What does the British Columbia government have to hide about the Highway of Tears?
That question was left hanging last week when Elizabeth Denham, the Information and Privacy Commissioner for the province, issued a scathing report that found the government had "triple deleted" e-mails related to the topic.
Ms. Denham found the government had violated the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by deleting files, and asked the RCMP to investigate one official for his "failure to tell the truth under oath."
On the weekend, Premier Christy Clark called on government ministers and political staff to stop deleting e-mails, and promised to make the changes recommended in Ms. Denham's report.
Who triggered the investigation?
In May, Ms. Denham's office received a letter from Tim Duncan, a former executive assistant to Transportation Minister Todd Stone, complaining that a ministerial assistant, George Gretes, had willfully destroyed records.
Mr. Duncan testified that in response to an FOI request, he had been asked to search his records for any files related to missing women and the Highway of Tears. But when he told his work colleague, Mr. Gretes, that he had found such files, he was ordered to delete them. When he hesitated, he said, Mr. Gretes took his keyboard and "triple deleted" all of the e-mails related to the Highway of Tears. That was denied by Mr. Gretes, who resigned his job last week.
What motivated the complaint?
Mr. Duncan has told the media his father was murdered in a domestic incident and so he had great sympathy for the families of Highway of Tears victims. He filed his complaint after leaving his job with the B.C. government.
Who filed the FOI application that Mr. Duncan was responding to and how did it relate to the missing women?
On Nov. 19, 2014, the NDP filed an FOI application seeking "all government records that make reference to the issue of missing women along Highway 16/the Highway of Tears and specifically including records related to meetings held by the ministry on this issue … [from] May 15 to November 19, 2014."
Why did the NDP suspect there were such government records?
On Nov. 17, 2014, parliamentary secretary Darryl Plecas stated in the B.C. Legislature that "in June and July of this year, staff at the Transportation Ministry travelled along Highway 16 corridor and held face-to-face discussions with over 80 communities. They met with 12 First Nations. They spoke with 13 different municipalities and regional districts."
What records did the FOI request produce?
Surprisingly, despite the numerous meetings, the government responded to the FOI request by saying there were no records related to the subject of missing women on the Highway of Tears.
Why did the government send a team to tour Highway 16 in the first place?
Hitchhiking on the Highway of Tears has long been a risky practice followed by aboriginal women who have few other options because of poverty and limited public transportation. The Transportation Ministry went to meet community leaders along the route to discuss possible solutions to provide safer ways to travel.
At the time, the government was under pressure to do something about the growing number of mostly aboriginal women who had vanished or been murdered while hitchhiking along the 720-kilometre stretch of highway.
In 2006, a report had recommended the government set up a shuttle-bus service along the route. That never happened, however, and the government was being pushed to act.
Why didn't the government follow up on the meetings with substantive action?
That question remains unanswered, and the e-mails that might have shed some light on the topic have been erased.