Idealists love laws giving citizens the right to obtain government documents.
That's because in theory, freedom-of-information laws are designed to level the playing field between the governors and the governed. And B.C. has had no shortage of these idealists over the years.
In the early 1990s, the Mike Harcourt–led government introduced a remarkably progressive Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Spurred on by then–NDP MLA Barry Jones and access-to-information activist Darrell Evans, Harcourt permitted requesters to seek reviews at no cost by an independent third-party arbitrator: the information and privacy commissioner.
In the 1990s, I often filed freedom-of-information requests, diligently trying to obtain records of everything from internal reports to politicians' day timers.
In those days, the City of Vancouver took this law seriously, putting a lawyer in charge of overseeing this area.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I taught many students how to make use the act, even testing them on which areas the government could legally withhold information.
But over time, I began to lose faith in B.C.'s freedom-of-information legislation as more of my requests turned up nothing. I found myself mired in bureaucracy without generating much of use to our readers.
Organizations clamped down within a few years
At first, I stopped filing requests to the Vancouver Police Department because this became a complete waste of time.
Later, I realized that the provincial government under Gordon Campbell had politicized the process. In 2003, I reported that the B.C. Ministry of Management Services was tagging requests with sensitivity ratings: high, medium, and low.
According to U.S. freedom-of-information specialist Alasdair Roberts, those rated as highly sensitive took nearly twice as long, on average, to process.
“So the critical question is whether certain types of requesters get treated unequally because their requests get tagged as sensitive,” Roberts said at the time.
The final straw for me came when the City of Vancouver turned up no records on a request for information that had already been released to a different media outlet.
Tricky politicians undermine the process
Governments and agencies have also gotten into the habit of releasing records from requests online to everyone. This undermines reporters' ability to generate scoops.
Another dirty trick is bringing a lawyer into meetings and then claiming that the information is protected by solicitor-client privilege. Then there's the phenomenon known as "oral government"—just don't write anything down so there are no records for pesky media outlets to request.
So this week, I wasn't surprised to hear former B.C. Liberal political aide Tim Duncan's allegation that the provincial government had gone even further by deleting emails in response to a freedom-of-information request concerning the Highway of Tears.
Duncan was working for Transportation Minister Todd Stone when he claimed that this had occurred.
This is yet another way to get around the act.
Stone stated that he had no knowledge of this issue when it became public.
To me, Stone sounded a bit like the cynical Capt. Renault in the movie classic Casablanca, who declared, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."
Two decades ago, a former chief of the defence staff, Jean Boyle, resigned after the military changed the name of documents called "Response to Queries" to "Media Response Lines" to evade freedom-of-information requests. It was a brazen act of chicanery.
The Canadian Armed Forces subsequently disregarded requests for these documents under their old name. That resulted in Boyle's downfall when this was discovered.
I doubt that this week's revelation regarding the B.C. Liberal government will cause any heads to roll in cabinet even if the information and privacy commissioner concludes that there's been a broad-based effort to break the law.
We live in a much more cynical era nowadays than in the early 1990s when some idealists actually believed that the B.C. government could be made more transparent.
These days, it seems, transparency is for losers.
"It's like the West Wing," one B.C. Liberal staffer is alleged to have said. "You do whatever it takes to win."