Ronan O'Beirne

Fatal Care” and the sad state of access to information

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The Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald have rightly earned praise this week for their sprawling and devastating series, “Fatal Care,” on the unreported deaths of 145 children in foster care since 1999. It’s a masterwork of investigative reporting: a six-part series on a matter of public interest involving a vulnerable population; documents posted online; an interactive database, where readers can find out more about the children who died. It’s got “Michener” written all over it (not that we think the reporters were motivated by awards).

And like many investigations, it comes from a freedom of information (FOI) request—also known as an access to information (ATI) request—but because this is Canada, the Journal actually submitted the request four years ago. Provincial affairs columnist, Karen Kleiss, wrote that an “arduous negotiation process” ended with the government handing over heavily redacted documents. The Journal of course appealed this, and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner finally took the side of access last June.

We wish this absurd timeline were a surprise.

In the most recent FOI audit by Newspapers Canada, Alberta got a “B” for how quickly it released records, and another “D” for how much it disclosed—or, how much wasn’t redacted. Overall, the provinces got a “C” for completeness of disclosure.

Things aren’t much better in Ottawa. The Office of the Information Commissioner earlier this year wrote that there had been a “significant deterioration” in the federal access regime, owing to a lack of leadership and resources. No wonder Canadian Journalists for Free Expression called access “a hollow right” in Canada.

After four long years, the Journal got the records it requested because the appeals system worked more or less how it’s supposed to. But not everyone has the time, resources and will to endure that kind of fight. There are surely hundreds of stories untold because records are tied up in miles of red tape. Something needs fixing.

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