TORONTO, ONT., May 22, 2024 / CNW/ – Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston’s office has been selected as this year’s recipient of the Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy for its decision to walk back a plan that would have given order-making power to the province’s information and privacy commissioner.

During the 2021 provincial election campaign, Houston, the leader of then-opposition Progress Conservative Party, promised voters that he would lead reforms that would overhaul the province’s transparency practices. Nova Scotia, for example, is the only province where the information and privacy commissioner is not an independent officer of the legislature.

“This is the greatest hallmark of an incredibly broken system,” said Brent Jolly, CAJ president. “Only in Nova Scotia can the commissioner make a recommendation and the government can simply crumple up the report and throw it in the rubbish bin without any fear of consequences and repercussions. It’s not only shameful, it’s downright anti-democratic”.

In place of the full-scale review promised during the campaign, the Houston government appointed an in-house committee of public servants to do a broad review of the province’s freedom-of-information legislation.

Last November, the CAJ submitted a brief to the committee charged with modernizing Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) Act. To date, those responsible for undertaking the review have not responded to the submission and have also declined to meet with interested parties, such as the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy.

No report is scheduled to be released until before the province’s next election.

“Government after government, Liberal and Conservative, have long promised they would fix Nova Scotia’s antiquated transparency regime,” Jolly said. “The only thing they’ve ‘fixed’ is further perfecting the tried and true strategy of punting a difficult subject into the future. It’s all a giant ‘screw you’ to voters.”

In addition to awarding Houston’s office with this year’s top provincial prize, the Code of Silence jury has also bestowed a dishonourable mention to Ontario’s hospitals for their efforts to withhold years of data collected from patient feedback surveys.

The Toronto Star and the Investigative Journalism Bureau fought the obstruction by Ontario hospitals, eventually gaining access to six years worth of survey data. These findings were documented in their joint investigation The Patient Files.

The Code of Silence Awards are presented annually by the CAJ, the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University (CFE), and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The awards call public attention to government or publicly-funded agencies that work hard to hide information to which the public has a right to under access to information legislation.

Last year, Quebec’s criminal court system was selected as the winner of the provincial Code of Silence Award for holding a secret trial involving a police informant. The trial’s existence was only revealed in a judgment by the province’s court of appeal after the accused appealed their conviction.

The winner of this year’s Code of Silence Award in the municipal category will be announced on June 5.

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