After over 20 years as information and privacy commissioner (IPC) of NWT, Elaine Keenan Bengts will be retiring at the end of her term in October.
As NWTs first-ever IPC, Keenan Bengts started the job in 1997 on a part-time basis as part of her law practice. It was 15 years before she took on the role full time.
“It was a steep learning curve, but I had the benefit of it being a slow but steep learning curve,” she says. “I think in the first two years I might have opened 20 files total. Last fiscal year, we opened at least 300 files.”
In the two decades that Keenan Bengts has held the position, she has seen dramatic changes. She says that issues like ransomware attacks and stolen laptops are “huge time consuming issues now that really weren’t a reality back in the day.”
As IPC, Keenan Bengts works to provide independent oversight on access of information, and managing reports over inappropriate use, collection, and disclosure of personal information.
While the Legislative Assembly has only just begun their hiring process, Keenan Bengts says that for the incoming IPC, new legislation will present “a whole new world.”
The new legislation was passed last June, 2019, and is expected to come into effect in the fall, although it may now be delayed due to Covid. It will dictate that the information and privacy commissioner’s office make orders against public bodies, rather than the recommendations that are currently made.
“So rather than saying ‘I think you should disclose A,B, and C’ this office will be saying ‘I order you to disclose A,B and C’ and those will be binding orders, registrable with the Supreme Court,” Keenan Bengts explains. “That carries with it a lot more responsibility.”
The change is in concurrence with several jurisdictions across the country. Some continue to have an ombuds role, as Keenan Bengts has had, while others already have order making power. She says it also means that expertise will be even more important as public bodies are going to have to prove their cases. That expertise will be imperative within the GNWT, for access to information and privacy coordinators, and for the new IPC themself.
“You have to be an expert in privacy coming through the door, you have to be an expert in access to information coming through the door, they won’t have the luxury of learning the law over time, which was essentially what I was able to do.”
Though she admits she initially “had no idea what the position was” when first answering the ad to be NWT’s first privacy commissioner, Keenan Bengts says that this “has been the job of [her] lifetime.
“It’s an important job and it has such an important place in democracy and the way government runs,” she says. “I was lucky to be able to get my foot in the door right at the beginning and be able to take it this far, and hopefully, I’ll have left it in a state that whoever takes over will be able to take off running.”
For Keenan Bengts, stepping down from her post as IPC will mean retirement. She plans on spending the extra time with her grandkids, doing more cross fit exercise, and picking up extra volunteer hours.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. “It’s an interesting subject matter, it’s ever changing, there’s new stuff to learn all the time, but at some point it’s time for someone else to take the helm and put their own stamp on it.”