Saskatchewan

Echoes of Trump in Sask. government's response to GTH land deal access requests: Expert

A leading expert in access to information law says when he read the latest report on the government's handling of GTH land deal documents, his mind immediately went to U.S. President Donald Trump and the well-publicized allegations he has disregard for the rule of law.

‘They just couldn’t care less’ about transparency, says Michel Drapeau

Lawyer Michel Drapeau says a recent report by the Office of the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner shows the provincial government 'couldn't care less' about transparency. (Christian Patry/CBC)

A leading expert in access to information law says when he read the latest report on the government's handling of Global Transportation Hub land deal documents, his mind immediately went to U.S. President Donald Trump and the well-publicized allegations he has disregard for the rule of law. 

"I have difficulty almost on a daily basis to see what Mr. Trump does and gets away with," said Ottawa-based lawyer and University of Ottawa professor Michel Drapeau.

He said the outrageous behaviour of Saskatchewan's Ministry of Highways, outlined in a new report by the Office of the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner, "makes you wonder if it's a spreading disease."

Drapeau says the recent report by Office of the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner reveals the government is as dismissive of transparency as U.S. President Donald Trump. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX38M6M (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

'Beyond negligent'

A year and a half ago, CBC's iTeam filed a series of access requests to the ministry, asking for emails and other records that would shed light on the GTH land deal scandal.

CBC has received some of the documents in redacted form, but the ministry is still withholding many of them.

Because of that, CBC asked the commissioner to review the matter. 

In his July 19 report,commissioner Ron Kruzeniski details a year and a half long litany of unjustified delays, excessive fees and unlawful behaviour by the ministry.

"I have no choice but to conclude that Highways is not able to manage its freedom of information process properly," he wrote.

After reading the report, Drapeau said the ministry's response is "beyond negligent and it's beyond the pale and they just couldn't care less."

'I've never seen anything like it'

Drapeau went even further.

"I just find their reaction to what is a quasi-constitutional right, contemptuous," said Drapeau, an author of textbooks and reference guides on access to government documents. 

I can't believe that in Canada, in a democracy, that we allow, we permit, we tolerate public servants to act this way.- Michel Drapeau, l awyer and University of Ottawa professor

The behaviour of the Saskatchewan government, detailed in this report, is the worst he's ever seen, he said.

"I've never seen anything like it. It shows the degree the depth and breadth of, 'We don't care and this is what you can do with it,' type of attitude."

Drapeau said in a democracy, access to information laws are a critical way citizens can hold governments to account. They allow the public to discover what government is really up to, which helps voters make informed decisions at election time.

"I can't believe that in Canada, in a democracy, that we allow, we permit, we tolerate public servants to act this way. And if they do, it's because it's quite acceptable to their superiors in ranks. It's acceptable and perhaps even welcome," he said.

'What country are we in here?'

Saskatchewan's NDP critic for the GTH, Cathy Sproule, said the commissioner's report highlights appalling behaviour on the part of the government.

"I guess one of my first reactions is what country are we in here? This is public information that we have the [Freedom of Information and Privacy] act for." 

"It needs to be respected, it needs to be followed, and it needs to be treated seriously. And I don't get a sense that that's happening," said Sproule.

The NDP's Cathy Sproule wonders if political interference is behind the long delays in access requests related to the GTH land deal scandal, but the Premier's office says that's 'ridiculous.' (CBC News)

The report says the Ministry of Highways access to information officer gave all of the original documents provided to CBC's iTeam to the ministry's "corporate services" division. The report doesn't say why that was done, though it says it was unrelated to the freedom of information process.

"What it suggests to me is that the ministry is not operating independently," Sproule said.

She wonders if there may have been political interference. That's a suggestion the Premier's office calls "ridiculous."

"Clearly there's a whole lot of eyes looking at these requests that you're [CBC's iTeam] making. And the more involvement there is at a senior level, it makes you wonder what information is not being provided," said Sproule.

She said she's frustrated the act doesn't provide much in the way of recourse when a government refuses to hand over documents.

"It just doesn't seem right," said Sproule.

Sean Holman, a freedom of information specialist who teaches at Mount Royal University, says Saskatchewan's Ministry of Highways seems 'allergic to democracy.' (Sean Holman)

'Allergic to democracy'

According to Mount Royal University professor and former journalist Sean Holman, "the report's findings indicate to me that the Ministry of [Highways] isn't just allergic to transparency. It's allergic to democracy."

He said on his reading of the report, it appears the government isn't used to this level of scrutiny. 

The findings indicate to me that the Ministry of [Highways] isn't just allergic to transparency. It's allergic to democracy,- Sean Holman, Mount Royal University professor

"It almost seemed like the idea of being open, the idea of responding to a freedom of information request, the idea of being accountable was novel to the ministry," said Holman.

"And it simply didn't know how to respond to rather legitimate requests for information about a high profile issue."

He said that's partly the fault of government, and partly the fault of general society and journalists in particular.

"It says that we, as journalists, and we, as the public, do not do enough to hold government to account and make government used to being accountable and doing the things that make it accountable, which includes releasing information."

Holman said he hopes this controversy helps the public realize how important transparency is to accountability and democracy.

A Ministry of Highways spokesperson wrote it takes its freedom of information obligations seriously, but it has no comment at this time. 

"This is only the second day since the commissioner's report has been released. Our officials are reviewing the commissioner's recommendations and will be responding to him directly."

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.