Animal Health Act  


The BC Liberals are in the middle of rushing through a new Bill called the Animal Health Act.

This Bill would create fundamental changes to how BC responds to animal disease outbreaks.

In my view the Animal Health Act fails to strike the appropriate balance between empowering the Chief Veterinarian to take the extreme actions that may be necessary in an emergency, with societal obligations to protect the public interest, ensure due process and be transparent and open with information.

With respect to that last point, it is worth emphasizing that the BC Liberals have promised an "open government".

In reality, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act is being turned into a piece of swiss cheese. Section 16 of the Animal Health Act explicitly exempts data gathered through its authority from being subject to a FOI request.

Equally disturbing, this section also appears to gag journalists and others from releasing information about serious animal disease outbreaks. You can read Ethan Baron's excellent article about this in the Province.

When I challenged the Minister on this point late last week, he argued that section 16 does not apply to journalists. His statements - now in Hansard - form part of the formal record. This would undermine any attempt by the government to use this section against journalists or independent scientists.

Here is that part of our exchange for the record:
L. Popham: The protected information, section 16, states that, except as permitted under section 17 or 18, "a person must refuse" — despite the freedom-of-information legislation — "to disclose the following…."

There is no qualifier on "person" in this section. I'd like to know if this is a drafting error, because in the following section, section 17, it does limit the meaning of persons. This suggests that the broadness of the term was deliberate in section 16.

Hon. D. McRae: Section 16 must be read within the context of the acts. The references in section 16 to section 17 and 18 imply that the "person" in section 16 takes its meaning from those sections. So in section 17, "person" is implying employees and former employees of the ministry of the minister, each inspector or former inspector, persons engaged or previously engaged in the administration of the act, a person responsible for administering a laboratory and an employee or former employee of a laboratory identified for the purposes of section 16.[1630]
L. Popham: I'm going to read this again. Except as permitted under section 17 or 18, a person must refuse, despite the freedom-of-information legislation, to disclose the following: information that would identify or reveal (a) the identity of a person responsible for an animal, (b) a specific place where animals are kept, (c) information that would reveal that a notifiable or reportable disease is or may be present, (d) information that would reveal that an animal or an animal product affected by a notifiable, reportable disease is in a place or owned by an identifiable person or body, (e) info derived from a sample under this act.

So we go back to the reference to a person, and it looks to me like, on the face of it, the government is trying to prohibit all people from communicating about the existence or even the possible existence of a notifiable or a reportable disease. In my interpretation, and in many other people's interpretations, this is a big overreach, and it would apply to everyone. If you follow the law that we are now debating, it would apply to journalists, independent scientists, concerned neighbours, interested individuals, etc.

This law reads that it applies to everyone. I don't think that, if you read…. As I read it, and I've had legal consultations, this is a big concern. It's trying to block information.

I understand the idea that trust must be built between businesses and the government, allowing for freedom of information. But I don't think British Columbians have chosen to live in the dark about issues. I don't think that when the freedom-of-information legislation was voted on in this House, it was passed unanimously with the idea that it could be used whenever the government wanted to and then if the government didn't want to, it wasn't important.

Does section 16 apply to the media and independent scientists and anyone who would want to inquire around information of a potential disease outbreak or a disease outbreak? Why would this information be kept from the public and anyone else who may have a concern about it?

Hon. D. McRae: The term "person" in this act does not refer to the media. It does not refer to independent scientists or individuals making inquiries. The term "person" does refer to the section 17, subsection (1)(a) through (e) — which I quoted earlier, and I think it's already in the record, but it was particularly to those (a) through (e) individuals. Again, to the member opposite, it does not refer to the media, independent scientists or the general public making inquiries.

L. Popham: So if the media, if independent scientists, if other advocacy groups were to inquire around information, around disease outbreak or potential disease threats, would the information be given to those people? Would the information be shared with the media so that the media could then report out on it? I don't think the legislation says that that would happen.[1635]

Hon. D. McRae: Again, we're referring in this act to the word "person." It refers particularly to the positions I mentioned in section 17(1)(a) through (e). However, if a person involved in the media, an independent scientist or the general public were to inquire to the individual farmer about a test's results and the individual farmer wished to share them, he or she would be more than able to do so. If the farmer were to provide consent to the ministry, we would also be able to provide that information.
L. Popham: Well, that's the minister's interpretation, but I think that section 16 creates an obligation for the person to refuse to give information. In fact, that's exactly the point. If they don't refuse, they could be incarcerated; they could be charged. I mean, there are severe penalties for disclosure of this information.

There's some headshaking going on, and I understand there may be some frustration. But the interpretation….

I didn't come up with all of this information on my own. I have also had legal advice, and it is concerning. So if it's not the intention of section 16 to basically create a gag clause within this legislation, then I think this section 16 needs to be reworded so it's more clear, because the advice that I've been given is that this may be an unintended gag clause, but it's a gag clause.
Hon. D. McRae: Again, in section 16, the "person" refers to those mentioned in section 17(1)(a) through (e). Again, I won't read them off. It is talking about employees of government, inspectors, persons engaged in administration of the act. It is not referring to media, independent scientists or people making individual inquiries to such an act.

The Hansard transcript is here. and a video of the session is here. Debate on this Bill continues next week.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 23, 2012 at Wednesday, May 23, 2012 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the .