Accountability needed here, says commissioner

A review of Yukon's access-to-information laws is a yawn-inducing affair for most residents, if there ever was one.

A review of Yukon’s access-to-information laws is a yawn-inducing affair for most residents, if there ever was one.

But it’s important if you’re at all concerned with how your confidential information is handled, says Tracy-Anne McPhee, Yukon’s access-to-information commissioner.

There are more than 100 boards and committees that help do the work of government. They grant liquor licenses, review student suspensions and social assistance disputes, and much more.

In some cases, these organizations handle “very personal, sensitive information,” such as medical or financial records.

But they aren’t legally obliged to protect that information to the same lengths as government, because they don’t fall under the scope of Yukon’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Municipalities don’t fall under the act, either. But they’re expected to comply with access-to-information laws in many provinces. They could here, too.

This enlarged scope could even include the most secretive, opaque government organizations in the Yukon: First Nations.

The likelihood of political blowback makes that seem highly unlikely. But if First Nation residents want to see their governments behave more openly, they could always petition the territory to include it under this law.

Currently, the territory is set to expand the act’s scope using a fairly narrow formula. And this criteria would only be a guideline. Cabinet would have final say.

McPhee wishes the territory would take the opposite approach. The “default” should be that a government-funded agency complies with access-to-information laws, unless there’s good reason to make an exception, she said.

“The public expects that,” said McPhee.

Yukon’s Department of Highways and Public Works is conducting the review until June 30. To learn more or make a comment, visit the department’s website.

Another government initiative seems stuck in the mud. It’s the plan to introduce whistleblowing legislation.

A government report recently suggested such a law could be redundant, because the territory already has an ombudsman. But the two issues are “not at all the same,” said McPhee, who also serves as ombudsman.

McPhee isn’t able to launch an investigation without a complainant who’s willing to stick his or her neck out. And that complainant needs to have a personal stake in the matter.

So, if a government worker knew of a chemical spill that had been shushed-up, but was not personally harmed, McPhee would have little leeway to help, she said.

As far as McPhee knows, ombudsmen in other Canadian jurisdictions all have broader investigative powers.

McPhee has dealt with her share of complainants who weren’t willing to proceed with a complaint, for fear of reprisal. Whistleblowing legislation would offer protection to such people.

“Obviously, that’s a key element,” she said.

It’s especially important for a place like the Yukon, where communities are small and many residents’ livelihoods depend on the government.

“It’s always something they need to take into account,” said McPhee.

Provinces such as Manitoba have extended whistleblowing laws to include the private sector. That’s something Yukon should also consider, she said.

The government’s suggested access-to-information laws would protect individuals from making public disclosures. But that’s not true either, said McPhee.

In most provinces, access-to-information laws include an override to allow disclosures, that would otherwise be blocked for confidentiality concerns, if they’re in the public interest.

Yukon has no such provision, although McPhee has asked, so far without success, for this to change.

McPhee’s jobs as access-to-information commissioner and ombudsman are both quarter-time positions. It’s not enough.

As a result, she’s received several complaints that have gathered dust for a few months without being investigated. “It has the potential of questioning the usefulness of our office,” said McPhee.

She’s asked for her position to become a full-time job since the autumn of 2007, so far, to no avail.

McPhee likes to think she offers government value for their money. Whether politicians appreciate her advice is an open question.

She points to a case last year, when the Health Department dropped several hundred people from the healthcare rolls because they hadn’t completed a survey that aimed to weed-out non-residents.

After McPhee received complaints, she found that some legitimate residents had been cut-off, simply because they hadn’t returned the survey.

McPhee scolded the department and recommended that next time, they take further efforts to reach residents about to be axed. The department agreed.

“Next time it will be different,” said McPhee. “And it will be better. That’s real value for government. It’s about making government better.”

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