The government's financial support for a controversial autism centre could end up being much greater than it initially told the public, according to a leaked briefing note obtained by the advocacy group Moms on the Move. But the ministry of health, which earlier tried to stop the group from distributing that note, now says the information in it is out-of-date. In 2008, the province revealed it had notionally committed $20 million to help build the Pacific Autism Centre - a project led by hotel and spa owners Sergio Cocchia and Wendy Losgar-Cocchia. That news was controversial because some feel the money would be better spent on services for the autistic.
But a 14-month-old briefing note leaked to Moms on the Move shows the government has also discussed picking up some of the centre's operating costs by "partially reallocating existing provincial program funding."
In addition, there was talk of using the centre to deliver a program that's responsible for assessing and diagnosing children who may have autism. But, according to the note, the Provincial Health Services Authority expressed "significant concerns" about the proposal.
Moms on the Move posted that document, along with another older briefing note, on its Website last month. And that's when the health ministry came knocking.
In an email sent on March 30, one of its executive directors stated the briefing notes contain "confidential information related to third parties" that was "inappropriately disclosed outside the government's care and control."
As a result, the executive director - Leigh Ann Seller - asked Moms on the Move to "immediately" remove the notes from its Website, as well as "destroy all electronic and hard copies of these documents." The bureaucrat then requested the group "confirm, in writing to myself, that these actions have been taken."
Rattled, the group's administrators Dawn Steele and Cindy Gerlach's initially took down the documents but asked the ministry to provide the "statutory/legal basis" for making its request. Three days later, one of Ms. Seller's subordinates clarified the executive director's earlier email was a "request, not a demand; therefore, legal authority is irrelevant."
Nevertheless, the subordinate warned the information "may be misleading to the public, and, as an organization advocating for autism services I trust that this is not your intent. The appropriate process for obtaining information from government is to make a request under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act and I can provide further information on this if you need it."
But, according to freedom of information activist Darrell Evans, such a request would have allowed government to legally censor much of the information in those briefing notes before releasing them. Mr. Evans also said there would be no legal repercussions for posting the leaked briefing notes.
For its part, a health ministry spokesperson said "staff sought opinions from both legal and privacy officials before making the decision to request the group remove the document from its Website."
The spokesperson stated the request was made because the briefing note - which is once again available on Moms on the Move's Website - is a "draft document that was over one-year-old." The spokesperson also said the note included information that was "out of date and does not reflect the current situation."
The government didn't provide updated information to Public Eye by deadline. But the spokesperson stressed, "This initiative will not impact current or future funding of provincial autism services and programs and, once built, this centre will complement existing services to children with autism and their families."