As a child, Gwen Barlee learned the value of digging deeper, but it was not until she grew up and began to investigate government that her perseverance really paid off.
Ms. Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee, has carved out a reputation over the past decade for her tenacious use of Freedom of Information applications.
Investigating everything from the government's policy on parking meters in provincial parks to British Columbia's diagnostic failings in detecting Lyme disease, Ms. Barlee has developed a knack for uncovering documents that others want to keep buried.
"Governments would rather poke themselves in the eye with a stick than release politically embarrassing information," Ms. Barlee said in an interview at the Wilderness Committee's offices in Vancouver.
At the top of well-worn stairs in an old brick building in Gastown, the headquarters of the influential environmental group bustles with activity as volunteers stuff envelopes and staffers hustle from one strategy meeting to another.
From here Ms. Barlee has directed campaigns that have led to significant changes in government policy.
One persuaded government to reverse a decision to put pay parking meters in provincial parks. Ms. Barlee also pressed government into rejecting proposed independent power projects on the Upper Pitt River, in the Fraser Valley, and at Glacier/Howser in the West Kootenays. And she got the government to acknowledge that the health system had erred in failing to diagnose Lyme disease in B.C. patients.
Almost all Ms. Barlee's campaigns have used FOI requests to unearth government documents that otherwise might never have come to public attention.
Ms. Barlee got her start sleuthing on outings with her father, the late Bill Barlee, who was an NDP cabinet minister from 1991 to 1996, and liked to tramp around the backwoods of B.C. with his family, looking for treasures.
"We used to do tons of gold panning, treasure hunting, arrowhead hunting, go to ghost towns looking for coins under the boardwalks," Ms. Barlee said of the childhood outings that sparked her desire to search for the unknown.
Later, her mother, Kathleen Barlee, helped her apply those skills to sifting through mounds of government files.
"She was an FOI officer in government, but I never really started paying attention to that until I began using FOIs myself," said Ms. Barlee, who joined the Wilderness Committee in 2001 after a brief career as a location manager in the film industry. "I thought [mother's job] was something dusty and boring, and then I realized, 'Oh no, it's the keys to the kingdom.' "
She said her parents taught her the importance of persistence.
Several years ago, Ms. Barlee began to suspect that she had contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite. But the Ministry of Health said the disease was not present in B.C.
The government refused to accept a positive blood test done in a U.S. lab.
That prompted Ms. Barlee to start filing FOIs.
"I had terrible trouble getting information back … I was getting partial information … page after page after page of blank documents … I said there's something bizarre here. I could tell the government didn't want to release the information," Ms. Barlee said.
She eventually uncovered a Health Ministry document that confirmed the government did not know the number of Lyme disease cases in B.C., but did know that affected people were not being treated. She fed that information to the media – and a day later the government announced a new clinic for chronic diseases with a focus on Lyme disease.
Not all of Ms. Barlee's campaigns have such dramatic results. But she says it is a rewarding job.
"You don't always win the battle," she said, " but you have the opportunity to fight the good fight."