A bereaved mother’s long battle to learn more about her daughter’s death has led the federal information commissioner to recommend changes to Canada’s access to information legislation on “compassionate grounds.”
Liette Savoie’s 17-year-old daughter Francesca died in a car crash in Bas-Caraquet, N.B. in the fall of 2007. The other driver pleaded guilty to impaired driving causing death.
Savoie has been on a quest ever since to learn more about what happened that night — a quest driven in part by rumours on the Acadian Peninsula about a high-speed chase and a second vehicle.
In 2012, according to a recent Federal Court decision, Savoie requested all the information the RCMP had on the crash involving her daughter, including accident reports, files and any recordings. The Access to Information Act gives Canadians and institutions the right to access government records — with some exemptions.
The RCMP responded by saying that only a small portion of their files would be released. The RCMP cited the portion of the Access to Information Act that shields from disclosure information obtained in the course of a police investigation less than 20 years old.
Savoie complained to the information commissioner, whose office investigates claims regarding the Access to Information Act.
According to the Federal Court documents, the information commissioner’s office pressed the RCMP to explain why it didn’t use its discretion to release the files. The RCMP argued that the personal information of the deceased is protected by law for 20 years after death and the public interest in disclosure “did not outweigh the invasion of privacy that would result from the disclosure.”
“The commission nevertheless requested that the RCMP review the file again in order to determine whether there could be a larger interest weighing in favour of divulging the information so as to enable a parent to understand the circumstances of the death of a close relative,” wrote Federal Court Justice Vanessa Rochester in her decision.
“In other words, members of the public in similar situations would naturally wish to obtain the information in order to turn the page.”
Again, the RCMP argued that, according to the terms of the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, the remaining files shouldn’t be disclosed.
The information commissioner eventually concluded the RCMP’s reasoning was justified, prompting Savoie to take her battle to the Federal Court.
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Last week, Justice Rochester released her decision siding with the RCMP.
“Although I have great sympathy for Ms. Savoie’s loss, and her grief and frustration at not being able to access the information that she seeks … the act does provide for a number of exceptions to disclosure,” she wrote.
Rochester also wrote that there’s nothing in the files to suggest the RCMP is hiding information from Savoie.
Despite her loss before the Federal Court, Savoie’s battle could still lead to legislative changes. In her decision, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard said Savoie’s case “had shone a light on shortcomings” in the act.
A spokesperson for Maynard said she has since sent a proposal to the federal government to modify the act to give the head of an institution — like the RCMP — discretionary power to disclose personal information about a deceased person to a spouse or parent for compassionate reasons, as long as the disclosure is not an unreasonable invasion of the deceased’s privacy.
A spokesperson for the Treasury Board, the federal department which oversees the the Access to Information Act, said it and the Department of Justice are reviewing the commissioner’s suggestion.
Savoie called the Federal Court decision disappointing, but said the proposed changes could ease her pain.
“As a mother, I’ll defend the memory and respect of my daughter,” she said in French.
In concluding her ruling, Rochester said that if the information commissioner’s recommended amendments don’t materialize, “the eventual expiration of the twenty-year moratorium offers some hope.”