Suzanne Legault calls for tougher rules around deleting, preserving emails

Suzanne Legault, Canada's information commissioner, tells CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning why a scandal in British Columbia is necessitating better legislation when it comes to government record-keeping.

'Independent, effective oversight' needed after government scandals in Ontario and B.C.

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault says more stringent regulations are needed around government record-keeping after separate scandals around deleted emails in Ontario and British Columbia. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Two recent scandals in Ontario and British Columbia have Canada's information commissioner calling for better legislation and enforcement when it comes to how government employees create and store documents.

Suzanne Legault told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan Wednesday that there needs to be "duty to document" legislation requiring governments to create and preserve records that pertain to "important" actions — and sanctions in case that legislation is ignored.

"Canadians have a right of access to government information and government documents. Now, if those records are not created, the right of access is actually completely nullified," said Legault.

Legault is making her pitch in the wake of two scandals in Ontario and British Columbia involving the inappropriate deletion of government emails.

In B.C., the "triple delete" scandal arose last October after it was found that some members of the public service were deleting sensitive emails three times: first by moving emails to the system's "deleted" folder, expunging the record from that folder as well, and then manually erasing it from a 14-day backup system.

Ontario is facing a similar controversy after former premier Dalton McGuinty's chief of staff and deputy chief of staff were both charged in December after allegedly deleting files related to a 2011 decision to cancel the construction of two gas-fired power plants in the Toronto area.

Should public servants have to keep better records of their work? Suzanne Legault thinks so.

While there are already legal sanctions for failing to observe the Access to Information Act, they are "not quite appropriate," Legault said.

Anyone who fails to preserve a public document or counsels someone else to avoid record-keeping — by urging notes not to be taken, for example — should be subjected to a "spectrum of sanctions" ranging from disciplinary measures to fines or criminal charges, Legault said.

Asking for 'elevated legal obligation'

Her push for "independent, effective oversight" comes with the support of her provincial counterparts across the country, she told CBC Ottawa.

"What we're asking is that there is an elevated legal obligation to preserve these records and to create them," said Legault.

"This is an obligation that [governments] already have to abide by. We're just heightening it."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during his successful 2015 election campaign that a Liberal government would introduce a number of changes to the Access to Information Act, including eliminating of fees for processing information requests and granting the information commissioner the power to order the release of documents.

A spokesperson for the office of Treasury Board President Scott Brison has said that details of how the act will be reviewed are expected in 2016.