appreciate the importance of the access rights granted under FOIPOP," Stuart writes.

"Access delayed is access denied."

She recommended the department release its decision immediately. The department said it will release a decision, but offered no timeline for when that will happen.