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VIBERT: Premier McNeil’s promises unfulfilled

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Premier Stephen McNeil campaigned for the office he now holds promising, among other things, a doctor for every Nova Scotian who needs one, and the most open and transparent government in Canada.

A little more than five years later, and there are tens of thousands of Nova Scotians looking for a family doctor, and the McNeil government has turned Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) law into the biggest joke north of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC.

Nova Scotians, attuned to the cut-throat international competition for doctors, likely recognized that McNeil’s promise to fill the place with physicians was about as likely as Herbert Hoover’s 1928 promise to put a chicken in every American pot.

But few anticipated that senior officials of the Nova Scotia Health Authority — once McNeil’s Liberal government created the beast — would set off on a search-and-destroy mission apparently designed to let family docs know there’s a new sheriff in town.

Drunk with power they should never have been granted, the NSHA brass spent the better part of two years molding the province’s family medicine practitioners into the most demoralized workforce since Blockbuster got wind of Netflix.

The health authority didn’t create the family doctor shortage in Nova Scotia but, as just about any doc who was around at the time — circa 2015-16 — will tell you, the authority made a bad situation much worse.

The senior management of the NSHA likes to obscure or deny those early days when its advance guard was telling Nova Scotia’s family doctors not to put down roots or sign long-term leases on offices. Doctors were discouraged from hanging out shingles anyplace other than those designated as underserviced and in need of family physicians.

Of course, that’s not a problem anymore because, after just a few years of NSHA’s management, the whole damn province is under-serviced.

The doctor shortage is old news, and the NSHA’s leading role in turning it into a full-blown crisis is well-known, at least in the province’s medical community.

But this week, word arrived from the province’s information and privacy commissioner that the Nova Scotia Health Authority is home to “a dangerous and insidious culture of entitlement” where the private health records of Nova Scotians are pretty much an open book.


Drunk with power they should never have been granted, the NSHA brass spent the better part of two years molding the province’s family medicine practitioners into the most demoralized workforce since Blockbuster got wind of Netflix.


Protection of privacy is the flip side of freedom of information, but somehow the government and its creatures — like the NSHA — seem to have confused the two functions.

In Nova Scotia, private information that needs to be protected from prying eyes is easily accessible within government organizations, while public information that people are entitled to have is denied them. In both cases, the law is being broken by government officials.

FOIPOP Commissioner Catherine Tully’s staff found that private health information is subject to unauthorized access by NSHA employees with alarming regularity.

Conversely, public information held by government, and which Nova Scotians have every right to see, is routinely denied them.

Even when the commissioner’s office gets involved and tells the government it has no right to withhold information, the air-tight bureaucracy is as likely as not to ignore that direction. Nova Scotians have to incur the cost and hassle of taking the province to court to gain access to information that is theirs by right.

There could be a name for a place where functionaries of a state organization have access to citizens’ most private information, while other apparatchiks ensure no information is released unless it is deemed innocuous or beneficial to the state.

Whatever it’s called, it is most certainly not the most open and transparent government in Canada.

Tully and McNeil have tussled before. The premier clearly finds the commissioner’s advocacy of the citizens’ right to public information an irritant. Her revelation that private information is insufficiently protected by his government is likely to add to his pique.

But, Tully’s criticism of the government’s iron grip on public information and lax hold on private information hasn’t risen to the level yet where the premier and his government feel the need to do the right thing.

The right thing would be to bring in a new Freedom of Information law that gives Nova Scotians a look inside whatever it is the government is so intent on hiding, and a protection of privacy law that prevents someone’s tumour from becoming water-cooler gossip down at that NSHA.

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