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The more you know 

Who could replace living legend Darce Fardy? That's the question I put to Fardy last year, not long after he'd retired from his job as the province's highest authority on freedom of information and protection of privacy laws. A longtime CBC journalist—he'd started as an office assistant in St. John's and risen to become the national head of current affairs TV—who became FOIPOP review officer in 1995, Fardy was a public advocate who liked to see information set free from the mysterious depths of the provincial bureaucracy. So would the government want to hire such a citizen-minded review officer to succeed him? "They won't make that mistake again," Fardy said. Luckily, it looks like he was wrong.

Dulcie McCallum started her five-year term as Nova Scotia's FOIPOP review officer last February. Formerly the ombudsman for British Columbia, she is also a lawyer internationally respected for her work on disability issues. Fulfilling a yearning to live in Atlantic Canada, McCallum moved from BC about three years ago, inspired by her daughter going east for university. "That was my green light to pack up my woes and move to Nova Scotia," she says during a phone interview.

McCallum got off to a positive start in her new job, successfully asking her boss, the justice minister, to eliminate the fees associated with applying for a review. (It will still cost you $25 to request government information under FOI legislation, however if you aren't satisfied with the information that comes back, it's now free to ask McCallum's office to look into the case.) But good working relationship or not, she would rather be reporting to the legislature than to one politician.

"We're not as independent as an officer of the ledge," says McCallum. She is already looking forward to writing her annual report—a document delivered to the legislature rather than the minister. "The report is literally sent to the speaker. Commentary is never compromised or approved. That is really important for independence."

Nova Scotia's review officer is kind of a judge, kind of a village elder: officially powerless but known to give really good advice. Knowing that government bodies aren't obligated to follow her recommendations, McCallum aims to be convincing, get her investigations "dead on" and follow the letter of the FOI legislation. "If all the facts are known and analysed in an impartial way," she says, "then there should be no contest."

She is not toothless in her published reviews. A recent example dealt with a man—let's call him John—who was an inmate of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. On March 21, 2006, guards wearing balaclavas went into John's cell and, in the course of moving him to a cell across the hall, tasered him. Twice.

John made an FOI application in October 2006 to see the videotapes of the incident. He was turned down by the Department of Justice in December, which said the jail's security would be jeopardized if John saw the tape, and immediately asked for a second opinion. The review office tries to mediate cases before launching a full-blown investigation and, to its credit, the justice department offered to make a transcript of the audio for John. But they screwed up the transcription, only mentioning John getting tasered once, so it was understandable in May 2007 he decided to go on to a formal review.

September 10, McCallum's report on the case came out in strong support of John's rights to see himself on the video. Her decision reminds the justice department—and any other public body that's paying attention—that the law promises "individuals have a right to access their own personal information" and any exceptions "should be limited and specific." McCallum painstakingly shows there is no contest, and that giving John the tape outweighs the benefits of protecting masked guards in a generic cell. But McCallum's report is just a recommendation; the justice department's response is expected soon.

In honour of National Right to Know Week, Dulcie McCallum appears at a public forum about openness in government Thursday, October 4, 7pm in Alumni Hall at King’s College, 6350 Coburg Road. Other speakers include deputy police chief Chris McNeil, Coast senior features writer Stephen Kimber and living legend Darce Fardy. Admission is free, just like the cost of emailing me at editor@thecoast.ca.

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