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Les Leyne: Fix was in early on freedom-of-information bill, say critics

An advocacy group dug up details they say show the government’s mind was made up before hearings were over
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The B.C. legislature's main dome. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The NDP government’s main defence to the barrage of criticism about its information and privacy law changes is that they were written after a lot of consultation.

True, up to a point. The government provided a lot of opportunities to provide input.

But there’s a difference between getting input and ­paying attention to it.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs made that clear by ­roasting the NDP this week for ignoring their concerns. And an advocacy group dug up details they say show the government’s mind was made up before hearings were over.

Revelations this week suggest that the bill was mostly a done deal last spring. The main elements were put to cabinet in March and previewed privately to the NDP caucus last June. The most contentious part – the new fee charged for every application not involving your own personal information – was discussed internally. But the chief says never with them. And the caucus meeting came the same day another round of “consultations” was just beginning.

There were consultations two years earlier where the government may have been more open-minded. But the record this year suggests decisions were made before the last round of hearings.

The script for Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare at that meeting stresses the rising cost of freedom-of-information compliance. It states: “Some measures we are planning to reduce of the impact of these increasing FOI requests include: a minor application fee … limits to FOI requests not related to government business and expanded criteria under which a public body can apply to the commissioner to disregard a request.”

The documents were released — two-thirds of them censored — after the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association filed an FOI request for the background to the bill. After being rebuffed and pleading numerous times for a response, it was released Tuesday. That was the same day the government announced it was shutting down debate on the bill as of Thursday.

Beare’s script also notes that privacy protection by way of requiring data storage to stay in Canada was being downgraded. “Stakeholders, including the information and privacy commissioner may not agree with some of the amendments and may voice their concern.

“This package will be significant and I will need the support of colleagues like you to move this forward.”

Although the document shows the government had a very clear idea of the changes it wanted made, there was an MLA’s kit showing how they could help encourage people to send their views.

Whether the responses made any difference is doubtful. One of the Q and As in the package was “When can we expect to see changes to the legislation?”

The answer was non-specific, but hinted it would be a while: “We need to ensure we get this right.”

But the package of amendments was introduced in the legislature Oct. 18, bypassing a legally required committee review entirely.

Although the record shows numerous engagements with various First Nations leadership bodies, this week one of them fired a rocket at the government over how misleading and useless it all was.

The letter to Beare said: “Your characterization of the new fee as modest displays astounding ignorance and insensitivity, since legal processes for redress for historical losses require First Nations to make multiple formal requests for records. …

“It is especially egregious that the introduction of an application fee was never discussed with First Nations.”

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said it is “nonsensical” that a government committed to reconciliation, transparency and accountability would impose further financial hardship on First nations. Many claims for compensation require searches of government records through FOI requests.

The chiefs group said the bill breaches the Indigenous rights declaration, which the NDP adopted as law.

So just as the government was enshrining the need for “free, prior and informed consent” from First Nations, the chiefs are accusing it of bypassing that.

Apart from measures that were never revealed during consultation, the chiefs’ letter also cited several amendments that disregard concerns they expressed during that engagement process.

Just So You Know: The NDP cut off debate on the bill and forced a vote Thursday as the legislature adjourned. Soon after, Attorney General David Eby and Indigenous Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin issued a statement “in celebration” of how they recognized First Nations rights in other unrelated bills.

They clearly didn’t get the memo.

lleyne@timescolonist.com