It’s a stunning Friday morning here on the coast; the sun is shining bright and hot, high enough in the sky at this time of year to chase shadows away completely before 10 am.
Taking a look at the chatter online, people are still talking about the Pattullo bridge repairs conveniently announced by Translink yesterday at the height of the reaction to the Liberal government whistle-blower story. Well played, that one – suddenly warning the public of repairs that won’t take place until halfway through 2016 successfully eclipsed the story our current government would rather you just forget you ever heard about.
By all means, freak out now about bridge repairs that aren’t happening until next year (that’s a story in itself) or FIFA corruption. But whatever you do, don’t pay any attention to a story that goes right to the heart of not only transparency and accountability in our provincial government, but to the core of everything that is democratic and just.
Yesterday a former political staffer in the Ministry of Transportation alleged that emails were intentionally deleted following a freedom of information request made late last year,relating to the Highway of Tears.
” The NDP has made public a letter written by former executive assistant Tim Duncan to Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. In the letter, Duncan says that when he protested an instruction to delete the emails, a ministerial assistant took hold of his keyboard and did it himself.
“When I hesitated, he took away my keyboard, deleted the emails and returned the keyboard, stating, ‘It’s done. Now you don’t have to worry about it anymore,'” Duncan wrote in the letter.
When his concerns continued to be dismissed, Duncan writes, he was told, “It’s like The West Wing. You do whatever it takes to win.”
Duncan writes that he does not believe the incident was unusual.
“I want to stress that this is not an isolated incident. It is my belief that the abuse of the freedom of information process is widespread and most likely systemic within the [Premier Christy] Clark government. I would ask that you please look into this further.”
I strongly suggest you listen to this interview between CKNW reporter Shane Woodford and Duncan. It’s 12 minutes, and in my opinion Duncan appears very sincere: https://soundcloud.com/shane-woodford/full-interview-former-bc-government-staffer-tim-duncan-on-deleted-emails-controversy
Duncan states clearly that he believes deleting emails is a routine matter, as is using personal emails to do government business. He also suggests that because all emails are backed up, why not just go straight to the server when an FOI comes in to stop this practice? He claims it was a big joke among staff that because they consider everything transitory, they can delete it. Even if by the law,it shouldn’t be.
The government in this case has now reverted to the same strategy most often employed in whistle-blower situations: Deny, Deflect and Discredit. He was fired, he’s a disgruntled employee. Negate the claims. Nothing to see here.
All of this comes really comes into focus though, when you consider an interesting bit of legislation the government just recently brought forth: https://fipa.bc.ca/bc-government-removing-penalties-for-document-destruction/
The BC government’s new Government Information Act takes some useful steps to preserving information, but it has a big hole and also takes a major step backward.
The biggest problem is that it contains no duty to document.
Recently several freedom of information requests come back with not a single piece of information attached. Perhaps the most incredible is the government’s claim that it has no records whatsoever of any of the dozens of meetings with more than 80 people that took place about the Highway of Tears in northern BC.
This bill will do nothing to stop the spread of this cancer on government transparency…
…Bill 5 specifically removes the application of the Offences Act, so there will be no chance of anybody in government facing legal consequences for improper actions dealing with government documents.
No chance of anybody in government facing legal consequences for improper actions dealing with government documents. Like deleting ‘transitory’ emails, perhaps? Why would a government want to protect it’s staffers from penalty for breaking the law?
There are so many reasons this entire debacle cannot and must not be allowed to slip by in favour of sexier stories that people find more interesting and relevant to their lives. Why, you ask?
The public has a right to know what government is doing. Or not doing. In a perfect world you would be able to call up your local government office and say “I’d like to see any or all emails relating to the Highway of Tears from this date to that date, please.” Or whatever other information you wanted to see.
And in that perfect world government would say “Sure, of course we’ll have that for you shortly” Because after all, the government is elected by the people,and paid with public funds so we should have access to that information, right? Wrong.
What actually happens is that government rarely wants to give you information freely. You have to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act -we refer to this as an FOI. You provide details of what you want, as specific as possible and government has a set period to respond to acknowledge and respond to your request.
If your request is going to take a long time or a lot of work, then you might have to pay to have those documents retrieved. Those fee’s at times can be ridiculously high, meaning the Free in Freedom of information is really just for show. The costs of some FOI’s make it prohibitive unless you ask for a fee waiver based on poverty. But we do it anyways because we have a right to know, and you deserve it. Reporters and writers like myself file these kind of requests often, either by ourselves or through an intermediary.
In this case, clearly the government had meetings about what to do with respect to the Highway of Tears. That’s a given. Yet miraculously no documents were found when that FOI was submitted. None. You tell me how that happens.
So now here we are back to Tim Duncans allegations of deleted emails and how this is a routine thing in the Christy Clark government where emulating The West Wing is apparently a good thing.Except that this isn’t a TV show and the Highway of Tears is nothing to joke about.
The allegations are bad enough on their own, but the murdered and missing women on the Highway of Tears deserve more than this. This really matters.
When information like this is withheld,deleted, destroyed, it makes not only a mockery of the law,but of our democratic process. It’s slap in the face of every journalist, every voter and in this case, every victim and their families.
Secrecy protects those making mistakes. It saves the government from embarrassment, from examination and keeps them from being accountable. And removing a key component of legislation that would make this kind of thing an offence, is highly suspect.
Considering Clark promised one of the most open governments in Canada, someone has some explaining to do. http://thetyee.ca/News/2012/05/07/Open-Gov-Fail
“The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.” ~Barack Obama
“A government by secrecy benefits no one. It injures the people it seeks to serve; it damages its own integrity and operation. It breeds distrust, dampens the fervor of its citizens and mocks their loyalty.” Russell Long.
Tim Duncan’s letter https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/2089546/foi-letter.pdf