Editorial: Access to information a key democratic right

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By Korie Marshall, Editor

Staff from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations have been working on the proposed Natural Resource Roads Act project, and they made a presentation at the Union of BC Municipalities convention last month. It sounds to me like it was well received, and the Act sounds like it will be a good step forward for a lot of backcountry issues we care about here in the Robson Valley, like keeping access to recreation areas open, and a better understanding of who is responsible for safety and maintenance on our resource and forestry roads.

I’ve been trying to ask the provincial government about when the bill will go to the legislature. The response I got from the media person was that it’s not yet gone to the legislature.

So I tried to ask the minister. I got another response from the media guy, saying they know I’m interested in the Act and they’ll let me know when it goes to the legislature. And he reminded me of “media protocol,” that all my questions should go through him. He says I’ll get a faster response that way.

That is his protocol, not mine, and he still hasn’t answered my question. Nor do I expect he’ll remember to let me know when the Act goes to the legislature. The same ministry didn’t do a very good job of letting people know about recent public input meetings regarding the Ancient Forest and a proposed plan to make it into a park. They did not advertise locally and only sent us a press release the week of the event and an hour before our press deadline.

By the way, did I mention I’ve made a Freedom of Information request for information from the same Ministry, and received no response? But I didn’t follow up, and now I don’t think I have any recourse under the law. Or maybe, some six months later, the ministry is still getting around to telling me it’s going to take more time?

I kind of expect that sort of response from big corporations – they are looking after their own interests, their own bottom line, and a good skeptic will question anything they say anyway. But I don’t think that is how our government should work.

The problem is not just one ministry, or just our provincial government. I read an editorial yesterday morning on very similar issues with the federal government.

“One of the most troublesome aspects of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has been its iron-clad control over the flow of information, with the Prime Minister’s Office often acting as the gatekeeper for what the public will be told and when,” write Fred Vallance-Jones and Emily Kitagawa. “Answers to reporters are given via pre-packaged ‘media lines’ that are evacuated of any meaningful content; government scientists are barred from speaking about their work; and even cabinet ministers need the OK from the PMO to speak publicly.”

In our own editorial last week, we talked about recent attacks on Muslims in Canada, comparing it to Kristallnacht in pre-war Germany, when Jewish shops and synagogues were ransacked and the government did nothing to stop them. A reader said it was a bad comparison, because we’re talking Hitler Germany, and “This is Canada.”

Canada is not different simply because we are on a different continent, or we have a different name, or it’s a different century. We are different because we have laws and social systems that are different. We enacted the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. It was supposed to unify us and guarantee us a number of rights, including democratic and equality rights. But when the government controls and distorts the flow of information to its citizens, how can we exercise our rights, and know that they are being upheld? How can we know anything if we are not allowed to ask questions, or if we cannot get answers to the questions we ask?

Monday night’s election of a Liberal majority government in Canada felt like a massive change to many people who were watching. But the new government hasn’t done anything yet except get elected. What I really hope for is an improvement in the flow of information from government to the people, and I hope their openness will inspire better communication from provincial and local governments.

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