Sept. 26 to 30 is recognized internationally as "Right to Know Week" and is a time to raise awareness about freedom of information legislation.
Freedom of information legislation gives you the right to access most documents held by public organizations. According to the Supreme Court of Canada, the overall purpose of freedom of information (FOI) is to facilitate democracy.
Within Canada, there are 14 FOI laws, one for each province and territory and one at the federal level.
The federal law, which was passed in 1982, is called the Access to Information Act and gives you a right to access documents held by 269 federal organizations.
The B.C. law is called the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. It was ushered in by a New Democrat MLA from Burnaby, Barry Jones, in 1992. The act applies to approximately 3,000 public organizations around the province, including provincial ministries, municipal governments, police departments, universities, and many more.
The basic idea of how FOI legislation works is simple.
First, it gives you a right to access all documents held by a public body. It then limits this right in situations where access would cause harm, such as interfering with a criminal investigation or invading personal privacy.
Most FOI laws create an appeals body, called an Information Commissioner, to investigate complaints that a public body responded inappropriately.
Learning to use FOI legislation can take some effort. A place to start is to look at what other people are ordering from the B.C. government at www.openinfo.gov.bc.ca.
A misconception about FOI legislation is that it's a "method of last resort" to be used after all other means of access have failed. Neither the provincial nor federal law impose such a requirement. A more useful way of thinking about it is that it provides a "method of assured access."
Another misconception is that using your access enfranchisement is antagonistic. This is also false. The act of using FOI legislation is no more antagonistic than checking a book out from the library.
Because it's Right to Know Week, it's relevant to reflect on how Burnaby residents have used freedom of information legislation.
In the past year, the Burnaby NOW has documented four occasions where people have used their access rights. In February, Gordon Watson's letter to the editor claimed that documents accessed through FOI cast doubts on a public health officer's earlier public statements about raw milk. Homara Ahmad and George Kovacic each used FOI to access documents from the school district.
And in the July 22nd issue, Mayor Derek Corrigan explained that city council used freedom of information legislation to acquire TransLink's business case about faregates. Both Mr. Kovacic and city council objected to the responses provided by the school district and TransLink and have sought reviews by B.C.'s Information Commissioner.
As the municipal election approaches, an important discussion to have is how the City of Burnaby should be using freedom of information legislation.
By accessing the TransLink business case and forwarding a complaint to the Information Commissioner, city council demonstrated its commitment to protecting Burnaby taxpayers from wasteful government projects. The city has used its access rights on more than one occasion. In 2009, the environmental service department used the Access to Information Act to acquire information from Environment Canada about a toxic spill in Byrne Creek. In so doing, the city reflected council's commitment to our ecology.
Burnaby residents who value fiscal responsibility and environmental protection should applaud the city's uses of freedom of information legislation.
But what if your values are different? Perhaps you are concerned about economic development and think the city should use FOI to advance major infrastructure projects, as did the City of Port Moody when their council used provincial and federal FOI laws to access documents about funding of the Evergreen Line? Or perhaps you are committed to making Burnaby more hospitable to social diversity and want to know how the city has used its access enfranchisement to protect people from mistreatment?
The reason why it's important to recognize how the City of Burnaby uses - and doesn't use - freedom of information legislation is because it tells us about the values of our civic institutions and leaders.
During "Right to Know Week" consider using freedom of information legislation. And in the run-up to the municipal election, ask candidates to describe how they have used - or plan to use - freedom of information legislation to achieve civic goals.
Mark Weiler is a local expert on Freedom of Information legislation.