COLUMN: How you can get the government’s confidential stuff

The Abbotsford News’ handy guide to asking public bodies for their interesting information

It’s begun to dawn on me recently that most people have no idea what, exactly, a reporter does.

Over and over, I’m asked by friends how I find stories.

My usual answer is pretty useless: I try to find something out – maybe at a city council hearing, maybe through intuition, maybe by keeping my ears open – and then I write about it.

If I was interviewing me, I’d roll my eyes and say: “But what do you actually DO?”

RELATED: Abbotsford residents urge change in high-crash ‘Sumas Prairie Speedway’

So, I’ll let you in on a key tool of the trade, and then (self-servingly) show you how you can put it to use.

You may have heard of this “freedom of information” thing. Basically, every government – local, provincial and national – has some law requiring certain information to be accessed by the public.

That info is often public in name only – most of it can’t be found online or in easily accessible records.

Part of that is for good reason: There is an ocean of stuff that would swamp computer servers, and many of the public records must first be scoured so that private information remains private. Partly, it’s also that governments don’t really want all that stuff out there.

Now, the federal government is subject to its law that is a nightmare to navigate. The Liberals promised to improve it. They haven’t. So let’s shake our fists in Ottawa’s direction and skip that whole nightmare for now.

The provincial Freedom of Information law isn’t perfect. Public bodies routinely abuse exceptions for “private” information, business interests and staff advice, but it’s markedly better than the feds. In addition to the B.C. government, the law also governs cities, health bodies and municipal police forces.

And here’s the kicker: There’s no fee to ask. You can fire up your email right now and ask for some good old public information.

Now, you might not get it. In fact, you probably won’t because of those aforementioned exceptions. And you may also eventually be asked to pay, if the governmental body in question says that fulfilling your request will take too much time.

But that doesn’t mean a reporter – or citizen – can’t try.

Last year, the friend of a couple who got T-boned wondered how many other people have been injured in similar crashes. They sent in an FOI request and found revealing statistics that provided ammunition for their argument that changes are needed in the area.

You don’t have to use fancy questions, and you can ask for a whole range of information. You can request emails between public officials about a certain subject. You can ask for statistics. And you can ask to see any reports that government generates but never shares with the public. Some may even be marked “confidential.”

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from such requests. But I’ve only scratched the surface. If you turn up something, let your friendly local reporter know (click that “Contact” button at the top of this page).

Email your FOI requests for the provincial government to FOI.Requests@gov.bc.ca. To find where to send requests for your municipality, school district, police department, health authority or university, type the public body’s name into Google and add “freedom of information.” While some bodies may have forms to fill out, your request should be handled if you just email the organization in question.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter at the Abbotsford News

Just Posted

UPDATE: Father on trial for murder describes being ‘tackled’ and ‘stabbed’ in Oak Bay apartment

Oak Bay father takes stand in his defense for December 2017 deaths of young daughters

Province rejects criticism from Saanich councillor over McKenzie Interchange

Transportation ministry says project will ‘significantly lower’ greenhouse gas emissions

Police rule out foul play in death of man found in Saanich

The B.C. Coroners Service will now conduct an investigation

West Shore RCMP snag suspected thief with bait bike

GPS-equipped bike leads police to arrest suspect in Langford

New police force in Surrey must avoid VPD, RCMP errors made in Pickton case: Oppal

Boots are scheduled to be on the ground by spring 2021

POLL: Should there be a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers?

We’ve all heard them, and most likely cursed them under our breath.… Continue reading

Greater Victoria wanted list for the week of Aug. 23

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Striking Western Forest Products workers could lose benefits in September

Union, forest company at odds over Vancouver Island benefit payments as strike enters third month

Conan turns to the Property Brothers for tips on buying Greenland

Jonathan Scott suggests removing glaciers and mountains to bring in ‘more natural light’

Forests minister visits B.C. town rocked by multiple mill shutdowns

A third of Mackenzie turns out for rally, not much to cheer about

B.C. music teacher accused of sexual misconduct involving girls

Police believe other victims could be out there after the arrest of Lamar Victor Alviar

Most Read