The Liberal government is not acting on the recommendations made by a group of opposition MPs that spent nine months examining the federal access to information system, the second time in less than a year that Ottawa has declined to overhaul its access regime.
In late June, the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics published a 99-page report on Canada’s access law, and requested the government formally respond to its 38 recommendations.
That response was tabled on Tuesday and signed by Treasury Board President Anita Anand. In her letter, Ms. Anand declined to act on the committee’s recommendations.
“Overall, the Government shares many of the Committee’s views noted in its recommendations,” the letter signed by Ms. Anand reads. “Having said this, the Government’s current priority is to address the most pressing operational and administrative challenges facing the [access to information] regime.”
The government will review the federal access law in 2025, Ms. Anand said.
Access laws exist across Canada and around the world, and enshrine into law the principle that people have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent, how their elected officials are governing and how their public institutions are being run.
But Secret Canada, a continuing Globe and Mail investigation into the country’s access regimes, has revealed that public institutions skirt access laws, also known as freedom of information laws, by overusing redactions, failing to meet legislated timelines and claiming “no records” exist when they do. And these institutions face few – if any – consequences for ignoring the precedents set by courts and information commissioners.
In an interview, John Brassard, Conservative MP and chair of the access to information committee, said it’s never been more important for Canadians to be able to access official government records and maintain confidence in the country’s democratic institutions – but that Ottawa’s response did not signal to him they were “in any way showing any resolve to fix this system.”
“I just don’t see anything in the government response that gives me any confidence in any way, shape or form that they’re taking the issue seriously,” he said. “They’re just seemingly punting this down the road as they did in that initial report that was tabled before Parliament. I don’t understand it.”
Mr. Brassard said he felt he was out of options when it comes to access to information reform. “I’m not sure that we have another lever that we can pull on this.”
In a written statement, Information Commissioner of Canada Caroline Maynard said the federal law was outdated, and that she was “disappointed” by the government’s response. ”Frankly, Canadians deserve much better,” she said. “Canadians must have access to information, their information, if they are to make informed choices. Transparency is a pillar of democracy that must be continuously defended and reinforced.”
Emelyana Titarenko, a spokesperson for Ms. Anand, said in a statement that many of the current challenges in access to information can be addressed without legislative changes. “We are committed to strengthening access to information by improving pro-active disclosure, operational capacity, processing tools, and digital solutions.”
The Treasury Board delivered its own review of the federal access regime in December, 2022. That review, the culmination of more than 2½ years of consultations, came with no recommendations and was panned by critics, including Canada’s former top bureaucrat, Michael Wernick, who called the report “tepid and incrementalist.”
The House access committee’s report – the result of 11 public hearings in which parliamentarians heard from 42 witnesses – highlighted the delays faced by those filing access requests, the way in which the federal immigration system has become intertwined with the access regime, issues around access to historical documents, and more. The report recommended bringing ministers’ offices under federal access law, limiting time extensions on access requests to 60 days, giving the Information Commissioner of Canada the power to impose fines, and establishing the automatic release of historical documents after 25 years.
During the 2015 federal election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau vowed to make sweeping changes to access to information. Those changes would have included bringing ministers’ offices – including his own – under access law and making the government “open by default.”
Those and other access commitments in the Liberal Party’s 2015 platform were never adopted, though the government eventually made some changes to federal access law as part of Bill C-58, including abolishing all charges for requests beyond the initial $5 filing fee.
Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and one of the country’s leading experts on federal access to information laws, was frustrated that the government has delayed taking action on recommendations and instead promised to once again review access to information in 2025.
“I am convinced that the bulk of the reasons explaining the impossible delays and backlogs now faced by the [access] system is fixable right now without further study,” said Mr. Drapeau, who testified during the hearings last October.
Freelance journalist and access expert Dean Beeby told The Globe that the government’s response amounted to a dismissal of the committee’s work. “This is just a complete brush-off of the committee, and it’s a brush-off of all the people who appeared before the committee who were just asking for basic problems to be fixed,” he said.
Mr. Beeby testified at the House committee last December. During his appearance, he noted that the committee’s study was at least the 16th review of federal access to information legislation.
“In this country, we love to study transparency laws thoroughly to ensure we don’t actually get around to fixing them,” Mr. Beeby said at the time.