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Beef up information laws, Ontario privacy czar says

Ontario's Privacy Commissioner has called on the government to extend the reach of the province's freedom of information legislation to include scores of organizations that now receive public funds but are not subject to existing laws.

In her annual report, Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian said hundreds of organizations - ranging from hospitals to children's aid societies - now receive large transfer payments from the government but fall outside the jurisdiction of provincial or municipal freedom-of-information acts, meaning they escape public scrutiny.

"Openness and transparency of all publicly funded bodies is essential," she said. "They should be held publicly accountable."

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In a number of other Canadian jurisdictions, she said, freedom-of-information laws are more inclusive. For example, British Columbia's provincial statutes cover all organizations deemed public bodies and include hospitals, universities and the B.C. child protection agency.

"None of these entities are covered under Ontario's FOI legislation, and subjecting these organizations to freedom of information requests would help shed light on the operations of these organizations," she said.

Last year, the number of freedom-of-information requests filed in the province hit a record 33,557. In total, 19 provincial ministries had response rates above 85 per cent.

On the flip side, Wednesday's report cited Toronto Police Services and the Ministry of Health as organizations with "poor" response rates.

Separately, Ms. Cavoukian also urged the Ontario government to create a new provincial privacy law that includes the commercial and non-government sectors.

Such a move, she said, would bring privacy protection legislation in the province in line with others such as Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.

"Each year, my office has to tell Ontarians again and again, 'We're sorry, but the situation you describe doesn't fall under Ontario privacy legislation,'" she noted.

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A spokesman for the commissioner's office said those situations include complaints about issues like workplace privacy or concerns about the actions of community agencies that aren't currently covered under the legislation.

In response, the Ontario government said it would consider the commissioner's suggestions.

"The government will be examining all of her recommendations including extending the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Acts to other organizations," Management Board chair Gerry Phillips said.

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