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There's a good reason why David fights Goliath Add to ...

Wrestling sensitive information from Canadian governments can thrust journalists and other document-seekers into epic battles that rage for years.

Yet despite the red tape and delays, many of the biggest news stories each year trace their roots to an access-to-information request. Some revelations can directly improve the health and safety of Canadians; others increase public understanding of government decisions and inspire political leaders to take action.

"I can't think of a major story in Ottawa that hasn't had an access component," said David McKie, who has broken many big stories as a producer in the CBC's investigative unit.

The sponsorship scandal began with a single access-to-information request by The Globe and Mail. In the end, the stories that followed triggered a public inquiry and a host of reforms to federal ethics rules. Access requests also played a part in The Globe's series on the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan handed over by the Canadian Forces, which led to new transfer rules between Canada and the Afghan government.

In Ontario, the provincial government increased its inspections of daycares after a series of revelations by the Toronto Star, which used provincial and municipal freedom-of-information requests to uncover hundreds of illegal daycares and unsafe conditions at licensed centres.

A recent CanWest News Service report revealed internal advice concluding that a ban on dual citizenship would be impractical. The report helps explain why Ottawa has not acted on this front after pledging to review the idea.

It was an access request in the late 1990s by Mr. McKie that ultimately made public a key database inside Health Canada chronicling cases of adverse drug reactions. When he and colleague Mike Gordon requested a copy of the electronic database under Canada's FOI legislation, they were turned down.

A complaint to the Access to Information Commissioner led to a rare face-to-face meeting in 2003 between the journalists and senior officials from the department. Through negotiations, Health Canada agreed to release most of the database, and the CBC made it available to the public on its website.

The data allowed the CBC to report a major rise in adverse drug reactions among youth taking certain antidepressants, yet no public warning had been issued. A second story using the same database showed that thousands of seniors were dying each year from the drugs prescribed to them by doctors.

"We've heard from countless Canadians and academics about the usefulness of this," Mr. McKie said. "Canadians have used this information to go to their doctor to ask questions about the drugs they're taking." In 2005, Health Canada made the searchable database permanently available to the public.

Such results rarely come easily. The Hamilton Spectator spent four years battling Transport Canada to release a database of aviation safety incidents; it took the threat of an inquiry to force the Alberta government to release data on drinking-water treatment facilities, 14 months after the initial request by a reporter for the Edmonton Journal; an access request by the Ottawa Citizen remains unresolved after eight years of legal wrangling between the Department of National Defence and the Information Commissioner's office, at a cost to taxpayers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ken Rubin, an Ottawa resident and organic farmer, has been firing off access requests daily for more than 20 years. He regularly sells his findings to news media outlets across the country.

Focusing on health and safety issues, he has exposed meat-inspection reports from Agriculture Canada and embarrassing plane inspections filed to Transport Canada. Mr. Rubin believes his many court battles with Ottawa have been worth the effort.

"They're the ones that have special meaning for me," he said, adding that the laws should be changed to force the release of all documents that deal with human safety.

There is a certain David versus Goliath aspect every time someone files an access request. For $5, Canadians have the right to obtain some of the most sensitive documents held by some of the most powerful people in the country.

Needless to say, this transaction does not always go smoothly. People in power have an arsenal of tools to delay or block the release of information. While the Access to Information Act contains an optimistic promise that material will be released within 30 days, some requesters can wait years for a final response.

One of the most heated battles is still going on. In the late 1990s, a young staffer of the now-defunct Reform Party named Laurie Throness was working out of a basement office across the street from Parliament Hill. From there he would submit access-to-information requests in the hope of generating some Question Period fodder for his political masters.

Eventually, he set his sights on the prime minister, Jean Chrétien, and penned a request for his agenda books. When the Prime Minister's Office refused, Mr. Throness complained in 2000 to the Access to Information Commissioner, who took on his case.

Former commissioner John Reid, who led the agenda-book battle, said he was not surprised that the government has put up such a fight. What surprised him were the tactics.

"The interesting thing to me was the counterattack," he said, referring to the government's largely unsuccessful claims in court that Mr. Reid was abusing his powers. The fact that the commission wins virtually all its court battles against the federal government suggests Ottawa's main motivation is simply to delay the release of information, Mr. Reid said.

Veteran investigative journalist Andrew McIntosh reaches the same conclusion. Now a reporter in Sacramento, Calif., he used Canada's access laws to expose conflicts of interest in the governments of Brian Mulroney and Mr. Chrétien.

"Federal and provincial governments regularly delay, deny and stonewall fairly basic requests for information by journalists," he said.

 

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