B.C. is charging for freedom of information requests for the first time, although the government announced Monday it's waiving the $10 fee for some First Nations organizations.
The NDP government has been criticized by journalists, lawyers, business groups and First Nations for changing the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and pushing the new law through the legislature last week during a provincial state of emergency.
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs told Premier John Horgan in a letter that the changes would create barriers for First Nations who need access to provincial government records to deal with historical grievances and land claims.
The Ministry of Citizens' Services Lisa Beare said in a statement that the ministry consulted with Indigenous partners on the subject and will continue to work with them "as policy is developed to ensure people get access to the information they need."
Still, Liberal MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson Todd Stone said there was limited debate before the changes were rammed through on the last day of the legislative session which didn't allow for more scrutiny.
"Not at any point did the minister suggest that they were working on some exemptions and as such, what those exemptions might might look like and how they would work," said Stone.
Horgan has said that an "extraordinary proliferation'' of requests from opposition parties is partially behind the changes, though his own party also made such requests before it formed government.
The Canadian Association of Journalists was part of a coalition opposed to an application fee over fears that it would hamper efforts to get information to citizens. The organization's president, Brent Jolly, says the fee creates a barrier that can keep the public in the dark on important issues such as how the government is handling climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Whether you're a journalist, whether you're a researcher or whether you work for a public interest advocacy group, you know, all of these organizations depend significantly on the access to information system to find out basic things about how the government operates and ultimately how the decisions get made," explained Jolly.
Comparing to other provinces
The Ministry of Citizens' Services has described the fee as "modest" but it is twice the cost of the federal FOI application fee which is $5 per request.
The fee is somewhere in the middle in comparison to other provinces. Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island charge $5. While Alberta and Nunavut charge $25 per request and Saskatchewan asks people to pay $20.
Data storage rules relaxed
Another change to the act allows data from B.C. residents to be stored outside Canada. The government, however, has said it also brings the province in line with other jurisdictions by removing restrictions on the use of some digital technologies.
Beare has said the amendment has benefits for people who want to access online learning and medical appointments.
Even so, Vancouver-based lawyer, Robert Piasentin, who specializes in technology legislation, pointed out information from B.C. residents could be exposed to risks of data breaches.
"My information could be disclosed without my ability to control it in any way because it now can be residing on a server in the United States, which then can be subject to American legislation," he said.
Piasentin said lawmakers moved too quickly to approve the legislation "given the the sensitivity around protection of personal information from third party access, like it's not an insignificant concern."