GUYSBOROUGH – Last week (Jan. 21) the government relaunched its Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) online portal, https://iaprequest.novascotia.ca.
The reboot became necessary after a data breach discovered in April of 2018 on the previous website resulted in a shutdown of the site, a return to mail-in request forms and the creation of a website where the public could only access previously completed requests.
The security breach and the length of time it has taken to restart the system is only one of many issues facing access to information in Nova Scotia. The Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) is quick to highlight two more: the timeliness of request fulfillment and lack of willingness to provide information by both business and other levels of government.
At the regular MODG council meeting on Jan. 20, council was informed that a letter they sent to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment, in regard to the future of a contaminated site that belongs to Irving Oil Ltd. in Guysborough, was met with a response advising the municipality to file a FOIPOP request.
To say that council was not satisfied with that answer would be an understatement. Warden Vernon Pitts said the response was “unacceptable.”
Pitts, in a media interview, went on to outline the lack of success the MODG has had with similar requests.
“The municipality made a FOIPOP request a number of years ago in regard to TDR, Tire Derived Aggregate. We FOIPOPed for information from the Province of Nova Scotia because we thought that that contract was awarded illegally—was our opinion at that time -- and the only way we could find out was to have an actual look at the contract. It took us five years to obtain that information and almost all of it was blacked out, so the information was absolutely useless,” he explained.
It isn’t only the MODG that has gotten a lacklustre response to a recent FOIPOP request. The PC Party of Nova Scotia has run up against the FOIPOP wall in recent months in regard to a request they submitted to obtain the results for air quality testing in public schools. No information was made available.
In a release issued on Jan. 18, PC Education Critic and Dartmouth East MLA Tim Halman said, “I worry that the only reason for the Liberals to withhold the schools’ air quality reviews from the public is that they are embarrassed by the results … If that is the case, then swift action is needed urgently.”
The PC release also stated, “On January 7, after the Liberal Cabinet meeting, Education Minister Zach Churchill confirmed that data from school ventilation reviews was being tracked and kept, but dodged questions about actually releasing that information.”
Tricia Ralph, Nova Scotia's Information and Privacy Commissioner, told The Journal in a Jan. 22 interview that while she could not speak directly to either of these cases, the office encouraged open access to information.
“As a general principal we encourage the ideas of open government and open data,” said Ralph, “but the legislation doesn’t require it. So, it is possible for one government to say to another ‘You have to file a FOIPOP request.’ … I don’t know how common it is, but I suspect it isn’t terribly uncommon. But it is not the only way; government is not restricted or bound by legislation to only reply in the form of a FOIPOP request. They could do it another way. They could just give it out.”
More information about how to request information under FOIPOP is available online at https://oipc.novascotia.ca/faq.