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WATCH: A Halifax man who’s taken on the airline industry in the past, and won, has confronted the federal government agency that monitors air travel. Gabor Lukacs went to court over the Canadian Transport Agency censoring passenger complaints. But, it’s not the only agency that’s choosing secrecy over the public interest. Ross Lord reports.
Canadians have a right to access government records and scrutinize how their elected officials are running the country, but the people in power appear to be hiding behind privacy laws to withhold information — even, in some cases, what’s already a matter of public record.
Gabor Lukacs, a Halifax-based airline passenger rights advocate, took the Canadian Transport Agency (the country’s airline regulator) to court over redactions in records containing a customer grievance about Air Canada.
READ MORE: Duty to document: What you need to know about access-to-info reform
“It seems that the agency didn’t want the public to know how horrible [the] experiences some passengers had. Those comments were primarily talking about how much those passengers have lost their faith in Air Canada,” in a Skype interview from Hungary.
The Federal Court of Appeal sided with Lukacs last week in his fight to have the agency release redacted information pertaining to a 2012 complaint about the airline bumping members of the passenger’s family from flights to Mexico and losing their baggage along the way.
READ MORE: Consumer advocate calls Air Canada’s bumping compensation plan ‘unreasonable’
The Canadian Transport Agency redacted several parts of the correspondence, addressed to Air Canada President and CEO Calin Rovinsecu, including a vow not to use the airline again.
“Your company’s actions has NOT made us confident in Air Canada at this point in time, I have always loved flying with Air Canada because of the people, seat size, cost and how we have been treated BUT because of this issue I have lost faith,” a letter to the airline. “I am afraid to fly with you anymore, you do not have my TRUST.”
A later email released by the agency had details of the family’s story omitted, even though the section had no identifying or private information.
“This was the first time in 8 years that my whole family was to go on a vacation together. We planned this trip close to a year ago, we even purchased the airline tickets well in advance plus I even choose connections that we could make.”
Also omitted was the name of the Air Canada employee who responded to the complaint and some, but not all, mentions of Rovinescu and, in other documents, the names of lawyers involved in litigation.
“Essentially, somebody at the agency chose to be stubborn over something that was quite clearly wrong,” Lukacs told Global News. “The agency’s employee who did the redactions confirmed under oath these were done under consultation with the industry.”
He said the choice to make the redactions is not only indicative of “inappropriate cooperation and collusion” between the company and the federal government but it’s symbolic of how “the government is running the country.”
Having to go to court to fight the redactions was a waste of taxpayer dollars, he added.
READ MORE: Canadian travellers lodge litany of complaints against airlines
The Canadian Transport Agency said because of the ruling it will no longer block out what it considers personal and sensitive information” before releasing records to the public.
“As a result of the court’s decision, any submissions or documents filed with the Agency as part of its formal adjudication process will be made part of the public record without redaction, unless a claim for confidentiality has been made to and accepted by the Agency.”
Privacy lawyer David Fraser said this is one in a “long line of cases” that have pushed for the “proper implementation” of Access to Information.
“The tendency seems to be more at least on the part of public body to be more restrictive about the information that’s disclosed, which I think is in a way somewhat antithetical to the way that the Access to Information laws are based,” he said. “It’s a whole lot easier a bureaucrat or for somebody to over-redact and hold back information because it’s going to be up the person making the request to complain about it and go through the process… [to] justify why they should get access to it.”
Lukacs victory at the Federal Court of Appeal is also a win for people like researcher Kirsten Kramar, who has been facing her own battles with unnecessary redactions in court records released.
She’s been researching women who have committed infanticide across Canada, but has struggled with the British Columbia government trying to withhold information in documents related to criminal prosecutions.
“They’re telling me that the provincial privacy act applies to those documents, in the sense that they apply the spirit of the act to the documents,” she explained. “What they’re saying is that I must agree to redact all of personal information from the documents before they will agree to give me those documents. So, it is a kind of censorship.”
READ MORE: Bring all branches of government under information law, watchdog urges
The problem is, she told Global News, is that many of the documents were already public to begin with — including newspaper clippings.
But by agreeing to the provincial government demands, she wouldn’t be prevented from discussing the judges involved in the cases, demographic information or provide “sociological or historical context.”
“The public has a right to examine and comment on files that are in the government’s possession that relate to criminal prosecutions.”
Kramar hopes the open court principle — which puts the onus on the agency or person “seeking to deny access to “justify departure from the fundamental constitutional principles” of open court and freedom of expression — will apply to her bid to have the British Columbia Archives release the documents she’s looking for.
And it’s the open court principle that was one of the “key findings” of the decision in Lukacs’ case, that the court documents “were not subject to the privacy legislation.
“The main thing here is that when we deal with the open court principle versus privacy, the open court principle prevails,” he said.
With files from Ross Lord
Source: Global News, June 17, 2015