A Manitoba judge has rapped the City of Winnipeg for objecting to a freedom-of-information request without providing a specific reason for withholding information from the public.
In a decision that could affect future freedom-of-information requests, Justice Chris Martin of the Court of Queen’s Bench criticized the practice of denying access to information without explaining the rationale.
“This is a landmark ruling for Manitoba and freedom of information across Canada,” said former Winnipeg politician Steven Fletcher, who had sought records related to the city’s sale of the former Vimy Arena site in St. Charles.
“The rule of thumb needs to be to release the information and only under exceptional circumstances should that information not be released.”
Fletcher made his comments after Justice Martin granted the former Conservative MP and Progressive Conservative MLA access to the Bruce Oake Foundation’s offer in 2019 to purchase the former Vimy Arena site.
The foundation acquired the land in a transfer that also involved the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation, a provincial Crown corporation. The site is now the home of the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre, an addictions-treatment facility that Fletcher has long opposed.
When the former politician filed a freedom-of-information request for the purchase offer, the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation denied the application on the grounds the city’s economic or financial interests could be harmed.
Fletcher then complained to Manitoba Ombudsman but was denied once again.
Fletcher ultimately went to court, where Martin found the city never bothered to explain how its interests could be harmed by release of the purchase offer.
“They did not articulate a rational basis through clear and targeted justifications. There was no specificity and no context,” Martin wrote.
The judge added the city “simply parroted” a paragraph in the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, also known as FIPPA legislation, that states public bodies “may refuse” to release records on the grounds they could cause financial or economic harm.
“There must be some cogent explanation of how or why a disclosure of these specific clauses cause harm,” Martin said before ordering the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation to give Fletcher the purchase offer.
“The analytical approach to either objecting to disclosure, or deciding whether an exemption applies supporting nondisclosure, starts from the premise that disclosure is the rule rather than the exception.”
Fletcher said he believes this language will serve as a warning to future officials tempted to deny access to information by simply opening up FIPPA legislation on their computer and copying a general reason why a request could be denied.
“The judge states very clearly that platitudes or form letters or pre-written statements are no longer acceptable,” Fletcher said.
Winnipeg’s public service did not interpret the decision the same way.
“Our decision-making process on FIPPA requests will not change with this ruling,” City of Winnipeg communications manager Felicia Wiltshire said in a statement.
“The city always starts with the presumption that records will be disclosed unless there is information to which FIPPA’s mandatory exceptions apply. We also consider whether information is subject to FIPPA’s discretionary exceptions if there are concerns with release of the record.”
Fletcher said this statement suggests the city doesn’t wish to be held to account.
“It strikes me as very arrogant and dismissive of the court, of the legislation and the will of the people,” Fletcher said.
“It’s time that the government bodies and public bodies follow the law — the law that they enforce on everyone else but don’t enforce on themselves.”
Mayor Brian Bowman, who promised to improve transparency when he originally ran for mayor in 2014, declined to comment on the court decision.