Mr. Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to provide additional information for your consideration of the question of privilege raised by the member for Wild Rose.
The member for Wild Rose alleges that an official of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development deliberately misled him and subsequently denied him information to which he was entitled as a member of Parliament, thus constituting a contempt of Parliament. This is not the case. I wish to put before the House an outline of my understanding of what occurred that day and the rationale for the official's actions.
On August 29, 1997 my staff offered to have senior departmental officials from the Alberta region provide the member for Wild Rose with a briefing on the initiatives being undertaken by the department in the Stony community. While I cannot speak to the specifics of the hon. member's expectations, there was no promise at that time to release confidential financial information of the band to him. The meeting was subsequently arranged for September 16, 1997.
A few days prior to the meeting Indian affairs officials learned that members of the Stony band would be attending with the hon. member. On the day of the meeting the departmental regional office became aware that members of other bands in Alberta were also accompanying the member to the meeting.
On September 16 the hon. member for Wild Rose arrived by bus for the meeting accompanied by two assistants and approximately 20 members from three different Alberta bands. The member conducted at least one interview via telephone with the media while on route to the meeting.
Representatives of the media also arrived at the building that afternoon, apparently at the invitation of the hon. member. Despite this development the participants at the meeting were advised that they could be present for the general briefing but that DIAND officials were not at liberty to reveal to non-band members financial information confidential to the Stony band.
The position taken by DIAND officials was guided by restrictions of the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.
It is acknowledged that the information sought was not requested under the Access to Information Act. However, given the government's potential liability over inappropriate disclosure of confidential information to third parties, the Access to Information Act is used for guidance on the informal release of information.
Confidential financial information relative to the band is mandatorily protected by the Access to Information Act. As such, it can only be released to third parties after a consultation process. Consultations are with the chief and council or duly authorized officials of the band. Some of the information can be provided, however, to individual members of the band, as they are entitled.
At that point the largest contingent at the meeting, primarily members of the Samson band, agreed to leave the briefing and requested a separate meeting with DIAND officials immediately following the meeting with Stony band members. That request was granted.
The hon. member for Wild Rose and one other member of another First Nation protested the position being taken by DIAND officials. An assistant to the hon. member then drafted a handwritten note at the meeting which he had signed by members of the accompanying group. This note appointed the member as their financial advisor.
The hon. member for Wild Rose claimed that as their financial advisor he was entitled to the same information as the band members themselves. DIAND officials were unsure of the legal implications of releasing the information under these circumstances or the rights of a financial advisor to receive such information. As such, he advised those present that if they pursued the matter legal advice would have to be sought before the meeting could continue.
The hon. member agreed to leave the meeting to allow a discussion of financial issues with the members of the Stony tribe.
The member for Wild Rose was not present during the discussion of financial issues which was provided to individual members of the Stony band, but he was present during the briefing by DIAND staff of the initiatives being taken to address the situation at Stony. These initiatives include the appointment of a third party manager to manage the day to day operations of the Stony First Nation, the initiation of a forensic audit of the band operations and the establishment of a joint task force to examine the conditions on reserve and develop proposals to address them.
After the meeting the hon. member asked if the department could contribute to the cost of the bus which was used to bring the group to the briefing. The member was advised at that point that this was not possible.
Sometime after the meeting the hon. member's assistant contacted the DIAND regional office. He stated that he had a conversation with an official in the office of the access to information commissioner and claimed he was advised that the member was entitled to the information he had sought as a representative of the individual band members present. The member's assistant was advised by DIAND to submit a formal access to information request. This would allow the member to specifically state what information he required and it would enable the department to obtain legal advice on a specific request for information.
These events appear to have led to the hon. member's question of privilege. I wish to submit the following points for consideration.
First, the member for Wild Rose alleges that officials deliberately misled him and withheld information. The fact is there was no intention to deliberately mislead or withhold information. It was my staff that offered the briefing and regional officials provided the briefing as promised. The regional official involved did not provide information which he felt was confidential and protected under acts of Parliament.
Second, I do not believe that the official's actions indicate a contempt of this Parliament. The fact that he said he would not release the requested information under unusual circumstances without first obtaining legal advice was, I believe, the prudent course of action and demonstrated no contempt for Parliament or the member's rights as a parliamentarian. His emphasis on prudence with respect to confidential information demonstrates his respect for Parliament and the laws that it develops.
Third, in this question of privilege the hon. member refers to regulations governing disclosure of information. While it is not clear to which regulations he is referring I wish to make the following points. The member for Wild Rose claims that the released confidential financial information is permitted if written consent is received. The member argues that he had such consent.
While it appears that he had the consent of a few band members, the information being sought related to the entire band and was not specific to those members. He did not have the consent of the band. He also claims that as a member of Parliament he is entitled to confidential information. If he is referring to the Privacy Act, section 8.1(g) does allow that personal information can be released to a member of Parliament “for the purpose of assisting the individual to whom the information relates in resolving a problem”. Again, in this case the information requested was not specific to the individuals but related to the entire band.
My department arranged a briefing in good faith, provided the briefing and attempted to accommodate the request for information within the law. The official involved acted prudently by not revealing confidential information without seeking legal advice. I am sure the hon. member would not want officials of the department of Indian affairs or any public servant to risk releasing confidential information or violating the spirit of an act of Parliament.
I appreciate this opportunity to outline the circumstances surrounding the point of privilege raised by the hon. member for Wild Rose.