Canada’s access to information time warp: the Yukon

The Yukon government is "wildly out of step with the rest of the country" by refusing to disclose the salaries and bonuses it pays its top bosses, says the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

The Yukon government is “wildly out of step with the rest of the country” by refusing to disclose the salaries and bonuses it pays its top bosses, says the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

“I’m frankly shocked. I just assumed this was a completely archaic battle that journalists had won long ago,” said president Mary Agnes Welch.

“That’s so 1974.”

An access to information request made by Yukon News for the salaries and bonuses paid to deputy ministers was recently denied on the grounds that disclosing such information would be an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy. The paper is appealing the decision.

Such disclosures are common in most Canadian jurisdictions, said Welch. Take Winnipeg, where she has worked for the past seven years as a reporter with the Free Press. For as long as Welch can remember, Manitoba’s legislature has disclosed the salaries of senior staff.

“I can turn around right now and reach up to my bookshelf and get a phonebook-sized list of the salaries of every provincial employee who makes more than $50,000,” she said.

Winnipeg’s city hall makes similar disclosures, she said. Whitehorse, by comparison, only discloses the pay band of its managers.

Welch used to think it was a drag that Manitobans had to dig through reports to find such information. It’s far easier in Ontario, where such information can be searched online.

Then she heard how things are run in Yukon.

“We’re so far beyond that kind of stuff now. I can’t believe you guys are still fighting for this in the Yukon,” she said.

Deputy ministers are political appointees who effectively run the government. They’re paid handsomely to do so: in 2008, Yukon’s deputies received salaries in the range of $138,897 to $180,403. The territory won’t disclose details beyond this.

It’s private.

That explanation wouldn’t stand in any province Welch knows of. Unreasonable invasions of privacy may cover the disclosure of health records and an employee’s personnel file, “but in most jurisdictions it doesn’t include your salary,” she said.

Today’s access to information fights in southern Canada have to do with comparatively niggly details, such as obtaining the full pension benefits of retiring university presidents in Ontario.

“That’s seven steps beyond what you’re fighting about,” said Welch.

There’s an irony in the Yukon government’s penchant for secrecy, she said. It’s this: when salary details are regularly disclosed, there’s often little attention paid to them. “It’s often mundane once released,” said Welch.

But insisting on secrecy suggests there’s something to hide. It also suggests that the public doesn’t have a right to know how its tax money is being spent.

That’s why in much of southern Canada such information is regularly disclosed by governments, without a freedom-of-information fight.

But in Yukon, for now, the answer being offered by the territory is that it’s none of your business.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.

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