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Op-ed: This is not what democracy looks like

Province dodges Freedom of Information requests

by Robert Devet

Let me count the ways. The province continues to find creative ways to ignore Freedom of Information requests. Image https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com
Let me count the ways. The province continues to find creative ways to ignore Freedom of Information requests. Image https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com

KJIPUKTUK, HALIFAX - Responses to Freedom of Information request by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) illustrate just how difficult it can be to get access to provincial government records in Nova Scotia.

This August Finance minister Randy Delorey told the NSGEU and ten other unions that any wage and benefits increases have to be offset by cost savings found by the unions somewhere else in the public sector.

Told to be “creative and innovative” the NSGEU felt it needed more information on program costs, so it filed a series of Freedom of Information requests.

After all, you have to get the facts and the numbers in order to make the kinds of cost-saving recommendations the liberal government is looking for.

Government responses to the requests are now beginning to dribble in, and it doesn't look good, a NSGEU press release suggests.

“One of our first requests, asking for details of the government’s Program Review process, has come back with a $6,000 cost estimate,” the media release states.

“In addition, in response to another request for information on what government would expect unions to give up in exchange for wage increases, we received a one-page response which was entirely redacted,” the NSGEU media release continues.

Note: redacted is just a fancy word for censored. 

A recent nation-wide audit by Newspapers Canada confirms that the NSGEU experience is not out of the ordinary.

While Halifax receives praise for quick and complete turnarounds on Freedom of Information requests, the provincial government is decidedly slow in its responses, the audit finds.

36 percent of Nova Scotia's requests submitted by the auditors exceeded the 30 days response time prescribed in legislation. That puts Nova Scotia near the bottom of the provincial pack.

The province did better in terms of full disclosure of the information requested by the auditors. It disclosed 79 percent of the released information in full, second only to Newfoundland and Labrador at a whopping 93 percent.

So much for the audit. Stats are fine, but sometimes anecdotal evidence paints a fuller picture.

My personal experience, in particular with the Department of Community Services, reveals the kinds of evasive tactics available to a government department unwilling to release information unless on its own terms.

After a surreal experience trying to find out what happened to a government promise to address long-standing problems with services for people with disabilities, I just received a similar non-response to a Freedom of Information request I submitted in early August.

I asked for results of a review that Community Services minister Joanne Bernard ordered in response to a violent death at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Lower Sackville.

I wanted to see the report, as well as any relevant emails, status reports and other information.

Late last week I was told that I could not see the report because it was not yet completed. “Once the report is finalized, the Department will release the report to you and the public,” wrote deputy minister Lynn Hartwell.

That's remarkable, given that in April Lori Errington, spokesperson for the department, informed me that the review had started in January.

Since the review was triggered by the violent death of a resident at the facility you'd think there would be some urgency. Quest residents, their parents and loved ones certainly think so.

Because my request for emails and status reports was apparently ignored, I have no way of verifying that the report is indeed delayed.

And by the way, the response arrived in my mailbox after 84 days, well beyond the time frame defined in legislation.

I appealed the decision with the independent Nova Scotia Information and Privacy Commissioner. I'm not holding my breath. On average it takes about two years for such a review to take place.

This is not what democracy looks like. This needs to change.


See also:

Stonewalled by Community Services

Stonewalled: a story with legs

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter



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Topics: Governance
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