Georgina, Ontario – South Lake Simcoe Naturalists, a volunteer-run nature club, launched a complaint against the Lake Simcoe Regional Conservation Authority (LSRCA) with Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner.
The complaint alleges that LSCRA, a quasi-governmental institution charged with regulating development in wetlands to ensure environmental protection, disposed of documents about a proposed development that it knew or ought to have known were the subject of a Freedom of Information request made by the South Lake Simcoe Naturalists.
On April 21, 2015, the nature club informally requested documents related to a proposal by DG Group, one of Ontario’s largest developers, to build housing in the ecologically sensitive Paradise Island Wetlands. When that request was denied, they made a formal Freedom of Information request the same day.
Between April 24 and April 28, LSRCA publicly admitted on multiple occasions that it had the application documents in its possession, but stated that they intended to return them to DG Group. LSRCA then informed South Lake Simcoe Naturalists on April 29 that the records of DG Group’s application did not exist and therefore could not be disclosed. However, LSRCA seemingly knew it still had the documents and disposed of them the following day by returning all originals to DG Group by courier. Accordingly, the April 29 response was false and misleading and the April 30 disposal of the records deprived SLSN of lawful access to those documents.
“I’ve lived in the Lake Simcoe region for 35 years and have been actively involved in efforts to protect the lake and its tributaries for all of that time,” says well-known Ontario naturalist, researcher, former conservation authority Board member and president of the South Lake Simcoe Naturalists, Paul Harpley. “To shut community members out of the process of determining the future of the wetlands is bad enough, to prevent access to documents is disappointing. We want answers.”
South Lake Simcoe Naturalists is represented by Laura Bowman, a lawyer funded by Ecojustice, a national environmental law charity.
“Disposal of documents subject to an access request is a very serious issue for democracy and transparency,” says Bowman. “We want to work with the LSRCA to protect wetlands, not against them, but this was serious enough that we felt it needed public attention.”
South Lake Simcoe Naturalists expects to hear back from the Information and Privacy Commissioner about whether it will launch an investigation later in 2015.
In the last few years, the Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled on two other situations in which institutions destroyed documents.In 2014, the Ontario legislature passed amendments to freedom of information laws to make this illegal, but these amendments are not yet in-force.