Freedom of information laws are the kind of thing many people either don’t know about at all or are only peripherally aware of, but they are fundamental to the maintenance of a free and open society. They’re like the load-bearing beams of democracy.
These laws allow journalists and even citizens, regular old everyday people, to ask the government for documents and information. Theoretically, the government has to comply unless there’s an overriding interest like people’s privacy, national security or something equally important.
Unfortunately these laws rarely work as intended, because the state has a keen interest in keeping our noses out of its affairs. Especially when those affairs involve thingslike spying on Canadian citizens and probably breaking the law, if government officials can avoid sharing information with the people, they will.
These laws, which were adopted by most western democracies from the late 1960s onward, are in a sad state in many countries, but it’s even worse in Canada. “The privacy and access laws in this country are toothless,” according to Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada.
One mark of just how terrible the federal ATIP laws are is that the Communication Security Establishment Canada, which does electronic surveillance, does not accept online access requests. The online spy agency doesn’t accept document release requests online. Perhaps as an admission of how ludicrous that is, CSEC’s mailing address itself conjures images of Orwell.
Given how shitty the federal laws are in this country, it should come as a great shock that there are provinces with even worse regulations than the federal ones.
Saskatchewan is among the worst offenders in this arena. The province has a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy law that covers provincial government and related institutions, as do all other provinces except for Prince Edward Island. For some reason, though, this law does not extend to municipal police.
So in any city that has its own police department, as opposed to rural areas that depend on the RCMP, police activity is a black hole where things happen — shit goes down, people are arrested, sometimes people on either side are hurt or assaulted — and at the end, no documentation or answers can ever be demanded by those outside the force.
Even Saskatchewan’s privacy commissioner has no power over municipal police. After spending 10 years in that role, Gary Dickson recently stepped down, and it was in part because of this exact problem. Dickson said he “made known to the province for a decade” the glaring loophole in the Local Authority FOIP, and “he has no idea why it has never been followed up on.”
This is especially troublesome because of the nature of police work. Police officers hold incredible power in our society. They are charged with upholding the law and apprehending those who break it, but as we all know, history is rife with incidents of police misconduct. Power is a heady thing.
The Saskatoon Police Service is especially notorious for its “Starlight Tours,” a long-standing but now abandoned (we hope) practice of driving people, usually intoxicated and often aboriginal, outside city limits and leaving them to “walk it off” in order to return to town. This kind of unsanctioned punishment is bad enough on its own, but in an area like Saskatchewan, which gets cold as fuck, it leads to death. And that is exactly what has happened before. In fact, we don’t really know how many deaths were a result of this practice.
And if anyone in Saskatchewan wanted to lodge a complaint against their local police department or acquire documents, Dickson was unable to do anything for them:
We certainly get phone calls and people will email us or write to us and say “I’d like some records that I think the police have.” Or “I have questions about something they’re doing.” And we have to say “Sorry, we have no jurisdiction.”
Richard Rendek, who served as Saskatchewan’s privacy commissioner before Dickson took over, also tried to get the law changed. His focus was less on the exclusion of police and more on beefing up the role so the commissioner could do more than just ask politely that the government release a document or make a change.
“It doesn’t really give you much authority,” Rendek said of the current provincial legislation, “because the thing is that [if the provincial government] don’t want to answer, they just keep stalling and stalling, and it sort of to me defeats the whole purpose of having legislation if you can’t enforce it.”
[Saskatoon StarPhoenix] [image via opensourceway/Flickr]