UBC’s secrecy is nothing new

In an editorial on January 22, the Ubyssey staff rightly criticized UBC’s shameful contravention of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, by going over the legal time limit in providing access to documents about the Gupta resignation, apparently as a way to avoid public scrutiny.

This has in fact been a common practice, and has been used to hide information on arguably more important issues.

UBC’s mining institute, the Canadian International Resources and Development Institute (CIRDI), has faced intense student, faculty, and public scrutiny since it was founded, to the point where its leadership worked with a consultant to help develop a “management strategy to address student activists”, according to internal documents (p. 204). While the Institute claims to work toward improved governance over extractive sectors in developing countries, critics have raised concerns about the Institute’s objectives (to “further extractive industry activities in developing countries”, as detailed multiple times in planning documents [p. 73]), partnerships (with such abusive companies as Goldcorp), conflicts of interest (the Institute is explicitly mandated to focus on countries with high Canadian mining investment, p. 18), and lack of transparency.

UBC’s Office of Information and Privacy has consistently exceeded the legal time limits for fulfilling requests related to the Institute, and at times has requested extravagant fees for requests. For example, for a search of emails regarding the development of the Institute proposal, the FOI office asked for $2,400. More troubling has been the trend of entirely redacting or withholding critical documents about the mining institute’s activities.

In response to a recent FOI request for information about the Institute’s new $15.3 million contract with the Ministry of Mines in Ethiopia, UBC returned an almost entirely redacted document. To an FOI request made to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD) for the financial audit it had commissioned of the Institute, DFATD delayed the response while it was in consultation with “third parties” (presumably UBC and the Institute), and ultimately decided to entirely withhold the federal audit on dubious grounds (the given justification was section 20(1)c of the Access to Information Act, which applies to “information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to result in material financial loss or gain to, or could reasonably be expected to prejudice the competitive position of, a third party”). Besides the clear issues of accountability that this secrecy represents, the Canadian taxpayer is left having no idea how tens of millions of federal dollars are being spent.

Nor are the Institute or the Gupta resignation the only recent cases of UBC obstruction of crucial information. In 2010 UBC blocked the release of information about animal experimentation at the university after multiple FOI requests by the activist group Stop UBC Animal Research. And the AMS has been petitioning for a change of provincial legislation that allows UBC to hide information about its real estate development arm, UBC Properties Trust, from the public.
As a public institution, UBC must be held accountable for the veil of secrecy it uses to cover up information about its controversial activities. And especially at a time when there is renewed scrutiny on the Board of Governors, it is important to remember that, as Willem de Lint and Reem Bahdi have put it, ”[t]he battle over accountability and the rule of law is precisely the battle over information flow and who gets to broker access.”

Document sources
All page numbers refer to pages in the response to FOI request A-2015-00590, available here.