Records exist when they don’t: Manitoba slammed for refusing freedom of information request

The Manitoba government is accused of flouting the law after repeated attempts to find out who might be managing the government’s Twitter accounts came to nothing.

The province has not explained why it initially claimed such records existed but could not be released, then later said no records existed, the Manitoba ombudsman said.

“The public body failed to take advantage of opportunities to share information in support of [its] access decisions or search for relevant records,” ombudsman Jill Perron wrote in her report.

The ombudsman deals with numerous complaints of refusal of access.

In 2020, the most recent year for which such information is available, 42% of all complaints under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act involved government departments and other government agencies expected to keep records confidential (not all complaints are substantiated).

Kevin Walby, director of the University of Winnipeg’s Center for Information and Justice Access and a 20-year veteran of filing freedom of information requests to access records, said attempts to obstruction of requests for information suggests the government is not transparent.

“Obfuscation Scheme”

“It’s a bigger issue, because I think it speaks to a pattern of obfuscation, of secrecy that we’ve seen with this government and, frankly, with many governments across Canada,” he said. he declares.

In this example, an initial Freedom of Information request was filed by the NDP in October 2020 for a list of Twitter accounts run by two senior executives on Brian Pallister’s staff.

The party told CBC News it wanted to know if the Twitter activity of the provincial chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, was sometimes run by political actors.

The request was initially denied by Manitoba’s executive council under a section of Manitoba’s Access to Information Act which states that “disclosure could reasonably harm or threaten the security of any property or system “.

After the mediator asked for more information, the public body responded with a new decision. He has now said that the two people, who had roles in communications, did not operate any Twitter accounts and therefore no list of accounts existed.

In 2020, 42% of all FIPPA complaints received by the Ombudsman involved government departments and other public bodies refusing to provide information. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The ombudsman, however, was unhappy, saying the government had not provided evidence on how it came to its new decision, or why it now claims the records do not exist. .

In April 2021, the ombudsman asked for more evidence, but the government’s response fell short of the independent office’s various requests.

A follow-up request from the ombudsman that August was never fired.

This led the ombudsman to write, in a decision last April, that the province denied access and “failed to fulfill its duty to respond accurately to the requester’s request for access”. The decision was forwarded to the NDP, which shared a copy with CBC News.

Simply put, the government is breaking the law, Walby said.

Governments have a responsibility to fully respond to freedom of information requests, he said.

“This conclusion of the mediator is really important because it explains everything. It’s very clear,” he said.

“Anyone reading this in government or anyone reading this who is a student of government or believes in government should be ashamed of themselves because these are very clear details about a broken freedom of information system.”

call the government

He finds that the province sometimes applies an “overbroad application” of sections of the Freedom of Information Act that prohibit the disclosure of information.

“A lot of times they kind of try to see if we’re going to call their bluff, right?” he said.

The Progressive Conservative government recently passed legislation that extends the time public bodies have to respond to requests, which Walby called an amendment that does not benefit users of the system.

Malaya Marcelino, NDP MP for Notre-Dame, accused the government of being secretive.

“It’s very disturbing that this government is constantly trying to sweep these rules under the rug and hide information,” she said. “It’s not pretty and it’s not the right way to run our province.”

New Democrat MP Malaya Marcelino accuses the government of flouting the law by ignoring the ombudsman’s complaints. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The government denied any responsibility.

“As this request was made prior to this administration, we were only made aware of it today. We stand ready to cooperate fully with the Ombudsman in any investigation he may wish to conduct into this matter,” said the spokesperson in a statement. e-mail on Friday, although the same government has been in power throughout, but with a new prime minister and a new inner circle now.

Walby said Manitoba’s ombudsman should have the power to compel government departments or agencies to release information, which is the case in other jurisdictions.

He said he has seen governments on all sides become less transparent in his 20 years of filing claims.