Information update: mixed news for public access to shareholders and laws

In recent issues of the Dogwood Bulletin, we have reported on some bad news and some hopeful news in the field of public access to information. In this Bulletin, I’m following up on some of the previous stories. In tomorrow’s Bulletin, I’ll add a happy note about the way BC’s public libraries are making a difference. Those interested in civil society and the ability of the public to stay informed will want to follow both stories.

Access to shareholders lists
First, an update on the bad news story: access to lists of shareholders. As we noted in our Bulletin on September 1, 2004, the new provincial law governing corporations, the BC Business Corporations Act, takes away the right to view the shareholders’ lists that companies are required, by law, to keep. It was a right that citizens had enjoyed for years under the previous law, the Company Act. For journalists, activists and researchers, the free access was a very useful tool.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope that we may regain this lost right. In response to the outcry over the change to the law, Gary Collins, the Minister of Finance and Corporate Relations, has indicated he will look into restoring free access to shareholders’ lists. In a story in Victoria’s Monday Magazine, Russ Francis writes that Collins has written to Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis “for his thoughts on the privacy issue.”

Collins’s earlier surprised reaction to news of the change in law supports my view that this particular change in law was not by design, but an inadvertent result of the adoption of the federal model for company law. (That the federal act does not allow free access to shareholders’ lists is a matter requiring redress, in my view. ‘ve already written about our impending battle with the federally incorporated EnCana, over its list of owners. We hope to be able to pursue the issue of access to lists, in the national arena, when we have the resources.)

Cynics would remark that Mr Collins’s statements-or perhaps we should use the weaker word “signals”-may be hollow. His comments amount to the old politician’s dodge of “we’ve formed a committee to look into the matter.” The promised (or signalled) action would, indeed, be surprising from this government, which works so hard to maintain secrecy for itself and its corporate supporters.

Still, the fact the Minister felt a need to send the signals is a positive sign. If reporters and members of the public can keep up the pressure, we may regain one of the democratic footholds the current government has taken away.

And that foothold, coupled with the increased interest in the subject in the wake of the documentary The Corporation, could help build momentum for national reform on access to the identities of the owners of the companies that affect our lives.

BC statutes: no news is not good news
The other update is about online access to legislation. I previously wrote about the danger that one of the internet’s great resources, provincial statutes and regulations online, may slowly die by attrition, as government updates the laws less often and promotes user-pay services. I also noted that the federal legislation seemed to have vanished again.

There is, alas, nothing new to report about BC statutes online. This is significant, because at the suggestion of one staff person at the Queen’s Printer, I e-mailed a manager to ask for free access to LegalEze, the for-a-fee database the government is pushing on people who visit the free legislation website. As a non-profit group that communicates with a broad spectrum of the BC public, I thought Dogwood Initiative might have a chance of earning access, just as we may be entitled to an exemption from fees for Freedom of Information requests.

Three weeks later, I’ve had no reply from the Queen’s Printer. I’ve e-mailed them again, and will keep you informed of any response. Meanwhile, the government’s website is still out of date: the last update to the statutes was in February 2004. It does seem the public can find legislation by going to their local library and using QP LegalEze, but that defeats the benefit of electronic access, since most libraries also house hard copies of legislation. But more on library access tomorrow.

On the federal front, I reported a while ago that federal legislation seemed to have vanished. I checked once again today, and still cannot find federal statutes online. The links on the government’s website to legislation (e.g. on the website of the Department of Justice), “times out”, with no page appearing.

So the tale goes on. I’ve finally e-mailed the federal government with the classic Burt Reynolds question, “where’s the law?” I’l post a bulletin when I get an answer.

[Update: it seems that the problem may lie here at Dogwood Initiative (raising one’s conspiracy-minded Spidey sense, but that’s another story). The government’s webmaster says the link to legislation should work. And a poll of some people with internet access suggests it works for everyone but staff here at Dogwood Initiative. So that particular access problem can be considered good news. Having said that, the remaining points in this Bulletin are still valid:]

Why all this fuss? I believe the biggest barrier to our understanding of the law is our access to it. (Yes, “legalese” can be a barrier, but that is changing bit by bit, and if you take the time to read these statutes, you’ll find you can answer most of your questions yourself.)

So I encourage you to keep exercising your rights of access, and don’t hesitate to raise havoc when those rights are endangered. And if the access vanishes, track it down.

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