Politics

'Who cares' about access to information? Murray Rankin used to

The MLA and cabinet minister has a long history of fighting for access to information. Now it's being tainted by his own government

Politics

'Who cares' about access to information? Murray Rankin used to

The MLA and cabinet minister has a long history of fighting for access to information. Now it's being tainted by his own government

Murray Rankin has spent his career working on freedom of information laws. Photo: BC Government / Flickr
Politics

'Who cares' about access to information? Murray Rankin used to

The MLA and cabinet minister has a long history of fighting for access to information. Now it's being tainted by his own government

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'Who cares' about access to information? Murray Rankin used to
Murray Rankin has spent his career working on freedom of information laws. Photo: BC Government / Flickr

For more than 40 years, Murray Rankin has reliably had a lot to say about the importance of government transparency and access to government records. As a graduate student, professor, public-interest lawyer, and member of parliament, Rankin—now MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head and BC’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation—has been a staunch advocate for open government and a strong voice against barriers to access. 

Throughout his long career, freedom of information has been one of his babies. He helped shape freedom of information legislation at both the federal and provincial levels. In the early 80s, the Canadian Bar Association adapted his Harvard Law School thesis on freedom of information to advocate, successfully, for what became the Access to Information Act. 

In 2017, as an MP, Rankin fought to modernize the Act and fought against a $5 application fee for freedom of information requests, calling it “a tollgate on citizens’ right to access” and pointing to the added expense of the government actually processing those fees. He said he submitted “a dozen or more” amendments to that particular bill to try to improve it. 

“If we do not know what is going on and cannot find out, we live in a totalitarian state,” he said in a debate over that legislation.

A couple of years later, he raised a petition to reform the Access to Information Act and Library and Archives Canada, so historical material would not “remain hidden outside of our public archives.”

In the early 90s, BC’s Attorney General, Colin Gablemann, turned to Rankin to oversee the drafting of BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Rankin got in touch with a young lawyer working on the file. He invited the lawyer, Michael McEvoy, who’s now privacy commissioner, out to lunch and “worked him over,” Rankin recalled on Data Subjects, a podcast by the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “Freedom of information at that point, novel though it was in British Columbia, was seen by many as a really important democratic reform initiative. And he ran with it.”  

The Act passed unanimously in 1992. 

“It was really the best of its kind in the world at the time,” says Darrell Evans, executive director of Canadian Institute for Information and Privacy Studies.

‘Who cares?’

Now Rankin’s government is threatening British Columbians’ access to information. The full effects of the proposed amendments to the BC Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act are yet to be clarified. The government has not submitted draft regulations, which are where the minutiae—like the exact amount of a proposed filing fee—would live. The government is disputing its own suggestion of a $25 fee—a suggestion that was made in the legislature—as well as allegations that it would exempt the premier’s office from disclosing files. 

The fee has been the most high-profile of the bill's proposed changes, since it would make a lot of work in the public interest prohibitively expensive. In a tweet, data journalist Chad Skelton raised the Vancouver Sun's annual Sunshine List as a typical example of the kind of popular and valuable reporting that would not be feasible with a $25 fee, since it would cost thousands of dollars in fees alone.

The bill also would allow the government to throw out “repetitious or systematic” requests, like those made by opposition parties to get regular flows of information.

Some, including journalist and freedom of information advocate Stanley Tromp, suspect the $25 fee has been floated as a “red herring” to distract from the rest of the bill and to act as a bargaining chip that would allow the rest of the bill to pass. 

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The bill has been castigated by the Canadian Association of Journalists, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, and even the government’s own Information and Privacy Commissioner, who called aspects of it “exceedingly troubling.” 

Premier John Horgan, widely understood to be the driving force behind the bill, derided any and all concerns over its contents.

“Get real! Who cares? Who cares what’s on my screen of my computer in my office?” he roared during Oral Question Period, to applause from his backbench. 

Murray Rankin used to care. Rankin’s voice, present in major freedom of information debates for his entire career, is conspicuously absent even though he sits on the committee that would have seen the bill throughout the writing process. 

He did not respond to Capital Daily’s requests for an interview regarding the legislation.

But those Rankin fought alongside for freedom of information—including Tromp—are finding they’re fighting this new bill without him. 

“I’ve always admired him and his work since 1977, when he was an advocate for FOI law in Canada,” Tromp said. Now he doesn’t know what to think. “It’s a complete mystery to me; I am still a little stunned. I don’t know how to react. I won’t really know until he explains his position, which he hasn’t done.” 

Calvin Sandborn, like Tromp, has filed countless freedom of information requests over his career. As the legal director of the UVic Environmental Law Centre, of which Rankin has been a board member, Sandborn has a long track record of using freedom of information legislation for holding governments to account for decisions on the environment. 

He says if a fee were applied it would seriously harm peoples’ access to their government’s inner workings. 

“So many people will be deterred from even trying to get information,” he lamented. “You have to understand that it’s very difficult to get information from government anyway.” 

He said he has not spoken with Rankin about the new legislation or Rankin’s support of it. 

Darrell Evans has won national recognition for his work on freedom of information—work Rankin has been part of and supported. Now he is watching politics get the better of him.

“It's a shitty, shitty game. You know, you cannot step into that fray and not get tainted,” he said. But he hasn’t lost all hope. “Maybe at the end of the day, we'll see some more from him. I don't know. I sent off an email to him saying, ‘Please stand strong.’”

Editor’s note: Jimmy Thomson is a board member of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

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'Who cares' about access to information? Murray Rankin used to