643 freedom of information requests: The Narwhal’s year of fighting for transparency

Governments continue to put up roadblocks that promote secrecy, flying in the face of the law and thwarting accountability
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Six hundred and forty-three.

That’s how many freedom of information requests our journalists at The Narwhal filed across the country in 2023 as they dug deep to uncover information governments would otherwise keep secret.

We file such a large volume of freedom of information requests because there are too many secretive government officials across the country who avoid being transparent or answering questions about the issues you care about.

But for every request that leads to groundbreaking stories — from the Greenbelt scandal in Ontario to lobbying and greenwashing by oil and gas giants — there are countless more that are met with efforts by government bodies to delay or deny access to important information you have a right to know.

Case in point: earlier this month, I got a copy of a contract that revealed a municipal government in Canada had hired consultants to help it respond to a freedom of information request from Ainslie Cruickshank, The Narwhal’s biodiversity reporter.

The Regional District of East Kootenay, a rural government in southeastern British Columbia, signed an agreement with a Vancouver-based firm called PrivacyWorks Consulting to pay $125 per hour for freedom of information services. The local government approached the firm a few weeks before the deadline, asking for advice on getting an extension since the records weren’t ready. Officials signed a deal with PrivacyWorks on Sept. 21, right after the district estimated it would take between 300 to 400 hours of work to process about 4,000 pages of records in response to a freedom of information request sent by Ainslie all the way back in May.

Ainslie was trying to get information about how and why the local government approved a major real estate project that would result in the construction of luxury homes through a wildlife corridor hosting at least 10 rare or endangered species near the Rocky Mountain tourist resort town of Fernie. The regional district gave the project a green light after public hearings in which many residents expressed their opposition.

Freedom of information laws exist in Canada to protect your right to access government records. They are the only way we can request information or demand answers that the government is legally required to provide.
An aerial photograph of the land between the Fernie Alpine Resort and Mount Fernie Provincial Park, where Handshake Holdings is hoping to build up to 90 luxury homes

While there’s nothing wrong with a consulting firm selling services based on its expertise — PrivacyWorks told me it works with a number of public bodies and can provide training to help these organizations — Ainslie’s ordeal serves as a reminder of the incredible obstacles journalists face to get information that should be public in the first place.

So far, the regional government says it has spent $5,700 on its contract with PrivacyWorks.

And despite all the public money spent on consultants, Ainslie is still awaiting a response to her request for information from May.

Public institutions could avoid spending thousands of dollars on consultants if they were more open and transparent to begin with: if they made it a habit to explain how they are making decisions that can impact public finances, public health, public safety and the environment before journalists pushed them. And it’s up to public institutions — Crown corporations, publicly-funded schools, police forces and every level of government — to take responsibility.

You have a right to know this information. Your freedom to understand and comment on government actions is compromised when public officials refuse to share the whole truth about how they make decisions that affect you.

Since the beginning of 2023, reporters at The Narwhal have spent over $6,000 on all of our formal information requests.

These also include searches for corporate records, court filings, property records and regulatory documents. Some of this digging can take years to resolve as we use all of the legal tools at our disposal, including freedom of information laws, pursuing legal challenges and requesting inquiries by watchdogs or in the courts to shake loose all of the information that belongs to members of the public like you.

But we don’t have an unlimited pot of money. Our independent, non-profit news organization can’t afford to hire consultants that charge $125 an hour to help us uncover secrets. 

Thanks to readers like you, though, we are able to put in our own time and use the funds we have at our disposal to unearth whatever information we can. If you want to help us keep up this work in 2024, there’s no better time: all donations to The Narwhal are being matched through Dec. 31.

Happy holidays to all, except for public officials who pay consultants $125 an hour to help them delay or deny access to information.

Mike De Souza
Managing editor

P.S. As one new Narwhal donor put it: “The Narwhal ensures essential transparency without which abuse of power occurs unchecked. Keep up the good work.” More than 700 readers have made the leap to give what they can this December (thank you!). Will you join the chorus of people who are making double the difference?
Yes, I want my donation matched!

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This week in The Narwhal

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POV: Journalists at The Narwhal, waiting on government officials to send them documents after they file hundreds of freedom of information requests — thanks to your generous donations. Give what you can before the end of the year to support our public-interest reporting and we’ll send you a charitable tax receipt!
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