ELC Requests Public Inquiry Into Freedom of Information Policies

July 2005

The Environmental Law Clinic has asked B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner to conduct a Public Inquiry into whether government discriminates against environmental groups that request government documents under the province’s Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. ELC student Scott Giesbrecht made the request on June 23, 2005 on behalf of Sierra Legal Defence Fund and Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

The ELC submitted that government has made it more and more difficult for environmental groups to obtain public information. Indeed, environmentalists have faced numerous problems in pursuing FOI requests, including delays, excerption and excessive fees. The ELC also submitted that in a number of cases, government has appeared to act contrary to the spirit and letter of Freedom of Information legislation.

Included within the request was a documented history of over a dozen instances where environmental organizations were stymied in their attempts to acquire information through the provincial FOI process.

Documentation of these problems was compiled through the cooperation of provincial environmental groups such as Sierra Legal Defence Fund and Western Canada Wilderness Committee, as well as Raincoast Conservation Society, West Kootenay EcoSociety, West Coast Environmental Law, the Dogwood Initiative, Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch and the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation. The purpose of this documentation was to direct the Commissioner toward specific situations where the FOI process has failed to live up to the spirit of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. Such situations were surprisingly easy to unearth, and include:

  • The fact that it took five years and a number of court actions for Raincoast Conservation Society to receive data on grizzly bears.
  • Professor Alisdair Roberts’ study which has shown that FOI requests deemed “highly sensitive” by the Ministries take almost twice as long to process as long as “low sensitivity” requests.
  • Government-requested fees of over $24,000 from Sierra Legal Defence Fund for information related to non-compliance under the Waste Management Act, and over $19,000 from the T. Buck Suzuki Foundation for government data related to sea lice.
  • Government’s initial request of the Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch to pay over $800 for documents, which the government later conceded were worth just over $200 based on the actual number of pages they contained.

The ELC asked the Commissioner to investigate an apparent system-wide pattern of government treatment of environmental groups seeking public information. The Commissioner was asked to establish an inquiry into the manner in which the province grants or refuses FOI-requested information. Further, the ELC asked the Commissioner to call for submissions from the environmental bodies affected by government’s policies, set a public hearing, issue a report, and issue an Order to remedy the situation.

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