Ottawa-based watchdog Blacklock’s Reporter sought hidden records from Hydro Ottawa through Canada’s Freedom Of Information Act and were charged a record-breaking $669,762.
Blacklock's Reporter is appealing the cost estimate as grossly inflated.
The Act allows the public to request information related to federal institutions to “enhance the accountability and transparency” in government, Canada’s Justice Laws website states. It exists to “to promote an open and democratic society and to enable public debate on the conduct of those institutions.”
Applying for access to government access normally comes at a fee up to a few hundred dollars, and in some cases a couple thousand. It is very rare for the expense to be more than $5,000.
Blacklock’s Reporter requested records documenting its use of replacement workers in a 2023 strike just weeks prior to Ottawa’s announcement of a bill restricting use of replacement workers in the federally regulated sector.
It sought details of the utility’s use of replacement workers over the course of 118 business days “from May 1 to October 17, 2023 including all documents, records, files, correspondence and electronic communication, data and invoices, excluding records already made public, regarding AFIMAC and XOH Powerline, Batte Pole Line Ltd., KPC Power Electric Ltd., Aerial Work Utilities and Jet Electrical Contractors.”
Legal counsel for Hydro Ottawa Matthew Carey responded to the request saying it would take thousands of hours in “preparation time” to produce such documents.
“It has become clear that significant work will be required to search for and prepare responsive records for disclosure,” wrote Carey. “Given the volume of potentially responsive records we anticipate that we may need to issue a time extension notice upon receipt of the deposit.”
Carey said Blacklock’s Reporter should pay upfront for half the fees, which he estimated to be $669,762, the highest ever fee for access to public information, with Hydro Ottawa claiming the request covered 640,234 pages of documents that would take 18,047 hours to review and photocopy.
That amounts to more than 5,400 each business day.
Hydro Ottawa settled a strike with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 636 that lasted 83 days and involved 390 employees on September 20. The utility company hired replacement workers during that time.
The strike ended seven weeks before the federal government introduced Bill C-58 An Act To Amend The Canada Labour Code, which restricts federally regulated employers’ use of replacement workers under threat of $100,000-a day fines.
Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan called Bill C-58, which is currently in its second reading in the House of Commons, “a massive change” in labour relations nationwide.
“It will fundamentally change how labour relations operate in this country,” O’Regan said in the House of Commons. “The labour movement has been saying replacement workers are wrong for longer than this country has existed.”
“People in the labour movement have been telling us that replacement workers distract from the bargaining table and prolong disputes and that the use of replacement workers can poison the relationship between an employer and workers for generations after. We listened to the workers,” he said.