EDITORIAL: ATIPP system broken

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Holding government agencies accountable under Access to Information and Protecting Privacy (ATIPP) legislation is an onerous, often futile task in the NWT.

Yellowknifer knows this from experience.

ATIPP is supposed to give the public access to records held by government bodies and limit government’s ability to refuse that access. The idea, aside from ensuring government information on individual citizens is kept private, is that people can receive information when they ask for it. That means emails and other correspondences, and reports and documents meant to shed light on the inner operations of the bureaucracy.

The NWT is one of the last Canadian jurisdictions where municipal governments are not required to meet minimum access to information and protection of privacy standards.

Elaine Keenan Bengts has been suggesting yearly, for two decades, that municipalities, including the City of Yellowknife, should be included in this law. But forgive our skepticism.

The more likely result will be no increase in privacy protection nor additional relief from stonewalling by city officials — and if you don’t like it, there is not much the privacy commissioner can do about it.

We learned this first-hand a few years ago while attempting to obtain correspondences between Brendan Bell, then chair of the NWT Power Corporation, and the diamond mines concerning proposed hydro line expansion to the mines. Bell was also a vice president at Dominion Diamonds at the time.

The perception of conflict of interest was obvious. Yet the GNWT refused to give us those correspondences, citing privileged information with a third party.

We appealed to the privacy commissioner, who agreed with us, but that is when the veneer on ATIPP fell off completely.

As the privacy commissioner has no actual authority to force the GNWT to provide the information, we found ourselves in court – alone – facing the full might of the territorial government, whose first request to the judge was to seek legal costs.

With much skinnier pockets than the GNWT we were forced to back out, and to this day, what was said between top brass at power corp. and the diamond mines remains shrouded in secrecy.

ATIPP is a broken system that, as we were reminded last month with the patient records being found at the Fort Simpson dump, does little to protect privacy and is fatally weakened when it comes to ensuring government transparency.

Keenan Bengts has done a good job raising and investigating important ATIPP issues but unless the MLAs in the legislative assembly grant her more powers to prosecute and direct governments to act, her office will never amount to being much more than a watchdog – and a toothless one at that. Currently, all she can do is provide recommendations.

We predict the most immediate impact of including the City of Yellowknife into ATIPP will be ballooning costs and increased paperwork.

In Newfoundland and Labrador it was reported that ATIPP requests over the past three years have increased the workload of municipal staff by 140 per cent. By our count, the GNWT has nine staff members whose primary responsibility is dealing with ATIPP requests.

How many people will the city have to hire and how much will that cost taxpayers? What will ATIPP do to prevent data breaches like the one that occurred in 2017 that saw the release of hundreds of emails from former SAO Dennis Kefalas?

If MLAs were at all serious about transparency and protecting people’s privacy they would give the privacy commissioner actual powers to act.

As it stands right now, ATIPP is expensive busywork that does little to keep people’s private information safe or hold governments to account. None of this will change should the city be brought under the ATIPP umbrella.

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