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B.C. information and privacy commissioner pledges shaky support to Bill 6

B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong speaks to the media in Victoria on Feb. 16, 2016.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's acting information and privacy commissioner has offered qualified support for a new law, that the Liberals hope to pass quickly, requiring the civil service to document key government decisions.

The province's Finance Minister announced Bill 6 earlier this week as the first effort by a Canadian jurisdiction to enshrine a "legislature duty to document" in government. Privacy commissioners and government accountability advocates have repeatedly called for such a requirement in a province where the government has been accused of deleting records to shield them from release or not generating documents in the first place.

Acting commissioner Drew McArthur said the bill is a step toward enacting a duty to document, but only amends the Information Management Act instead of writing such a duty into the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, with independent oversight and sanctions for non-compliance.

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And while it improves the powers of the chief records officer, Mr. McArthur said in a statement issued Thursday that the "encouraging" measure does not apply to all public bodies.

"Ultimately, my office – and the public – will have to wait and see how these new powers are used and whether or not they are effective," he wrote.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong said the act will bolster the powers of the province's chief records officer, whose responsibilities include promoting effective information-management across government, and overseeing information-management legislation.

The minister said he hopes the bill will pass before the house rises next Thursday ahead of campaigning for the May. 9 provincial election.

"That's my hope," Mr. de Jong told reporters at the legislature this week.

British Columbia's Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has said the proposed legislation is full of half measures.

And on Thursday, opposition parties were critical of the government efforts, which come after a highly critical report from the former information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, that spotlighted government shortcomings in keeping adequate e-mail records, as well as the willful destruction of records requested by freedom of information.

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Ms. Denham was responding to a case, disclosed in 2015, in which a whistleblower alleged his former Ministry of Transportation supervisor deleted documents requesting information about an investigation into missing and murdered women along the Highway of Tears.

Subsequent to the report, another former information and privacy commissioner, David Loukidelis, recommended further reforms after being asked to review B.C. government practices on keeping records.

Doug Routley, a critic on the file for the BC NDP, said the Liberals should be embarassed.

"But they seem immune to that." The bill, he said, is not stringent enough in mandating a requirement to document.

An NDP government, said Mr. Routley, would draw from NDP private members' bills on the issue, enacting tighter rules on the destruction of documents, and compelling the creation of documents to more clearly chart government decisions.

B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said the issue is important because the public needs to know why decisions were made, including who was influenced and consulted on decisions.

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He said the bill doesn't allow for public confidence that there will be transparency within government.

Mr. Weaver said his party would be inclined to take a closer look at enacting Ms. Denham's recommendations on the issue.

Responding to the opposition criticisms, the finance ministry said in a statement that the bill includes provisions requiring the head of a government body to ensure their organization has a system to create and maintain a record of government decisions.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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