AMS calls on BC government to stop UBC's “dangerous” practice of hiding public documents behind private corporations

UBC continues to refuse public scrutiny of its real estate development arm, UBC Properties Trust, and the AMS hopes the BC government will step in.

For over a decade, students, journalists, privacy agencies, community members and MLAs have lobbied for legislative change that would prevent UBC from using an accountability gap to shelter what are widely considered to be public documents. “This year, we’ve made a very hard push with the government,” said Jude Crasta, AMS VP External. “It’s a very dangerous avenue for public bodies to go down, creating these shell corporations to enclose information away from public eyes.”

Crasta made his recommendations to the special committee reviewing BC’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FIPPA). This committee is convened every six years.

The AMS was there six years ago, presenting strikingly similar recommendations — and again six years before that. The committee itself has been listening, but various Liberal governments have ignored dozens of committee recommendations for FIPPA reform since 1999.

Each time, the response has been “it’s complicated, we’re consulting,” said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) — a non-profit dedicated to promoting and defending freedom of information and privacy rights in Canada.

“Presumably, they’ve been consulting for the last four years. You’d think maybe after four years they’ve maybe done enough consultation and are ready to leap into action,” said Gogolek. “It’s very frustrating … the solution is easy. It’s obvious and it’s being recommended by everyone ... [We have] no idea why the government isn’t doing it, except that they don’t want to.”

He also noted that municipalities are required to have their private subsidiaries disclose documents — all that would have to change in the existing legislation would be a sentence that includes “educational bodies.”

“This recommendation really is about an accountability gap in the [FIPPA],” said BC’s Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in a July hearing of the committee. “Bottom line, where public resources are used to operate a subsidiary corporation, then the entity should be subject to [freedom of information].”

Committee members themselves have expressed frustration with the lack of action.

“I’m having trouble understanding how in 2005 the government could say that they were going to do this and in 2015 we still don’t have this in place,” said committee appointee David Eby, NDP MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, in a July hearing.

At the time of the last committee meeting in 2009, the changes seemed so inevitable that the AMS President at the time, Blake Frederick, released a statement.

“The time has come for students to have a represented voice regarding development decisions at UBC,” said Frederick. “Finally, the province’s privacy office has found that, since UBC’s Properties Trust is 100 per cent owned and operated by UBC, it is subject to FIPPA — no more will UBC’s real estate arm be hidden from public view.”

This was right after the AMS had spent a year systematically filing freedom of information requests for documents from UBC’s subsidiaries, all of which were denied. Six of 16 requests made in 2009 related to UBC’s private subsidiaries.

About a year later, UBC alumni and freelance journalist Stanley Tromp was denied documents for the same reason. He went to BC’s Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham and she ruled in his favor, which prompted Frederick’s optimistic statement.

But UBC appealed. After a complicated saga involving a similar case at Simon Fraser University, the BC Court of Appeal upheld the corporate veil. Anyone disagreeing with that decision would have to begin a new case, appeal twice and reach the Supreme Court of Canada, making it a costly cause to champion.

“This is appalling, obviously,” Tromp told The Ubyssey by email about UBC’s decision to fight him in court. “Those legal funds could far better be used to assist needy students.”

This year’s committee will submit its report to the Legislative Assembly by May 27, 2016. Tromp said it’s likely they will make similar recommendations as the committee did in 2010.

The recommendations would then go to Christy Clark’s Liberals, but they don’t have much credibility on the issue.

Since the committee has been underway, BC’s privacy commissioner released a damning report showing that government officials deleted emails and documents on a regular basis. Prior to this, other information scandals Christy Clark’s Liberals have been involved with include the routine breaching of BC health data and the loss of a backup hard drive with education records of 3.4 million residents.

Tromp and Crasta are hopeful though, despite the context – Crasta will continue lobbying.

“In our meetings with MLAs, both parties we will be re-opening the issue,” said Crasta. “Especially with the provincial cabinet ministers so that this has ministerial weight behind this. Regardless of what ministry it comes from, it’s something that everyone needs to worry about.”

The AMS’s other recommendations to the committee include fines for educational bodies in non-compliance with FIPPA, more fee waivers and removing provisions allowing for “unreasonable delays.” UBC Properties Trust is one of seven private subsidiaries owned by UBC.

Any citizens or organizations can make a submission to the committee if they write in by January 19, 2016. Tromp urged that the more who write in, the better the chance at reform would be.