Vancouver Fire Department wins Canada’s Silence Award

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The ministry wanted to charge $260 for a one-page report related to the 2022 fire that destroyed Value Village in East Vancouver.

Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS) has won the 2024 Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy in the municipal category for its efforts to charge exorbitant fees for access to a fire investigation report already paid for by taxpayers .

The award is intended to draw public attention to governments or publicly funded agencies that work to conceal information that the public has a right to see.

In the Vancouver case, the fire department was recognized for refusing to provide a one-page report on the destruction of the East Hastings Value Village store in June 2022.

Journalist Stanley Tromp retrieved the data through BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. But that request was rejected. Instead, the department wanted to charge Tromp at least $260 for a copy of each report.

Tromp said he appealed the decision to the BC Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, but was told the action left him powerless to do anything in the specific situation.

Yet Tromp believes that such things should be public.

“I hope it will prompt City Hall to stop this dangerous absurdity in the interests of public safety and democracy,” he said.

The awards are presented annually by the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Center for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

Under BC law, public access to documents can be denied if they are for sale. The law does not limit how much a government department or agency can charge for access to documents.

“Taxpayers have already paid for the costs of producing these records,” said James Turk, director of the Center for Free Expression.

He called the law flawed because it makes the public pay repeatedly for the same information.

“It is inexcusable that Vancouver Fire Rescue Services has chosen to make such important public information prohibitively expensive for most people, while the costs of distribution are minimal in our digital age,” he said.

VFRS spokesperson Captain Matthew Trudeau said the Vancouver Fire Bylaw sets fees for various services provided by staff for specific requests under the freedom of information (FOI) process.

“Requests for fire cause, origin, incident information and/or VFRS involvement will be provided to journalists upon request, free of charge, through the Public Information Officer,” Trudeau said.

“When full reports are requested that require additional unscheduled administrative hours, the FOI process is implemented to offset the hours required to fulfill detailed requests.”

The BC government won the award two years ago for changes to FOI legislation. Critics said they had watered them down at a time when laws regulating the disclosure of public documents needed to be strengthened.