After hundreds of students’ names and their forgiven loans were published without their knowledge, the GNWT will now inform students up front of that policy.
However, the finance department will continue publishing student names in the annual document, despite continuous calls from MLAs to better protect individuals’ privacy by ending the practice.
Sebastien LeTourneau, whose name was among nearly 500 listed in the loan remissions section of the latest public accounts, for 2016-17, said he doesn’t recall ever being informed his information would be used in the GNWT’s financial statements.
“On one side, I don’t think the number attached to the name really means a lot,” said LeTourneau. “It’s not like they’re showing off what amount we owe. But at the same time, I don’t really see any reason for them using our names at all.”
He suggested a better practice would be to use numbers identifying students with their loan remissions, rather than publishing their full names.
But Jamie Koe, comptroller general, said the finance department conducted an internal review with the help of the justice department this summer and determined the GNWT is simply abiding by the law.
“We conducted a review of the Financial Administrative Act and we believe that we are still following the legislation,” said Koe. “Section 62 … provides for forgiveness of debt and Section 65 provides that we disclose any forgiveness in the public accounts.”
Sections 62 and 65 of the act do not state whether names must be disclosed along with the forgiven debts.
The department’s internal review came after MLAs raised concern earlier this year about the practice of naming students in the GNWT’s public accounts.
In April, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly flagged a possible student privacy breach after more than 300 individuals were listed in the GNWT’s 2015-16 document.
The same committee issued a report the previous year on the 2014-15 public accounts, recommending the finance department do away with naming students with loan remissions.
The GNWT responded to the recommendation this March, stating the information would “continue to be disclosed in the Public Accounts in accordance with the Financial Administration Act and to ensure transparency of these amounts to the public.”
The committee again tabled a report this October, this time on the 2015-16 public accounts, reiterating their recommendation that students not be named.
It suggested the comptroller general reconsider amending the public accounts to include only dollar amounts for remissible loans, after consulting with the NWT Information and Privacy Commissioner and education department on the practice.
“We had no choice … we had to do it under the current legislation,” said Koe. “We did consult with (the education department). They are currently amending their student loan application form so this will be disclosed to students in advance as they apply for loans, that any loan remissions would be disclosed in the annual public accounts.”
This is not something that was done before, he said.
From a public accountability perspective, NWT Information and Privacy Commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts said the practice “makes sense.”
However, student loan remissions are not bad debts, she said.
“These are an animal of a different colour,” said Keenan Bengts. “These are remissible loans in a program that is intended exactly for that purpose.”
She couldn’t say for certain whether student privacy has been breached under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, but suggested a privacy assessment could help.
The assessment would lay out the privacy concerns and make a public body examine what information they’re collecting, what they’re doing with the information and whether they really need it, she said.
“I didn’t look at whether there are any accounting principles involved here, which there may be,” said Keenan Bengts. “But, are there better ways of doing things? I think there probably could be.”
She suggested a legislative change may be in order.
MLA Kieron Testart, who chairs the standing committee that recommended cutting student names from the public accounts, said a better balance needs to be struck between transparency and privacy.
“And I think there’s a way to do that,” said Testart. “Really, the question now is: Is the minister of the opinion that this needs to change?”
He said he wants the finance minister to make a case for why the practice of including student names in the public accounts must continue.
“If he’s unable to do so, well then it needs to change.”