Saskatchewan·Updated

Minister of Justice can't explain why CBC was charged $100K more than CTF for GTH documents

One of Canada’s leading access to information experts says the Global Transportation Hub appears to have two standards when assessing freedom of information fees and he worries that may indicate the government is using high fees to keep public documents from public view.

GTH appears to have 'two standards' of access to information fees: expert

The Global Transportation Hub told CBC it would cost $111,842.50 for access to about 9,000 documents related to the GTH land deal.

One of Canada's leading access to information experts says the Global Transportation Hub appears to have two standards when assessing freedom of information fees and he worries that may indicate the government is using high fees to keep public documents from public view.

Michel Drapeau, an Ottawa lawyer and professor, has compared access requests submitted to the GTH by CBC and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF). Both organizations are seeking documents related to the Global Transportation Hub land deal. 
Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and professor with expertise in access to information law said it appears the GTH may be using two standards when assessing fees for freedom of information requests. (ICI Radio-Canada)

Drapeau said the CTF's request was "very broad", asking for all land deal documents back to 2010, including emails, memos, contracts,  correspondence and anything else.

The GTH estimated the request would net 10,000 pages and cost $7,240; a fee Drapeau said was reasonable given the scope of the request.

By contrast he said the GTH's estimate to CBC was excessive and, in fact, the largest fee request he's seen in his decades of filing and teaching about access requests.

The GTH sent CBC a fee estimate of $111,842.50 which the organization said would net 9,170 documents. That's in excess of $100,000 more than CTF's estimate.
The Minister of Justice said he can't explain why the GTH wanted to charge CBC $100,000 more than the CTF for access to information requests about the GTH land deal.

CBC's requests 'more restrained' than CTF's

Drapeau said the difference in fees is even more surprising given that CBC's requests for documents are "more focused, more disciplined more restrained in terms of scope" than the request from the CTF. CBC filed a series of 15 requests asking for specific documents or a series of documents from a specified date range.

Drapeau said when comparing the two responses, it appears as though the GTH has "two standards, two scales, two concepts as to how they come about the charge being asked for."

In his view, he said it's as though the government is saying "let's make it as outrageous as we can in order to discourage anybody from proceeding with it."

Drapeau said he's left wondering "because CBC is the requestor, does it generate a higher estimate of costs?"

CTF also puzzled by the gap

The gap also has the CTF scratching its head.
Todd MacKay with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said by comparison to what CBC was charged, his fee estimate for GTH land deal documents was a deal.

Todd MacKay, the CTF's prairie director, said when he first received the $7,240 estimate he was shocked and annoyed.

But in an interview, he told CBC "now that I've seen the fee that you guys got it's putting it in a somewhat different perspective."

"We got a deal," MacKay said.

Government defends fees

Minister of Justice Gordon Wyant said he can't explain the difference between the CTF and the CBC estimates, but he promised to look into the matter and find an explanation.

This outrageous stonewalling is absolutely unacceptable.- Trent Wotherspoon, Leader of the Opposition

In Question Period on Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition, Trent Wotherspoon took the government to task for the fees it is charging for CBC's freedom of information requests, saying "this outrageous stonewalling is absolutely unacceptable."

"Are you telling me that the Premier of Saskatchewan is actually defending those outrageous fees that are nothing more than a coverup of that government's scandal?" asked Wotherspoon.

Wyant said "the fees that were quoted were consistent with the fee schedule that's been in place in this province for over 20 years."

He said the CBC's requests were very broad and fulfilling them would be a costly endeavour.
Saskatchewan's Minister of Justice, Gordon Wyant defends the $180,000 fee estimate the GTH gave to CBC for access to GTH land deal documents.

"The amount of the fee is indicative of the size of the request," Wyant explained. "It's certainly not to imply that the request was frivolous or vexatious. Just simply to reflect the amount of time that's going to be required to review those documents, to receive them and to vet them for the personal information that needs to be redacted."

He said it's reasonable for governments to charge for access requests and Saskatchewan's fees are consistent with those of other provinces.

"When you have to spend money to recover files that are stored by third-party providers, have to redact them, that takes a lot of time of officials within those various ministries," Wyant said.

Government 'shooting itself in the foot': professor

Sean Holman, a journalism professor from Mount Royal University in Calgary has also reviewed CBC and CTF's requests.

He said the massive fees and the government's lack of willingness to negotiate is sending a negative message to the public.  
Sean Holman, a professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said typically governments would negotiate with journalists in an effort to assist in reducing fees. (www.infoandprivacy.ca)

"It's shooting itself in the foot. It's kicking itself in its own mouth," he said, referring to the Saskatchewan government. "It's doing all these things to reinforce to the public the fact that it does not want this information out."

He said ultimately these are public documents and the government has an obligation to be as transparent with them as possible.

CBC is appealing the $111,842.50 estimate from the GTH and a the $69,645 estimate for similar documents from the Ministry of Highways to Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner.

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.