Premier Christy Clark’s British Columbia Medal of Good Citizenship program was announced in the 2015 throne speech as a way to “recognize the men and women who have made extraordinary contributions in their communities... thank them for making a difference — and inspire others to follow their example.”
But although 23 medals have already been awarded, the government is refusing to reveal how the awards were decided or how public money was spent on the program.
The medals have been awarded to 21 individuals (including two posthumously). Two groups — the people of the Ahousaht First Nation and the District of Tofino — were honoured this month for their roles in rescuing victims of a whale watching ship disaster last October.
But when The Tyee wanted to learn more about the medals and how the recipients are chosen, the government delayed and then denied four freedom of information requests.
The Medal of Good Citizenship is a regional version of the annual Order of BC awards that were established in 1989 and are run by the same branch of the premier’s office.
The Tyee applied in mid-May for all agendas and minutes of Medal of Good Citizenship Selection Committee meetings and copies of all nomination forms. The Tyee also sought information on the procurement of the medals and ribbons and certificates, the costs and how the suppliers, like medal maker Pressed Metal Products, were chosen.
Finally, The Tyee asked for records about the award for Dave Holmberg, who received his medal in Abbotsford on April 29 at the opening of a hospice he helped build in memory of his son. Finance Minister Mike de Jong, longtime Abbotsford MLA, was at the ceremony to congratulate the local philanthropist and prominent BC Liberal supporter who donated almost $51,000 to the party over a decade. De Jong is also in charge of the government’s FOI department.
The government originally said it would respond to The Tyee by June 29, but missed its deadline.
On Aug. 3, it delivered a denial letter, claiming that it was under no obligation to release any of the information.
“Please be advised that at the time you submitted your request the British Columbia Medal of Good Citizenship Selection Committee was not designated as a public body under Schedule 2 of [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act],” said the letter from the information access operations department on behalf of the premier’s office.
Schedule 2 lists the departments, agencies, offices, boards and ministries that fall under the law, including the Office of the Premier and Order of BC advisory committee.
The letter said the Medal of Good Citizenship Selection Committee was not added to the list by a ministerial order until July 11 in refusing to respond to the FOI request filed in May.
Instead of delivering any records, which it had the option to do, the government said new FOI requests would have to be filed.
The letter said the section of the Provincial Symbols and Honours Act dealing with the B.C. Medal of Good Citizenship allows the cabinet to appoint a government employee as secretary of the Selection Committee to maintain records and perform other duties.
“Although the secretary of the Selection Committee is an employee of the government, the records she holds are not in the custody or under the control of the Office of the Premier,” the letter said.
A transparency advocate said the denial letter conflicts with the award nomination form that explicitly states the FOI law does apply.
“It seems like they’ve gone two ways here,” said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.
First, Gogolek said, the government said on the nomination form that personal information is collected under the authority of the FOI law, “which seems to imply it is a public body, in which case they’re subject to requests as well.”
Yet, the government response claims the organization wasn’t covered at the time the FOI request was filed.
“At what point did that change around?” Gogolek said. “When did they decide or come to the view that we’re not a public body, therefore it doesn’t apply to us, but it really should, so let’s get ourselves designated under Schedule 2?”
Neither Clark’s press secretary, Stephen Smart, nor the associate deputy minister in charge of protocol and awards, Pierrette Maranda, responded to The Tyee's interview requests.
Last fall, Clark appointed a five-person selection committee chaired by Jobs and Tourism Minister Shirley Bond. The committee was to meet at least once a year in Victoria or Vancouver to choose recipients.
The committee includes ex-mayors of Williams Lake and Port McNeill, a former director of instruction from the Coast Mountains School District, a Westbank First Nation councillor and Jatinder Rai, the BC Liberal re-election campaign strategist whose Response Advertising agency billed taxpayers $1.1 million for government ad contracts last year.
The Board Resourcing and Development Office shows the appointments are until Dec. 31, but Bond’s role continues until Dec. 31, 2017 — seven months after the next provincial election.
The next nomination deadline is Sept. 30.
Read more: BC Politics