Supreme Court to hear case about access to Premier Doug Ford’s mandate letters

By Liam Casey

The Supreme Court of Canada will hear Ontario’s appeal to block the release of mandate letters sent from Premier Doug Ford to his cabinet ministers nearly four years ago.

The CBC sought the 23 letters Ford wrote to his cabinet ministers shortly after his Progressive Conservatives won the 2018 election. A journalist filed a request that year for the documents under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The cabinet office refused CBC’s request, which prompted the broadcaster to appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. Mediation did not solve the issue, court documents show.

Then-privacy commissioner, Brian Beamish, ordered the letters to be disclosed to CBC.

Ontario’s attorney general responded by seeking a judicial review in divisional court, which dismissed the application. The province then appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeal for Ontario.

In January, the province’s highest court dismissed Ontario’s appeal, which prompted the province to appeal again to the country’s highest court.

As usual, the Supreme Court gave no reasons Thursday for deciding to hear the appeal.

Ontario sought to keep the letters private from the outset, arguing they should be excluded under the freedom of information act because releasing them would “reveal the substance of deliberations” of cabinet.

The privacy commissioner concluded the letters did not fall within the parameters of exclusion.

“The mandate letters are directives from the Premier to each of his ministers,” the privacy commissioner wrote. “They contain general statements about the government’s overall priorities and provide guidance to each minister as to each ministry’s priorities and his or her own role.”

The privacy commissioner found no evidence the letters were ever tabled at a cabinet meeting or part of cabinet deliberations, and therefore could be made public.

The divisional court found the privacy commissioner’s conclusions to be reasonable, saying the burden of proof lay with the province to demonstrate the letters should be excluded under the exemption. The judge ruled the province didn’t meet the burden of proof.

The Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s ruling in a 2-1 decision, saying it did not make an error in law.

“The letters do not threaten to divulge cabinet’s deliberative process or its formulation of policies,” Justice Lorne Sossin wrote.

Ontario’s New Democrats called Thursday for the immediate release of the letters.

“Doug Ford’s Conservative mandate letters should have been released publicly four years ago,” said the party that held official Opposition status before the legislature dissolved for the current election campaign.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Ford and his Progressive Conservatives are scared to release the letters.

“It is it is unconscionable and appalling that they don’t have the confidence in their own plan to just level with the people of Ontario about their hidden agenda, the agenda that are trying desperately to keep hidden, to privatize to cut and to deliver more chaos,” he said at campaign stop in Mississauga, Ont, on Thursday.