Iqaluit water crisis highlights need to expand access to info laws, says commissioner
Graham Steele says including municipalities in legislation is good for the public and government
The ongoing water crisis in Iqaluit is drawing attention to the need for Nunavut’s municipalities to be brought under access to information legislation, some experts have told Nunatsiaq News.
“Citizens want to know what their governments are doing,” said Nunavut’s information and privacy commissioner, Graham Steele.
“That’s particularly heightened in the case of an emergency.”
One such public health emergency, declared by the City of Iqaluit, is in its third week. People in Nunavut’s capital are not able to drink their tap water after fuel contamination was confirmed in a well at the city’s water treatment plant on Oct. 15.
A culprit for the contamination may have been found, officials announced Oct. 26: a historic fuel spill near the city’s water supply.
But full sampling results, methodology of testing and chronology leading up to the emergency have not been released.
Nunavut’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act establishes legal obligations for the Government of Nunavut to protect and disclose information. Since municipalities are largely funded by the government, they could fall under the act.
But municipalities are currently exempt.
Steele said the city itself would benefit from being under access to information legislation, too.
“They can use that to show people that they’re telling the whole story and that there’s nothing untoward going on below the surface,” he said.
The GN and municipalities have been in talks since 2011 to change that, but Steele said those talks have fallen off the table.
The commissioner said Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell has invited him to give a presentation at council.
Steele is scheduled to talk to council on Nov. 9, but shared his presentation with Nunatsiaq News.
It says the act was amended in 2017, after six years of consultations, “so that it could apply to municipalities.”
Those municipalities now just need to be listed in the regulations. Since 2017, the presentation said, there’s been “no regulation, no timeline, no public plan. Who will take the next step?”
Bell said he still hopes to bring the city under the act in the final two years of his term but capacity is one of the biggest barriers.
“We’re 50 employees short in the city, and we don’t have great data collection systems. We’re working on these things already,” Bell told Nunatsiaq News.
Bell, who is also president of the Nunavut Association of Municipalities, said he plans on asking the GN for funding to train staff and address record management shortfalls.
“I’ve used access to information as a citizen a couple times and it’s amazingly useful, or sometimes you find out that information isn’t there,” Bell said.
Jeffrey Dvorkin is a senior fellow at University of Toronto’s Massey College and a retired journalist.
He told Nunatsiaq News that access to information legislation is crucial for holding governments to account.
“When there is a crisis of this sort it is critically important that the government is as transparent as possible to explain how the situation occurred and what is being done to rectify it,” he said.
“Without that information, the government cannot be held to account and corrective measures cannot be taken.”
He brought up the Flint, Mich., water tragedy, where officials covered up toxic water tests while citizens fell sick and even died.
“When did officials know about it and what did they know exactly,” he asked.
“That kind of accountability is missing in Nunavut and some level of government needs to step up.”
As for Steele, he said the GN needs to provide municipalities with resources once they are under the act so that they are not set up to fail.
Once the regulations are amended to include the municipalities, Steele said he’d expect to see them in compliance within two years.