Workers examine a tank car - Date/Photographer unknown.
19 December 2013
Federal Officials Delayed Release of
Lake Megantic Records Watchdog Finds
Ottawa Ontario - Transport Canada (TC) officials were asked to delay the release of the department's records related to the Lake Megantic tragedy and "focus on other priorities," an investigation by Canada's information watchdog concluded.
The probe by the information watchdog, prompted by complaints from Postmedia News, blamed the department for "invalid" stalling in response to four different requests for internal records related to the disaster.
Freight trains only resumed running through the small Quebec town for the first time Wednesday, several months after the July disaster that was provoked when a runaway train carrying oil slammed into local buildings, killing dozens of people in a fiery explosion that also contaminated the surrounding air, water, and soil.
Canada's federal access-to-information legislation allows members of the public to request government records, after paying a $5 fee, and it requires federal organizations to release the relevant files within 30 days.
The Act also allows government organizations to withhold some information in cases such as matters of national security, or cabinet secrets, or to ask for extensions beyond 30 days when dealing with large volumes of files.
But in a three-page letter dated 13 Dec 2013, the office of Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault said Transport Canada "failed" to meet its obligations under the Access to Information Act, when it asked for time extensions of nearly one year for records related to railway safety.
The watchdog suggested the files weren't as voluminous as the government had claimed.
"As your requests generated only 22 pages and 25 pages of responsive records, TC did not satisfy the volume criteria, and thus the time extensions were invalid," wrote Carmen Garrett, chief of operations at a special unit in Legault's office.
"TC explained that its large workload and a lack of resources within the Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) office were partly responsible for the delay.
In addition, TC stated that its officials were required, for operational reasons, to focus on other priorities before responding to requests, which had slowed the record retrieval process.
The Act does not permit an institution to delay the processing of requests for such reasons.
Transport Canada didn't immediately answer questions from Postmedia News about who, within the department, encouraged the delays, or why these delays were requested.
But it later sent a statement saying it was reviewing its performance and had received a high volume of requests following the Lake Megantic disaster that created some challenges for its access-to-information office.
"TC decided to focus resources to make Lake Megantic a priority," wrote Jan O'Driscoll, a spokesman for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, on his Twitter account.
"We fully support that decision."
Liberal transportation critic David McGuinty said the findings of the commissioner's investigation contrast with the federal government's recent statements about railway safety being one of its top priorities.
"I'm not going to say it's censorship, but I'm going to say it's a deliberate delay to make public information that would help shed light on the tragedy and hopefully help us learn from mistakes and improve the situation," said McGuinty, who represents an Ottawa riding in Parliament.
"I suspect that the government is trying to hide information around capacity, around inspections, around audits, around personnel, and that's very unfortunate for the people of Lake Megantic and the people of Canada."
Legault's office worked with TC to speed up its response to the access-to-information requests.
Some of the records have been released in recent weeks, generating a series of reports by Postmedia News and other media outlets, including Montreal's La Presse, which highlighted the warning signs the government received before the summer train disaster, including from an internal 2006 audit.
"It is incumbent upon institutions to make every reasonable effort to respond to requests accurately and in a timely manner," wrote Garrett in her letter.
"We will remind the institution of those obligations, namely to provide records in more timely fashion."
The NDP's treasury board critic Mathieu Ravignat said he found the issue strange, given that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives campaigned on promoting an open and accountable government before they were first elected in 2006.
Instead, he said the Harper government hasn't provided adequate resources to support its commitment.
"That particular example shows to what extent this government really takes access to information seriously, and that's not seriously at all," said Ravignat, who represents a Quebec riding across the river from Ottawa.
"Access to information is a cornerstone of transparent government in our democracy, so it's truly unfortunate that this government feels like it needs to be so secretive, consistently."
Mike de Souza.