Skip to main content

The federal government may be considering hikes in user fees to "control demand" as it reforms Canada's dysfunctional access-to-information system.

"Canada's fee regime is ... outdated and does not reflect new technologies and formats," says an internal analysis by the Treasury Board, responsible for overseeing the Access to Information Act.

"Amendments to the fee provisions of the Act and regulations would help to control demand and reduce administrative costs."

Requesters currently pay $5 to apply for government information, a fee that has not budged since the Act came into effect in 1983. Additional fees can be levied for retrieval, processing and photocopying, but the average charge to each requester is only about $8.10.

More than 35,000 requests were filed in 2009-2010, almost half from business, at a cost Treasury Board estimates at $47-million. Less than one per cent of that amount is recovered in user fees.

The last formal proposal for a fee hike came in 2002, when a federal task force proposed a $10 application fee, with some extra fees for "commercial" requesters. That recommendation quickly died along with most of the other suggested reforms.

Since then, service standards have badly deteriorated as waiting times grow longer and more information is blacked out, often through greater use of security exemptions and wider definitions of cabinet confidences.

The last three information commissioners routinely scolded governments for the crumbling access-to-information regime. The current commissioner, Suzanne Legault, issued a report card just last week that singled out Canada Post and the CBC - both of which came under the Act only in 2009 - for dismal performances.

The internal Treasury Board analysis, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, suggests senior officials believe reform should include hikes to user fees.

A spokesman for Treasury Board, Pierre-Alain Bujold, said in an email that "no changes to the access to information fees are being proposed," and did not elaborate on the comments in the analysis.

Treasury Board President Stockwell Day says administrative changes are coming but has declined to discuss them.

"Our policy is not to announce things before they happen," he said in an interview. "Stay tuned."

The internal document, which dismisses a British academic study that placed Canada's performance last among five countries with freedom-of-information laws, also plays down domestic criticisms.

"While improvements can be made, the situation in Canada is not as dire as reported by the information commissioner and other frequent critics of the ATI (access to information) program," says the analysis from mid-January of this year.

Ottawa lawyer Michel Drapeau, a frequent user of the Act, called for elimination of the $5 application fee, noting that the United States, Britain and Quebec make no such charge.

"Canada is lagging behind others in charging fees and in doing so, relying on regular mail to bring in the requests and the cheques." By converting to online requests and delivery of documents, he said, the government could significantly reduce costs and cut delays.

That view was echoed by Ken Rubin, a citizen-activist in Ottawa who has been a prolific user, critic and litigant for more than a quarter century.

"If anything, the new technologies mean fees should be less," he said.

"Fee solutions are mainly meant to put more barriers in front of people who want to get access to records they've already paid for (through taxes). ... Go pick on somebody else."

Fee hikes can dramatically suppress demand. Nova Scotia, the first jurisdiction in Canada to pass a freedom-of-information law, jacked up its application fee to $25 from $5 in 2002 - and saw the annual number of requests filed drop by about a quarter over the next few years.

The federal Access to Information Act does not specify an application fee, which is set by regulation, but does place a $25 cap on the amount.

The Treasury Board analysis also takes issue with claims that Canada's access-to-information regime has not advanced into the era of the web, noting that Public Works has accepted requests and fees filed electronically since the mid-1990s.

"Many other departments, including TBS (Treasury Board Secretariat), also allow for similar filing and payment options," it says.

Asked to identify the "many other departments" providing such an option, Mr. Bujold could cite only the Defence Department, saying Treasury Board does not have a complete list.

Interact with The Globe