Elected officials must find the political will and courage to fix this country’s access-to-information regime once and for all, the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists told a federal standing committee.
“Done properly, an updated access-to-information act has the potential to be one of the most transformative pieces of legislation ever passed by Canada’s government,” Brent Jolly said.
“But for decades, however, we have documented broken promises to modernize the system [which has been] increasingly brought into disrepute and disrepair,” he said. “Certainly changes do not happen overnight, but Canada’s access-to-information system is broken and 40 years is frankly a long time without making any concerted efforts to solve the problem.”
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On Wednesday, the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics heard from the journalism community about the challenges of the federal freedom-of-information system.
Andrea Conte, a writer, researcher and media artist, raised concerns about Canada’s lack of a declassification system. He explained that when the federal Access to Information Act came into effect four decades ago, it nullified a previous directive that outlined timelines for many historical records to become public.
“[This] created a disaster for anyone with any vested interest in doing historical research, especially on issues that involve prisons, police, military and other institutional forms of state violence within Canada’s borders and abroad,” he said. (As it stands today, historical records are subject to the same review and exemption requirements as contemporary documents, which has created massive backlogs at Library and Archives Canada.)
Mr. Conte also flagged issues with how Canadian laws limit a citizen’s ability to turn to the courts. Unlike in the United States, federal access users in Canada are forced to go through the appeals process with the Office of the Information Commissioner.
But the OIC routinely takes years to complete its investigations. Commissioner Caroline Maynard previously testified before the committee that her office was on track to receive a record 10,000 complaints this year.
In October, the standing committee heard from lawyer Michel Drapeau, who suggested lawmakers change the rules to allow citizens to go to court if the OIC takes longer than a year to process an appeal.
At Wednesday’s meeting, freelance journalist Dean Beeby, who is famous within the journalism community for his use of access to information, made a similar recommendation – except he felt the limit should be six months.
Like Mr. Jolly, Mr. Beeby noted that governments have repeatedly ignored opportunities to fix problems with access to information.
“This inquiry, by my count, is at least the 16th broad review of the Access to Information Act since the legislation was passed in 1982. In this country, we love to study transparency laws thoroughly to ensure we don’t actually get around to fixing them,” he said.
“Bureaucrats also now realize they face much bigger blowback from releasing information than from withholding it, and the law provides them a rich menu of excuses to keep things buried.”
In his testimony, Mr. Beeby said to improve the system, government must make four key changes, including tougher time limits on departments: “If an institution blows past a deadline, for example, take away their authority to claim exemptions.”
Mr. Beeby also suggested changes to how cabinet records and policy advice are treated. Access users have long complained that government frequently applies these exclusions and exemptions too broadly – and inappropriately – to withhold information.
Stanley Tromp, another Canadian journalist known for his freedom-of-information work, made a similar recommendation. He said Section 21 of the federal act – which says an institution may refuse to disclose records that contain advice or recommendations to government – must be amended to include a harms test and a “clear statement that background facts and analysis cannot be withheld as ‘policy.’”
He also took issue with the fact that more than 100 government-created institutions, such as Canadian Blood Services, are not covered by access-to-information legislation.
After each speaker’s opening statements, members of the committee questioned the journalists about how their work is impacted by access to information.
At one point, Mr. Beeby was asked to relay a particularly egregious example of how the system has failed him. He told committee members that he once asked for briefing notes to former prime minister Stephen Harper. It took seven years, three elections and a new government for the records to be released.
“How am I supposed to hold government to account when I become, essentially a historian, rather than a journalist?” he asked.