Yukon’s quarter time right to information czar

Ten hours a week isn’t a long time to oversee Yukon’s access-to-information disputes. But that’s as much time as Tracy-Anne McPhee has.

Ten hours a week isn’t a long time to oversee Yukon’s access-to-information disputes.

But that’s as much time as Tracy-Anne McPhee has.

She wears two hats, as Yukon’s information and privacy commissioner and as the territory’s ombudsman, on a half-time salary. Effectively, each job is only quarter-time.

She’s asked twice for the territory to raise her position to full-time pay. Twice she’s been denied.
“I didn’t receive any reasons,” she said.

Meanwhile, work piles up. Reviews of denied information requests and investigations into alleged government malfeasance go unaddressed far longer than she’d like.

Such is the state of affairs on Right to Know Week.

It’s not unusual for British Columbia to tweak its access-to-information law once a year. Yukon’s act, by comparison, has only been amended once since it was created in 1996, “and that was at the behest of government,” said McPhee.

She’s long called for the territory to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the law. It has chosen not to.

Instead, last summer the territory started a review that focused on nine questions, which all played to the territorial government’s advantage.

McPhee offered 18 replies, touching on broader points.

Among the bigger shortcomings of the law is its limited reach. Municipal governments and Crown corporations are not included in the act. Nor is the college or the Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board. And it’s a legal grey area whether school boards and various commissions are currently included.

McPhee wants all these public bodies clearly included in the revised act.
“Vast technological changes” have also occurred since the access-to-information law was written, said McPhee. At the time, legislators did not imagine health records would become accessible online.

Today, Canada’s governments are spending billions to make this a reality.
“Times have changed and the act has not kept pace,” said McPhee.
“It doesn’t allow for the protection of personal health information, which is a major flaw.”

Other improvements could be made without tweaking the law. Producing guidelines for each department’s access-to-information co-ordinators would be a start, said McPhee.
“The government doesn’t have any guidelines for their own staff about how to trip through these problems or wiggle your way through an access request and properly complete it. Most governments have extensive guidelines.”

Staffing could be improved as well. Only one department – Health and Social Services – has a full-time access-to-information co-ordinator, said McPhee. This may explain why more than one-third of access-to-information requests face delays beyond the government’s usual 30-day limit.

And the territory has yet to adopt what McPhee calls a “culture of openness.”

Responsiveness to information requests varies from department to department. But some officials have yet to wrap their heads around the part of the act that states they must release information to the public unless they have a good reason not to.
“Embarrassment is not a reason to withhold information,” she said.
“Adopting a culture of openness would be saying to every department, everywhere across government, ‘Your job is to give out information this government holds, unless there’s a reason not to.’”

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