The ‘Blonde Dragon’ transit driver and other stories uncovered through FOI
Published on July 12, 2023
When I was a young reporter, I had a goal to file at least one freedom of information request every week. This habit was invaluable to me in those early years, because it meant I always had solid, exclusive stories to pitch my editors.
The overwhelming majority of the FOIs I would get back wouldn’t result in a story. But they were all useful. Some would give me ideas or help me better understand a topic.
And then every now and again, I would strike gold.
There are few moments for a journalist that are as wonderful as getting back a really good FOI. Some may expose a major injustice or public-safety issue. Others may just be a good yarn. Here are some of my favourite FOI stories from my career:
The Gardiner is falling
I spent four years covering municipal politics when I worked at the Toronto Star. About a year and a half into the job, in the summer of 2011, concrete chunks began to fall off the Gardiner Expressway – the raised highway that cuts across the southern most portion of Toronto. The chunks ranged in size. Some were as small as a toonie. Others were as big as a baseball. I was curious to know more and filed a request with the city looking for records about the state of the Gardiner.
What I got back was a report from an outside engineering firm that had been hired by the city to study the issue. The group determined that parts of the overpass were deteriorating and that the situation presented a “significant hazard to public safety.” The outside engineers wrote that there were serious problems with the way that city engineers had been monitoring these problem areas. The report detailed sizable cracks, spalls (which were pieces that had detached from a larger mass) as well as splitting in six areas where city engineers had found “no signs of surface deterioration.”
The story ran on the front page and generated a massive outcry from the public and within city hall.
Blonde Dragon streetcar driver
One of my absolute favourite FOI stories came from a request in which I had asked for customer complaints sent into the Toronto Transit Commissioner. I filed the FOI because the transit agency had recently created a customer service advisory panel to try and overhaul its lackluster reputation.
The hundreds of pages that I got back painted a picture of a workforce that was stressed. Most of the complaints were about rude staff rather than delays or fare disputes.
Someone wrote in about a bus driver who refused to drive any further because a baby on board was crying. Another person included what I thought was a pretty funny vignette about an argument they had had with a streetcar driver, who apparently lost it when the passenger exited the wrong set of doors.
“I turned around and calmly asked her, ‘Why are you such a [expletive] to the passengers?’ Her loud reply: ‘BECAUSE I ENJOY IT!!!’ ... I do have to say that the majority of the TTC employees I encounter on a daily basis are courteous and a good number of them are downright friendly. What a delight! But not the Blonde Dragon!”
Mayor Rob Ford, his councillor brother Doug Ford and Deco Labels
Before the late Rob Ford was mayor of Toronto, his family company, Deco Labels & Tags, had contracts with the city. That continued after his election. Given his position within the city, I thought it made sense to understand what type of work Deco was doing.
An FOI showed Deco did $56,000 worth of business for the City of Toronto in 2010. (City officials insisted to me that this wasn’t a conflict of interest and that the company received no special treatment.) This is the kind of small but important information that needs to be put on the public record.
In 2014, after I’d moved to The Globe and Mail, Greg McArthur and I worked on a story about Doug Ford – who was then running for mayor, and who is now Premier of Ontario – and the family business, which he had run for years.
More FOIs showed that things were more complicated with the city than originally shown. The documents revealed that Deco sometimes failed to fulfill its orders as promised. For example, in 2014, the city ordered 500,000 water-meter tags for $24,195. The order was supposed to be complete by May 12. After multiple changes, the order arrived June 10. On that same job, Deco charged the city an additional $2,419.50 to cover the cost of extra tags that had come off a print run.
One of the FOIs captured an e-mail exchange between Deco and a city employee about this extra charge: "We ordered 500,000 and I never even dreamed that we would need to specify no overs or unders.” In the end, the city agreed to take the extras.
(In a similar reporting vein, Greg McArthur later used FOI to show that the Ford brothers, while both were in office at Toronto City Hall, had helped one of Deco’s largest customers lobby the city's highest ranking bureaucrat for a special property tax break. Records showed the Fords had repeatedly intervened with city staff without disclosing the company had a commercial relationship with their family.)
My Unfounded series ran throughout 2017. The investigation showed that Canadian police were dismissing one in five sexual assault cases as false or baseless. It led to a national overhaul of police policies, practices and training, and continues to have significant impact to this day – and it only happened because of FOI.
Long story short: I wanted to learn more about sexual assault allegations that had been coded as “unfounded.” (When police close a case, they give it a code to signify the outcome. For example, if a file is resolved with a charge. Unfounded means the alleged offence didn’t happen.) I contacted Statistics Canada to obtain unfounded data for each police service in the country, but was told the agency doesn’t collect or publish that information anymore. (They used to, but stopped at some point for reasons no one would say at the time.)
When I started phoning police services directly for their statistics, I was told I would need to file an FOI. So I did – hundreds of them with more than 1,100 jurisdictions. All together, we learned that 19.39 per cent of sexual assault cases were being designated as false or baseless. Moreover, in 115 communities, a third of allegations were being tossed as unfounded.
I also used FOI to look into specific cases. In order to understand why so many of these files were going sideways, I investigated 54 allegations. I had complainants file requests for copies of their police reports. This is how I was able to obtain video of a detective interviewing a young complainant named Ava. In the footage, the detective frequently invokes rape myth stereotypes, misstates the law and shows a lack of understanding of the way that trauma can impact victim behaviour. Some of the most powerful reporting in the series came as a result of those FOIs.
Notwithstanding how proud I am of this journalism, it is worth noting that I should never have had to file FOIs to obtain basic police statistics. By contrast, I obtained American unfounded statistics by e-mailing the FBI. They provided the information right away.
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