Welch's Gripe Juice http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/blogs/welch/welchs_gripe_juice.html Sun, 20 May 2012 02:42:00 GMT How to avoid FOI pests http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/blogs/welch/welchs_gripe_juice.html?plckController=Blog&plckBlogPage=BlogViewPost&UID=8e3c58d6-8087-4a1c-bcbb-d5491598a070&plckPostId=Blog%3a8e3c58d6-8087-4a1c-bcbb-d5491598a070Post%3a767d20b2-b8f0-4b9f-85e9-851a330a0320&plckScript=blogScript&plckElementId=blogDest Sun, 20 May 2012 02:42:00 GMT <p> How should governments deal with annoying FOI requests from reporters? Abandon those reporters for two days at the train station.</p> <p> Next time you drive past the Via Rail station on Main Street, look up at the big clock. In a huge room right behind that clock, I spent two days this month going through a big pile of pesticide reports to create <a href="https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0An-ZNmLdt1i3dGZmUVQ3RzQxUGNjbWY1VGVycVI1cnc#gid=0" rel="nofollow">this database</a>. Throw in the occasional cookie from The Forks and an endless supply of Coke Zero, and you've got heaven.</p> <p> How I got there should be a lesson to all governments.</p> <p> In doing stories about the looming cosmetic pesticide ban, I got cranky when the province couldn't tell me how many litres of pesticides we spray on school yards and highways and parks. That information was buried in piles of year-end reports filed by permit holders. I asked for copies of those reports. Yikes, the province said. There's no electronic version - it's all paper. Going through them all, redacting names, doing the photocopying would take weeks. Well, I said, could I just come see them myself? Okay, replied the flacks.</p> <p> So, they set me up at the Via Station, across the hall from the offices of Manitoba Conservation's small pesticide section. And, I proceeded to use my overpriced education to do data entry, manually typing in the amounts of sci-fi-sounding pesticides, like Tordon and Garlon and Loki.</p> <p> (Just kidding. Not Loki.)</p> <p> Anyway, a provincial staffer would occasionally poke his head in to see if I was still alive. We'd chat, and I'd learn things about weeds and pesticide legislation that I never would have thought to ask and that helped me develop a much more nuanced understanding of the issue.</p> <p> Now, granted, it would be way, way better if the province had its <em>own</em> electronic database of pesticide reports instead of the simple one I basically made for them. It often stuns me how old-school the province is when it comes to basic data. Anyone seen the online land titles registry? It's, like, pre-DOS. Good data makes for good policy, and I shudder to think how many other departments are still relying on paper rather than electronic records.</p> <p> But barring that, the second-best option is allowing reporters access to documents without the rigamarole of FOI legislation that would certainly take months and many taxpayer dollars. In effect, the province trusted me to turn a blind eye to the odd name or invoice amount or other inconsequential line that would tie FOI up in knots. It was refreshing and extremely useful and should happen way more often.</p> <p>  </p> Blog:8e3c58d6-8087-4a1c-bcbb-d5491598a070Post:767d20b2-b8f0-4b9f-85e9-851a330a0320 Muzzling Manitoba science http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/blogs/welch/welchs_gripe_juice.html?plckController=Blog&plckBlogPage=BlogViewPost&UID=8e3c58d6-8087-4a1c-bcbb-d5491598a070&plckPostId=Blog%3a8e3c58d6-8087-4a1c-bcbb-d5491598a070Post%3ab8862f25-961c-4285-9660-9a6fe5f972be&plckScript=blogScript&plckElementId=blogDest Wed, 25 Apr 2012 16:26:00 GMT <p> Ottawa’s very effective plan to muzzle its own scientists has made news again with <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2012/04/24/scientists-muzzling-canada.html" rel="nofollow">this</a> story detailing how the Harper government sent media babysitters to trail around after some of the country’s top arctic experts at an international conference. Humiliating for all involved, I expect.</p> <p> Almost as humiliating is <a href="http://www.ottawacitizen.com/simple+question+blizzard+emails+peek+inside+Canada+bureaucracy+works/6468334/story.html" rel="nofollow">the totally wicked saga </a>of a snow study the Ottawa Citizen recently tried to write about.</p> <p> This all reminded me of our own attempts to speak to federal experts and to read a scientific study you and I paid for, on a topic of real interest to Manitobans.