Saskatchewan·CBC Investigates

Canadian Taxpayers Federation says GTH making document access 'as difficult as possible'

A director with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says the Global Transportation Hub and the Ministry of Highways are "mak(ing) it as difficult as possible" for him to access documents about the GTH land deal.

‘That’s incredibly wrong,’ says CTF about how government is treating its access requests

Todd MacKay at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says the GTH and the Ministry of Highways are making it difficult for him to access documents about the GTH land deal.

A director with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says the Global Transportation Hub and the Ministry of Highways are "mak(ing) it as difficult as possible" for him to access documents about the GTH land deal. 
Back in 2014, the Global Transportation Hub paid 2 to 3 times more for this land on the west side of Regina than government-procured appraisals said it was worth. (CBC News)

"That's incredibly wrong," said Todd MacKay, the CTF's prairie director.

In February, CBC broke the story that the GTH had purchased 204 acres of land on the west side of Regina for two to three times more than government-procured appraisals said it was worth.  

MacKay said he started getting calls from supporters, asking questions about what was going on.

"Honestly it was everyday ordinary supporters, farmers, business people, that kind of people, who would phone us up and say, 'We heard about this on the radio. What's going on there?'"

CTF files access requests about land deal

So he filed freedom of information requests, asking the GTH and the Ministry of Highways for all documents related to the land deal from 2010 until the present.

These aren't government documents. These are the people's documents. And I think that has to be the default value.- Todd MacKay, Canadian Taxpayers Federation

MacKay said the CTF files hundreds of access requests to governments every year and in most cases they're quite helpful. 

But he said in the case of the GTH land deal "it's just been nothing but roadblocks."

CBC is also in the midst of a dispute over access to information requests about the GTH land deal. The GTH and the Ministry of Highways sent CBC fee estimates in excess of $180,000. CBC has appealed those fees to Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner.

"These aren't government documents," MacKay said. "These are the people's documents. And I think that has to be the default value."

GTH says it has 10,000 pages

The GTH responded to the CTF request by indicating there were 10,000 pages of GTH-related documents, which MacKay found shocking.

"To put that in context, Shakespeare's complete works fit into about 1,600 pages," MacKay explained. "So they're saying they have seven or eight times more documents, pages of documents, than the complete works of the Bard. It's very hard for us to believe there's that many documents associated with this."

He was also surprised that the GTH was planning to charge his organization $7,240 for access to those documents.

"This is truly extraordinary," MacKay said. "And it's pretty frustrating to see. If the government has a good story to tell on this I would think they'd be eager to answer questions rather than putting the onus back on citizens to buy documents they own anyway."

So he decided to file a much narrower request, asking for all emails related to the land deal sent or received by the GTH's president and CEO Bryan Richards.
Bryan Richards, the president and CEO of the GTH, said it would cost the CTF almost $1,600 for access to his emails about the GTH land deal. (CBC News)

In this case he received a fee estimate of $1,590 for 1,200 pages of documents.

"Very strange that it would cost $1,500 to find emails," MacKay said.

He was so irritated with how this was being handled that he decided to file a request for all documents about how his request was dealt with.

The GTH told him there were 60 pages of documents and that would cost him $225. Richards said it would take six hours to search the computer system for those documents.

"I mean it's information about our own file," MacKay said. "If there's any information we should be able to get for free it should be information about a citizen themselves."

Richards explained he's unable to speak to CBC about the access requests of others "but want to assure you we are adhering to the legislation."

Ministry of Highways forwards request to GTH

MacKay also submitted a broad access to information request to the Ministry of Highways about GTH land deal documents.

The ministry responded by saying "upon review, your access request… has been transferred to the Global Transportation Hub for response."

MacKay said he interpreted that to mean the ministry believed it didn't have any records that responded to his request.

I have a whole bunch of responses on fee requests here and no actual relevant documents. And so it's unusual and it's disappointing.- Todd MacKay, Canadian Taxpayers Federation

So he filed another much more specific request, asking for all emails to or from the deputy minister of highways related to the GTH land deal.

In that case, the ministry found 200 pages of emails and sent MacKay an estimate of $1,447.88.

"I have a whole bunch of responses on fee requests here and no actual relevant documents," MacKay said. "And so it's unusual and it's disappointing."

The Ministry of Highways told CBC it can't talk about this series of requests because of privacy considerations. However, it did say "the ministry strives to fulfill the requirements of the FOI legislation."  

CTF says this isn't a left wing/right wing issue

MacKay notes that the Liberal federal government has just moved to virtually eliminate fees for access to information requests. He said the Manitoba Conservatives were just elected on a platform of transparency in that province.

"This really isn't a left and right issue" MacKay explained. "This is a right and wrong issue."

"It's just baffling to see why any government of any stripe would be so unwilling to release documents."

He said he hopes that pressure from groups like his and other private citizens will change things and make the Saskatchewan government more open and responsive to freedom of information requests.

About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.