Stung by what they see as a lack of response and downright indifference from the province to the plight of local landowners, drainage advocates have begun to organize into an informal network across the province.
In October 2017, a dozen of them sent a letter to Rochelle Squires, who then had just been appointed the province’s minister of sustainable development. In the letter they stated they were making “… yet another attempt to garner your office’s attention regarding the growing list of complaints attributed to the ongoing failures of the Water Licensing Division.”
“We have identified multiple instances where your departmental staff have failed to execute their job responsibilities and failed to document their work. We have also identified how gross negligence is not only limited to front-line staff. It is also apparent that many field staff members do not possess the appropriate training and education to execute their job responsibilities or seek the advice of others who do.”
The letter quotes promises made by Bruce Gray, assistant deputy minister of sustainable development two years ago promising to review the concerns.
“The department is reviewing the concerns that have been raised and allegations with respect to the due diligence, consideration of evidence, public openness, administrative process and professional ethics applied by drainage officers in conducting their work related to licensing and enforcement within respective legislative authority and in service to Manitobans. Please be advised that we take these concerns very seriously and are taking all possible steps to ensure that your concerns are fairly and completely addressed,” Gray wrote.
But the concerned landowners have heard nothing since.
“In our opinion, we do not believe your office has taken these concerns seriously or taken any steps to ensure our concerns have been addressed.”
To find out the particulars of a drainage licence in Manitoba it’s often necessary to start with a formal request under the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) requesting information.
Landowners wrangling with their local government and provincial regulators say it’s rare to get an adequate response however, as loopholes abound in the act.
In particular the department very freely uses a few large loopholes built into the legislation. One states it doesn’t apply to records “… made by or for an officer of the legislative assembly.”
Under this policy Sustainable Development demurred to release annual reviews of drainage by the Manitoba Ombudsman report, according to FIPPA response seen by the Co-operator.
Those who have tried to have the information released say it’s an important part of holding the department accountable.
They say many recommendations of the original 2008-09 report, which is public, were never implemented such as the tracking of the licensing and complaint process. The department has processed approximately 20,000 drainage licences in subsequent years.
Other common reasons for denying requests include that it’s advice to a public body or that it would harm relations between the provincial government and another government. They’re loopholes journalists who cover the provincial legislature have said are open for abuse and that their use has skyrocketed in recent years.
In spring 2017 the CBC reported on a review of FIPPA legislation that the members of the Manitoba legislative assembly press gallery were calling on government to address the issue.
“Basically right now anything that is submitted to a cabinet minister or produced by a cabinet minister cannot be released to the public for 20 years and that is such a wide all-encompassing exception that if you are in government and wanted to hide something you could just give it to a cabinet minister and claim that exemption,” Steve Lambert, past president of the press gallery and a Canadian Press journalist was quoted to say.