Good morning! Wendy Cox here today.
The NDP government’s bill to alter the province’s Freedom of Information legislation has been relentlessly attacked for its proposal to impose one of the highest fees in Canada to request information, and for measures to exempt the Premier’s office from inquiry and handcuff the privacy commissioner’s jurisdiction.
Journalism schools, one of the province’s biggest unions, the privacy commissioner himself and the BC Liberal opposition, among others, have decried the bill, which passed second reading Tuesday without any NDP MLA rising to advocate for it. Instead, the NDP used its majority to push the bill into committee stage, where it will likely sail through to become law.
After the vote, Opposition House Leader Mike de Jong slammed the 50 NDP MLAs who voted against allowing the bill to be examined by the all-party legislature committee specifically designed to regularly review the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act.
“Not one of them had the temerity to stand in this House and provide any rationale, any argument, any opinion for why the proposal to send this to a committee was improper, unreasonable, unworthy of support,” Mr. de Jong said.
“A government armed with a majority that now governs on this basis: we’ll do what we want, when we want, because we can.”
The minister responsible for the bill, Culture Minister Lisa Beare, maintained Tuesday, as she has throughout, that the changes in the bill are designed to improve the ability for British Columbians to access “the services that they need, by continuing to strengthen their privacy protections and to continue to give them access to their personal information in a timely manner.”
British Columbia’s act was the first of its kind in Canada, introduced by an NDP government in the wake of the scandalous tenure of former premier Bill Vander Zalm. Of the 14 Canadian provincial, territorial and federal governments, seven – including B.C. – have no fees to ask for information.
Using the act can be unwieldy and time consuming. Applicants rarely get their requests returned within the mandated 30 days and when they are returned, the documents are heavily redacted. Few would argue the act wasn’t in need of a refresh.
But journalists and opposition politicians have successfully used it to do their jobs: accessing documents that shed light on how government decisions get made.
On Tuesday, the Liberals demonstrated just that.
During Question Period, the Opposition released documents obtained under the act to show that the province’s E-Comm system, the agency that manages 911 calls, was woefully understaffed. In early June, three weeks before a deadly heat wave, a data analyst for the agency warned that calls for an ambulance had been going up and the response time by the ambulance service had been declining. The analyst wrote that the BC Ambulance Service “is compromising public safety overall by negatively impacting 911 answerability.”
Between June 20 to July 29, historic heat records were shattered and the BC Coroners Service and the province reported 569 “heat-related deaths.” Most of the fatalities were people 70 years and older.
As calls flooded in, 911 operators had a duty to stay on the telephone with the person seeking help until either fire or ambulance paramedics could respond. But staff in those services were themselves backlogged, waiting for patients to be seen in emergency rooms. As a result, some operators were on calls for hours with increasingly desperate people and were unable to pick up other calls coming in.
The documents show there was a scramble to recruit more call-takers by pulling people off vacation, tapping recently retired workers and even reaching out to students who had been on the short-list for employment but hadn’t been hired.
Health Minister Adrian Dix was forced in the legislature once again to defend his government’s handling of the crisis, noting that the NDP have dramatically stepped up funding for the BC Ambulance Service. But the documents provide a vivid, desperate look behind the scenes as the catastrophic event unfolded.
On June 28, Jasmine Bradley, E-Comm’s director of corporate communications, wrote an e-mail to E-Comm’s executive leadership team in which she shared a Reddit post that she surmised was written by someone on E-Comm’s staff. The post was a detailed explanation of why 911 staff were helpless to respond to the mounting crisis.
Ms. Bradley noted in the e-mail that the post contains “nothing that’s untrue – but it does make me nervous to think about more and more people potentially speaking out publicly. Although perhaps that will just add to the pressure the provincial government is feeling.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.