B.C. government email scandal exposes weak freedom of information laws

Damning findings of the B.C.'s privacy commissioner showed a trail of deleted emails. Today, we're examining the case of how legislation to assist the curious in the form of Freedom of Information laws across Canada leaves us with precious little of the Information we're supposed to get.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has addressed the Privacy Commissioner's report on deleted emails and has asked staffers at the political level to not delete emails, even if it's a transitory document that is required by law to delete. (CP/Darryl Dyck)
Some people were deleting more emails, and some people were keeping emails that they should have deleted. So, I've told everyone, at the political level,  even if it's a transitory document that you're required by law to delete... I want you to keep it.- BC Premier Christy Clark addressing report on deleted emails

Information wants to be free 

Across Canada, and around the democratic world, governments have introduced Freedom of Information laws to help facilitate just that.

FOI requests allow journalists and citizens alike the right to find out what's really going on, and hold the powers-that-be to account. But, if you've been following what's going on in British Columbia lately, you know how sometimes, despite commitments to transparency, citizens can feel they're being left in the dark.

Government officials in B.C. have been accused of employing an array of tactics to avoid releasing sensitive information—including emails concerning the "Highway of Tears" issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

There have been stories of staffers "triple deleting" emails, denying the existence of files, and just plain stalling in the face of FOI requests.

Last month, B.C.'s  Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham released a damning report on how the province handles Freedom of Information.

Today we're asking whether B.C. is an outlier, or represents the new normal when it comes to critical information, and your right to know it. 

Vaughn Palmer has been following this story. He is a columnist with the Vancouver Sun.


When politicians first drafted B.C.'s Freedom of Information Act back in 1993, information itself looked quite different. It was still the era of hardcopy documents and fax machines... not text messages and emails. 

And while all the technological changes may have made it easier for governments to skirt the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, it could just be that the government commitment to openness has changed as well.

Colin Gabelmann was one of the architects of that original legislation. He served as BC's Attorney General between 1991-1995 under NDP premier Mike Harcourt.  In 1993, he ushered in the BC's Freedom of Information Act.
 

Access to information is not a problem that's limited to British Columbia. The laws vary from province-to-province but there are problems with freedom of information laws across Canada. Tom Henheffer is the executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in Toronto.
 

This segment was produced by The Currrent's Erin Pettit and Julian Uzielli.