In her last week in office, Canada's information watchdog is accusing the Liberal government of reneging on its promise to bring a new era of openness to Ottawa and of failing to defend the "Charter right" of Canadians to quick and easy access to federal documents and data.
"The government is sliding into more secrecy and actually not delivering on its promise," Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault said in an interview. "I think it is having a bit of a conflicting reaction, with its open government initiative and its pro-active disclosure on one side, and on the flip side, the way it is administering access to information in a reactive manner. Disclosure rates are down with this government, surprisingly."
After her appointment in 2010, Ms. Legault went through a number of public and legal battles with the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Ms. Legault said she had high hopes after the Liberals won the 2015 general election with a promise to define government information as "open by default" and bring Canada's access regime into the digital age.
However, she said the reality has been different. While the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau spent much of its first year in government consulting Canadians on a wide number of topics, she said her views were never solicited before proposed amendments to the Access to Information Act were tabled last year.
"Bill C-58 is a bill for the bureaucracy, it's definitely not a bill for transparency," she said of the proposed legislation now in front of the Senate. "The government has made some amendments to the proposed legislation, but it is still regressive in many respects."
Ms. Legault laments the fact the legislation would allow the government to refuse to respond to requests that are too vaguely defined, stating that goes against the principle at the heart of access to information. In addition, she said that challenging government decisions and obtaining documents would take longer under the proposed system.
Ms. Legault is leaving her position at the end of the month. The government has announced that she will be replaced by lawyer Caroline Maynard, who is currently the interim chairwoman and chief executive officer of the Military Grievances External Review Committee. Before her appointment is confirmed, Ms. Maynard will appear in front of MPs and senators to lay out her vision for her position.
A spokesman for Treasury Board President Scott Brison said the Liberals are proud of their record, including being the first government in 34 years to bring in major reforms to the act. In addition, Bill C-58 calls for the act to be reviewed every five years.
"These are major advancements and will significantly improve Canadians' access to government information. They may not entirely fulfill everyone's wishes, but by any reasonable measure, they represent significant improvements of the existing act," Jean-Luc Ferland said.
Ms. Legault said fighting for access to information is a never-ending quest, with a number of roadblocks and obstacles popping up along the way.
Looking to the future, Ms. Legault said there are still a number of gaps in Canada's access to information regime. For starters, a number of digital communications among decision makers are now made on platforms, such as messaging and social-media apps, that are not being archived.
"If you have no records, you have no access to information," she said.
Secondly, she said the government regularly blocks the release of information that lays out the options that were considered before policy decisions were made. As such, she said, Canadians do not know how politicians came to make choices, or even if some options were never brought to the government's attention by the civil service.
"If you know the policy options that are being considered, you can compare that to the decisions that are ultimately made," she said. "That really heightens accountability because politicians have to stand behind the decisions that they make."
While access to information can seem like an abstract principle, Ms. Legault said it is a force for progress around the world. In Canada, she said it was at the heart of a number of major pieces of investigative journalism, such as The Globe and Mail's work on the sponsorship scandal and the "Unfounded" series on the treatment of sexual assault cases by police bodies.
"This is not just a right to information. It's part of our Charter rights to freedom of expression. If people understood the impact of thwarting that Charter right, as we see in other countries, they would be more engaged," she said.
NDP justice critic Murray Rankin says Canada will be a 'laughing stock' if the Liberal’s proposed changes to the Access to Information Act are passed into law. The NDP says the changes would reduce government accountability.
The Canadian Press