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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a signing ceremony with California Gov. Gavin Newsom in Los Angeles on June 9.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal information watchdog fielded a record number of complaints last year about the way government bodies handled requests for documents despite years of promises from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reform the system.

In all, the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) logged 6,945 complaints during the 2021-22 fiscal year, according to an annual report tabled in Parliament on Wednesday. That was an increase of nearly 71 per cent compared to the number in 2020-21, and 13 per cent higher than in 2019-2020.

The OIC mediates disputes and oversees compliance with the Access to Information Act, a 1983 law that allows individuals to request internal documents from federal government institutions such as departments, the RCMP and Crown corporations for a $5 fee. Provincial governments have similar laws, often called “freedom of information” legislation.

People file requests to get status updates on immigration applications, human resources issues, insurance claims, and so on. Journalists, political parties, academics and activists request information to hold governments accountable.

In her letter introducing the report, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard painted a stark picture of the government’s commitment to access-to-information.

For instance, working from home in the early months of the pandemic meant civil servants could not get the documents they needed to fulfill requests. However, Ms. Maynard wrote in her report, after more than two years to find solutions to that problem, access-to-information staff at 28 institutions still have little or no access to the physical documents.

“This indicates to me that a number of institutions are not meeting their legislative obligations, while some appear to consider them as optional,” she said. “Obviously, many are still not giving Canadians’ right to government information the importance it deserves.”

Ms. Maynard also wrote that she was “dismayed” that Mr. Trudeau’s mandate letter to Treasury Board president Mona Fortier did not mention access-to-information. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat directs government departments on how to administer and handle access requests.

During his campaign in 2015, Mr. Trudeau promised sweeping reforms to the access-to-information regime, including to modify the law so government information was “open by default;” to allow requests to be filed to ministers’ offices; to review the law every five years; to eliminate extra filing fees; and to authorize the Information Commissioner to force institutions to disclose documents.

Only a few of those changes have materialized. The government amended the law in 2019, eliminating additional fees and giving the Information Commissioner order-making powers. But a Treasury Board review of the law that began in 2020 has yet to be completed, ministers’ offices are still exempted from requests, and while some data are available on the government’s Open Canada portal, much is still locked away.

In an interview, Ms. Maynard said she was disappointed with how government institutions have handled requests.

“There’s definitely a disinterest among public servants, directors, [assistant deputy ministers],” she said. “They need to get this clear, very direct message from their leaders – ministers and deputy ministers – that this is not optional legislation.”

The trend in complaints shows no signs of abating, Ms. Maynard said. During the first two months of fiscal 2022-23, her office received more than 1,000 complaints.

The government is “saying the right things – that they want to be an open and transparent government,” Ms. Maynard continued. “What I haven’t seen is clear and direct and bold actions.”

Sean Holman, a journalism professor at the University of Victoria who has spent years researching Canada’s freedom of information systems, said the OIC’s report documents the increasing secrecy in government.

“I think it’s another indication that the access-to-information system is fundamentally broken, and that Trudeau has reneged on his promise to create an open-by-default government,” Prof. Holman said.

People use access requests to understand why the government made a certain decision about them, Prof. Holman said. “It’s a powerful instrument of accountability, because you don’t just have to rely on what a bureaucrat or a politician is telling you.”

Prof. Holman said confidence in democracy across the world is under threat.

“The retreat of freedom of information in Canada is part and parcel of that,” he continued. “The real risk that this poses is that as people see less advantages to democracy – as people come to see democracy as more and more of a charade – that we lose confidence in the entire system.”

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