N.S. rejects findings calling for release of documents on youth jail riot

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Nova Scotia’s Justice Department is rejecting a ruling by the provincial information commissioner that documents about a 2016 riot at a youth detention facility should be made public.

The Canadian Press had asked under the province’s freedom of information for recommendations the department made after five staff members were injured in the Sept. 4, 2016, melee at the Waterville youth detention facility.

Backlogs at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner meant it took more than five years for the commissioner to decide in The Canadian Press’s favour last month.

But on March 11, the government advised it would not follow the commissioner’s recommendations. Under the province’s access to information system, which the current Progressive Conservative government has promised to reform, the only avenue to appeal the government’s refusal is before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

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Information and privacy commissioner Tricia Ralph’s Feb. 15 decision says the Department of Justice didn’t provide sufficient support for its claim that releasing the requested information would harm the security of the facility or the privacy of those involved.

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Ralph wrote that the department was refusing to release information about the risk of violence in the facility, concerns the employees’ union raised and the department’s response to those concerns, as well as an investigation report.

She said the department “did not establish a reasonable basis for believing that danger or harm would result from disclosure.”

In its response, the Justice Department said the requested information needs to remain secret because it would provide details about security practices at the facility.

“The security practices included in the severed information are used to protect the health and safety of the staff and individuals in custody,” the letter rejecting the commissioner’s findings said.

The Department of Justice added that blacking out the names of those involved would not adequately protect the young people’s right not to be identified under provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, because there could be other identifying information.

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Under the province’s freedom of information system, if the provincial government rejects the commissioner’s findings, the applicant faces a potentially costly and lengthy court process to enforce the decisions.

Progressive Conservative Premier Tim Houston, who in opposition was often critical of the former Liberal government for its refusal to release documents, committed in last summer’s election campaign to giving the commissioner the power to make orders rather than recommendations.That would force the public agency to contest a decision from the commissioner it disagreed with rather than putting the onus on citizens.

However, the timeline for the promised change is unclear, other than it is expected to occur within the government’s four-year mandate. And the new government also hasn’t made a commitment to increase staffing at the commissioner’s office to help deal with a backlog of review cases.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2022.

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