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Freedom of information? Activist questions redacted traffic study for Vancouver development

Click to play video: 'Questions raised about how much Canada’s FOI laws protect secrecy'
Questions raised about how much Canada’s FOI laws protect secrecy
WATCH: A Kitsilano neighbourhood group applied for a Freedom of Information request from the City of Vancouver's traffic studies into an area expecting an influx of 10,000 people to a new development. The request returned with more than 100 pages redacted and completely blacked out. An expert in FOI requests says that in Canada, it is an illusion of transparency, and there are numerous ways not to reveal information. Paul Johnson reports. – Sep 18, 2023

A Vancouver neighbourhood activist is raising questions about transparency at city hall, after her freedom of information request about a major development came back nearly entirely blacked out.

The project in question is the Sen̓áḵw development, which is slated to include 6,000 rental units at the foot of the Burrard Street Bridge.

Eve Munro, with the Kitsilano Residents Association said she was concerned about the amount of traffic the new development will bring to the neighbourhood, and sought to obtain city traffic or transportation studies related to the project.

Click to play video: 'Bear advocates critical of Freedom of Information process'
Bear advocates critical of Freedom of Information process

Munro filed a freedom of information request with the city, and after a one-year wait, received a 179-page document package.

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“Every single one of them was redacted in their entirety except for the last six pages. So apparently there’s 179 pages of traffic studies, but we’re not going to see them,” she said.

“Why do they not have traffic study and transportation planning information they can and want to share with the residents of the city?”

The Squamish Nation referred questions on the matter to the City of Vancouver.

Global News raised the issue with Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim, who was unavailable for an interview.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the mayor said the city adheres to freedom of information laws, and was committed to being open and accessible.

“While we understand there are frustrations, especially around sensitive legal and contractual matters, the city has a robust FOI process which involves documenting all steps in searching and reviewing records,” the statement reads.

Click to play video: 'B.C. government criticized for new freedom of information fee'
B.C. government criticized for new freedom of information fee

Sean Holman, a journalism professor at the University of Victoria who specializes in freedom of information laws, said Munro’s challenges are reflective of a culture of government secrecy across Canada.

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“There is a default towards privacy in decision making in Canada, in public decision making,” he said.

“There’s an idea that good decisions need to happen in private, need to happen in secrecy, and that’s really counter to democracy.”

Under B.C.’s freedom of information laws, he explained, governments are able to avail themselves of a variety of exemptions and exclusions to withhold information.

Those can range from police enforcement matters, to cabinet secrecy to — likely in Munro’s case — intergovernmental relations and Indigenous affairs.

“Part of the problem is we literally don’t know what we don’t know. The government in this case is withholding that particular report. So we don’t really know whether the exemptions and exclusions in this particular case are being properly applied,” he said.

“In order to challenge that particular ruling we’d have to go through a whole entire process with the FOI commissioner that’s going to bog down over months or perhaps even years. That makes it really difficult for the public to know whether or not government is acting properly.”

Back in Kitsilano, Munro said the information she did get back from the city has left her with more questions than answers.

The few pages of her document package that weren’t redacted included a letter from the city’s engineering department to the project developer questioning some of the project assumptions, such as how much commercial traffic the new towers will bring.

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“These are questions being raised. Are there answers?” she said.

“Do they have a viable transportation plan for this development and the community? That’s the question.”

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