Opinion

Fries: Access to information denied

Persistence is a job requirement for reporters, but Canada’s underfunded access to information system is  starting to test my patience.

It’s been nearly a year since I filed a request for copies of financial reports prepared by two groups that received $400,000 in federal funding and I’ve gotten nothing.

Even my complaint about the delay has  itself been met with  delay.

Readers who’ve followed the saga of the proposed national park in the region will recall that in February 2013 the Okanagan Nation Alliance released a feasibility study that found such a conservation area could be done in a way that benefits their members and preserves their rights.

Only the Western News reported, however, that the report cost $400,000.

That’s because months earlier I’d filed an access to information request with Parks Canada for information about the study and received contracts that showed it was providing $200,000 each to the Osoyoos Indian Band and Lower Similkameen Indian Band to do the work.

Being a curious reporter, I also wanted to know exactly how that $400,000 was spent, since the contracts stipulated Parks Canada required regular financial updates, so I asked for copies of those documents in a follow-up request, which was received on Feb. 25, 2013.

A month later, the agency wrote to say it needed another 60 business days, beyond the usual 30, because it had to consult with third parties.

That put the due date into June, which came and went with no response.

In August, I called the analyst assigned to my request.

She was on holiday, so I filed complaints with her boss and the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.

Surprisingly, the boss thanked me because it will help her build a case for more workers.

It didn’t help my case, though.

I haven’t heard anything from Parks Canada since August, and I haven’t heard anything about my complaint since October.

In the interim, the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada did make time to publish a report about the crisis facing the access to information system.

Commissioner Suzanne Legault wrote that her office received 1,596 complaints in 2012-13, a nine per cent increase over the previous year.

Legault mentioned “one organization was so understaffed it could not acknowledge access requests until months after receiving them,” while “another took an extension of more than three years for responding to an access request.”

The commissioner said “budgetary restraint” was bureaucrats’ most common explanation for delays.

“All together, these circumstances tell me in no uncertain terms that the integrity of the federal access to information program is at serious risk,” Legault concluded.

The reports I’m seeking are relatively innocuous, but just imagine if you wanted time-sensitive information about train safety or environmental concerns.

Fortunately, freedom of information requests to provincial and local governments are generally processed much quicker.

The City of Penticton has expressed a desire to treat my requests informally, probably because stories that mention the FOI process run counter to politicians’ claims of openness and transparency.

The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen has been good, too, in that things are done by the book.

Too bad the same can’t be said about the Government of Canada.

I get paid to be persistent, but the federal access to information system is meant to serve the public at large and it’s failing its constituents.

Joe Fries is a reporter with the Penticton Western News.  You can reach him by email at jfries@pentictonwesternnews.com

 

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