B.C. government’s short-circuiting citizens from accessing their rights to information earned it the 2021 Code of Silence Provincial Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy
British Columbia Premier John Horgan, Minister of Citizens’ Services Lisa Beare, and the provincial government of B.C. have been selected as the 2021 recipients of the Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy in the provincial category.
The B.C. government was selected as the recipient for its efforts to materially harm the public’s right to information through new legislation. On October 18, 2021, the Horgan government introduced Bill 22, an Act to amend B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
The legislation was decried by many press freedom advocacy groups before being passed in the legislature on the grounds that it would, for example, introduce a fee for filing freedom of information requests for government records and remove the Office of the Premier from the schedule of public bodies covered by the act.
Premier Horgan has dismissed concerns about the decision to remove his office from the schedule by claiming that he is “not that interesting”. Materials submitted to the Code of Silence jury, from B.C.’s Open Information website, contradict that statement. The Premier’s Office has since been reinstated in the schedule by government amendment. The bill was passed on Nov. 25, 2021, before the Special Committee to review the FIPPA submitted its report on the Act, which is due in June 2022.
“The B.C. government’s bold efforts to significantly walk-back transparency legislation has undermined freedom of the press and the public's ability to monitor the provincial government’s actions," said Patti Sonntag, a board member with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).
“Introducing a financial barrier to people seeking to exercise their information rights will disproportionately impact low-income requesters, including First Nations seeking to substantiate land claims and land-related grievances, as the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs wrote in an open letter. This really sets the Premier, and his government, apart from the rest of the pack this year.”
In addition to the Horgan government, the Code of Silence jury also bestowed a dishonourable mention to Ontario’s Ministry of Education.
The Ontario Ministry of Education is being recognized for its refusal to provide information on the methodology it used to greenlight its controversial pre-pandemic plan to increase classroom sizes in the province’s public schools. Ongoing efforts to obtain this information have been refused on the grounds of cabinet privilege.
The Code of Silence Awards are presented annually by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University (CFE), and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The intent of the awards is to call public attention to government or publicly-funded agencies that work hard to hide information that should be available under access-to-information legislation.
Last year, Quebec’s Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks was awarded a Code of Silence Award in the provincial category. Previous winners also include the Government of Alberta, Ambulance New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure.
Last week, Indigenous Services Canada was recognized for its outstanding achievement in government secrecy at the federal level for its ongoing failure to provide details surrounding test results of drinking water in many Indigenous communities, as well as contracts negotiated with private water companies.
The Code of Silence Award recipients in the municipal and law enforcement categories will be announced over the next two weeks.