</p> <p> You can get the Kafkaesque details <a href="http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/water-woes-behind-h1n1-135643503.html">here</a> and <a href="http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/no-running-water/health/disease-factory--consequences-of-living-without-tap-water-and-flush-toilets.html">here</a>. Nutshell version: Two years ago, we filed an FOI request for a Health Canada study on the deadly H1N1 outbreak on the St. Theresa Point reserve. First Ottawa denied it had such a report. Then Health Canada refused to release it because it was slated to be released in 90 days. It wasn’t. Then Ottawa said the study had been submitted to a medical journal and releasing it would compromise the study’s publication. The study was never published. Ottawa would not even tell us the names of the scientists who did the research.</p> <p> Eventually, nearly two years later and with prodding from the federal information commissioner, we got a censored version of the study. Scientists found that the lack of indoor plumbing contributed to a very large outbreak, 175 cases, of H1N1 flu in St. Theresa Point.</p> <p> I called the lead scientist who wrote the report, and her boss, for comment and clarification. There was stuff I genuinely didn’t understand in the report – not just the blacked-out bits. They never called back. Health Canada was equally unhelpful, emailing me one of its classically useless answers. I would give my right eye for a real, human conversation with a real, human federal employee who actually knows something, but those days are long gone.</p> <p> Anyway, the federal information commissioner investigated the whole thing and ruled that Health Canada “was clearly disregarding the spirit and intent” of federal access to information legislation, especially the duty-to-assist provision. That’s the provision that basically says "don’t be an obstructionist turd when people ask you for public information."</p> <p> The H1N1 epidemic cost taxpayers big money for medivacs, killed at least one person in St. Theresa Point and made 175 people sick, most of them kids. Health Canada’s study was a valuable, readable investigation into how that happened and how to prevent it from happening again. It’s not a state secret, and the scientists we pay to do research on our behalf should be free – obligated, in fact - to talk about that research. Instead, we’re paying people to ensure scientists do the exact opposite.</p> Blog:8e3c58d6-8087-4a1c-bcbb-d5491598a070Post:b8862f25-961c-4285-9660-9a6fe5f972be Lac du Bonnet in 2015? http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/blogs/welch/welchs_gripe_juice.html?plckController=Blog&plckBlogPage=BlogViewPost&UID=8e3c58d6-8087-4a1c-bcbb-d5491598a070&plckPostId=Blog%3a8e3c58d6-8087-4a1c-bcbb-d5491598a070Post%3aed61563f-48cc-400f-bef7-9722eccd54b3&plckScript=blogScript&plckElementId=blogDest Wed, 07 Mar 2012 23:07:00 GMT <p> As the NDP does its post-mortem on last fall's election, there's talk the party is basically maxed out on winnable ridings, except the frequent targets of River East and Brandon West. If the party is to grow, it's got to look at mobilizing the First Nations vote. Behind the scenes, party brass say that could put the ridings of Lac du Bonnet and Portage la Prairie in play.</p> <p> Both are solidly blue. Portage has been Tory since pretty much before I was born. There, the NDP has twice run a good candidate, beloved teacher James Kostuchuk, and barely come within striking distance. Lac du Bonnet has voted NDP in recent memory, but it's hard to imagine it as anything but a Tory riding now.</p> <p> But both ridings have huge aboriginal populations. According to the 2006 census, Portage had 23 per cent Aboriginal voters and Lac du Bonnet had 27 per cent. My bet is those numbers will be even higher when the next batch of 2011 census data is released. Problem is, Aboriginal people don't vote. If they did, we probably wouldn't see <a href="http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/no-running-water/without/easy-to-judge-difficult-to-escape-132369703.html">this</a>.</p> <p> Having said that, it was the Aboriginal vote that saved NDP MLA Tom Nevakshonoff's bacon in the Interlake, as Bruce Owen reminded me recently. When I was in Ebb and Flow First Nation last month, Nevakshonoff's campaign brochure was still sitting on the coffee table in the band office. And, as rookie MLA Kevin Chief proved in Point Douglas, it is possible to pull aboriginal people to the polls with the right candidate and some labour-intensive, one-on-one voter contact. If the party did the same thing in places like Sagkeeng and Dakota Tipi, NDP insiders muse that it's possible the aboriginal vote could turn Portage and Lac du Bonnet orange.</p> <p> In the end, this is mostly some cocky talk from a party that just creamed its rivals and is already feeling pretty confident about 2015. By then, it's more likely the NDP will be scrambling to hang on to the classic swing ridings like Kirkfield Park and Seine River. But at least one party is thinking about a block of voters who could change the province if they were genuinely enfranchised.</p> <p>  </p> Blog:8e3c58d6-8087-4a1c-bcbb-d5491598a070Post:ed61563f-48cc-400f-bef7-9722eccd54b3