Huronia institution documents to be shielded by privacy laws
TheStar.com – news/GTA – Critics worry that sending 65,000 documents from a class-action settlement to the Ontario archives will make it harder to reveal what happened at the provincial institution.
Sep 26 2013. By: Tim Alamenciak News reporter
The 65,000 documents that could have been made public as evidence in a class-action lawsuit over alleged abuses at the Huronia Regional Centre will instead be available only through freedom of information laws.
As part of a class-action lawsuit settlement, the documents — including police reports, investigations into abuse allegations, witness testimony and internal policy papers — will be stored with the Archives of Ontario. Anyone wishing to see them will have to file a request under the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act , which can delay their release and result in portions being kept secret.
The requests have to be in writing and the documents vetted by officials before release.
“Now that it’s under the freedom of information system, in theory that means that information is more easily accessible,” said David Fewer, a lawyer and director of CIPPIC, a public policy law clinic at the University of Ottawa.
“But the reality is the government has found lots of ways to tweak this stuff to make it difficult to access material if they don’t want the material to be accessed.”
Fewer says the exemptions in the act, which allows the government to censor portions of documents, could hamper attempts to share the stories of Huronia residents.
Former residents of the provincially run Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia recently won a landmark victory with the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the province over allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the former institution.
The settlement is expected to be heard and probably approved by a judge in December.
“Only documents entered as evidence at trial would have been public,” said Brendan Crawley, spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General. He added it would not be appropriate to comment while the settlement is still before the court.
“The idea is that there are a lot of names involved of former residents, former employees, that they may not want out there,” explained David Rosenfeld, one of the lawyers for the plaintiff’s side in the class-action lawsuit.
Rosenfeld said the documents are already in electronic format.
Kate Rossiter, an assistant professor with Wilfrid Laurier University who is studying Huronia, worries the process will bog down the release of documents.
“One of the priorities (of the settlement) is making those documents available to people, but my worry is the bureaucracy of document storage will prohibit that in some way,” she said. “It’s my utmost concern that those documents remain very public and very accessible.”
Rossiter acknowledged the need to respect the privacy of residents who may still be alive, but stressed the importance of quickly releasing the information
The archives currently holds case files for former residents, including a list of some 1,440 people buried in numbered and unmarked graves on the facility’s site. Family members trying to find out more about relatives who were in Huronia can file a freedom of information request to the Archives, using a guide on its website , to receive details that may include medical reports, correspondence and, in rare cases, photos.
Two other institutions for people with intellectual disabilities,Southwestern Regional Centre in Chatham-Kent and Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls, are also subject to class-action lawsuits currently before the courts.
Correction – Sept. 26, 2013: This article was edited from a previous version that misstated the name of Southwestern Regional Centre in Chatham-Kent.
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