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Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard prepares to appear at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, in Ottawa, on Tuesday, March 7, 2023. In her annual report to Parliament, Maynard says chronic issues continue to plague the Access to Information system, with no solutions in sight. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin TangJustin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal government refused a request last fall from Canada’s Information Commissioner for additional funding, which she was seeking in order to reduce a backlog of complaints about how Ottawa responds to access to information requests.

In her annual report, published on Tuesday, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard said new funding will be necessary if her office is to address its current backlog of 3,472 of these complaints, and deal with the growing number of them that are filed each year.

Ms. Maynard said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that her office, which is responsible for investigating complaints about delayed and overly redacted responses to requests for records held by federal institutions, asked for more than $6-million to address the backlog in fall 2022. Last year, Ms. Maynard’s office received 7,407 complaints – 185 per cent more than in 2018, the year she took over the position of commissioner.

Without additional funding, Ms. Maynard said, her office will be constrained. “There’s going to be a continued backlog, delays and, ultimately, the requesters are the ones being denied their right of access,” she said.

Last week, The Globe launched Secret Canada, an investigation into the country’s broken access systems. Access laws, sometimes known as freedom of information laws, exist in jurisdictions across the country. They require public institutions to disclose information in response to formal requests, with limited exceptions.

The investigation revealed that public institutions throughout Canada are routinely breaking these laws by overusing redactions and failing to meet statutory timelines, and that they are facing few – if any – consequences for ignoring precedents set by courts and appeals bodies.

A Globe audit of ministries and government departments across the country, which relied on the internal tracking systems maintained by those institutions, found that only 21 per cent of requests were granted in full in 2021. In Alberta, all 22 ministries denied The Globe’s freedom of information requests for their internal tracking systems – a refusal that Premier Danielle Smith said on Tuesday is being examined by a top provincial public servant.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his work on access to information when he was asked on Tuesday about Ms. Maynard’s criticism of the federal government.

“If you look at the record, we were the first government in decades to actually modernize access to information. So that’s something we committed to in 2015, and we moved forward with updating access to information,” he said in response to a question from The Globe. “We recognize there’s always more to do. Transparency is an important part of building confidence for Canadians and their governments, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, the minister responsible for the federal access system, said Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have significantly increased the Information Commissioner’s budget since forming government in 2015 and amending the federal Access to Information Act in 2019.

Those legislative changes granted new powers to the commissioner and created a new process by which some frequently requested documents are published online.

Ms. Fortier did not explain why the government did not approve the commissioner’s funding request, but expressed an openness to increases in the future.

“At some point, we’ll have to see how we make sure that the processing is supported,” she said in response to a question about the commissioner’s funding concerns.

Government spending records show the annual budget for the commissioner’s office has risen from $9.7-million in 2015-16 to $16.2-million in 2021-22, a 66-per-cent increase.

Ms. Fortier said the government’s focus is on improving the administration of access requests in areas such as updating online request forms. She also said she is working on an action plan to improve the system, but did not provide details.

Over the past year, Ms. Maynard has twice given testimony to the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics as part of a study it is conducting on the access to information system. During both appearances, she called on MPs to make her office’s funding independent of the government. This could be achieved by sending her budget requests to Parliament instead of a federal department. Other so-called “agents of Parliament,” such as the Ethics Commissioner, are already funded this way.

One of the changes made when the Access to Information Act was amended in 2019 gave the Information Commissioner order-making powers, which allow Ms. Maynard to legally direct a federal public institution to complete an access request within a given time frame, unredact a document or conduct a new search for documents. According to Ms. Maynard’s annual report, her office issued 157 orders in 2023, up from 27 in 2022.

But the report also notes that some government institutions have chosen to disregard those directives: Both Export Development Canada and Public Services and Procurement Canada have refused to comply with orders to disclose documents.

Instead, they are each now challenging Ms. Maynard’s orders in Federal Court. The court has yet to rule on either case.

In Calgary on Tuesday, Ms. Smith, the Alberta Premier, responded for the first time to The Globe’s audit of access systems, in which Alberta declined to participate. “I have asked my deputy minister to look into the process and about what went wrong there,” she said in response to a question from a Globe reporter.

The Globe first asked for the data from Alberta’s ministries in May, 2022, shortly before the resignation of then-premier Jason Kenney. Ms. Smith, who replaced Mr. Kenney and became Premier in October, 2022, said there was “a lot of upheaval in government” around the time of The Globe’s request. As a result, she said, she didn’t know enough about the issue. Alberta was the only province that refused to provide information.

“I just don’t know enough about why they wouldn’t have given you the same information that other provinces did. I mean, we recognize that we have statutory requirements under the Freedom of Information Act and we want to make sure that we’re in compliance,” she said.

With a report from Alanna Smith

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