Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

Watchdog highlights discrimination against environmental groups by BC government

An investigation by the provincial Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner into the way the BC Ministry of
Environment has responded to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted by environmental groups has led to broad changes within the Ministry.

The investigation, one of only four undertaken by the Commissioner’s Office in the last five years, was triggered by a complaint filed by eight environmental organizations in the summer of 2006. The groups alleged there was a ‘systemic pattern of discrimination’ by the Ministry of Environment against conservationists seeking access to public information.

The complaint was filed by the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of the Dogwood Initiative, Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund), Raincoast Conservation Society,
Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch, T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Association, West Coast Environmental Law, West Kootenay Ecosociety and the Wilderness Committee.

The findings of the Commissioner’s Office, released in a report today, determined “there appeared to be a significant problem with the processing of requests,” filed by environmentalists and “there might be some basis for the allegation of a systemic problem.” The Commissioner also found environmental groups faced “an
extraordinarily long average processing time”, and were charged fees almost twice the average rate.

“This is a good news story and a bad news story.
The bad news is that the Commissioner’s data suggests that environmental groups have not been treated fairly by government. That is bad news for environmental groups, and for all those concerned about the way that our democracy works,” commented
Calvin Sandborn Legal Director of the Environmental Law Clinic. “But the good news is that the Commissioner’s office has now prompted the Ministry of Environment to remedy that situation.”

Based on the findings of the investigation the Ministry has agreed to change the way it responds to environmental groups and is implementing a plan to improve its processing of requests. The Complaint Resolution Plan includes a report card that will annually evaluate the Ministry’s progress. The report card will be made public March 31, 2008.

“The changes the Ministry of Environment is making to improve FOI performance could be a real breakthrough,” said Darrell Evans, director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, an FOI watchdog group. “We have monitored the FOI performance of government ministries, and in many cases, their failure to perform, for 15 years. If these changes were instituted across all ministries, it would be a huge step toward fulfilling the BC Liberals’ promise to
revitalize the freedom of information program.”

“Full and fair access to information is key to good government because it helps the public hold elected officials accountable for
their decisions,” said Randy Christensen, Ecojustice Lawyer. “We are pleased that the Commissioner has substantiated our concerns and look forward to the BC government mending its ways by implementing the Commissioner’s recommendations.”

“Internally, we’ve known for years that environmental groups have had a harder time getting government information, were more likely to be charged fees and have had to wait longer than other requesters,” said Gwen Barlee, Wilderness Committee Policy Director. “It’s a relief to finally have these problems acknowledged by
an independent third party. We hope this represents a shift in the Ministry of Environment’s culture of denial.”

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