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Justice Minister Rob Nicholson speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 25, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 25, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Ottawa nixes bid to expand transparency Add to ...

The Harper government has quietly nixed recommendations to expand and modernize Canada's access-to-information and privacy laws.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson's rejection of reforms to the 26-year-old laws sparked accusations Thursday that the Tories have reneged on campaign promises to bring openness and transparency to the federal government.

"The access system now does not work," said Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and a leading expert on accessing government documents.

"They appear to like it this way."

Mr. Nicholson's rejection was also greeted with disappointment by privacy experts, who warned that Canada's outdated Privacy Act does not cover modern technologies, such as surveillance cameras and DNA samples collected from suspects.

Nor does it give the privacy commissioner any recourse to the courts when the government inappropriately discloses personal information, no matter how serious the breach.

"We're very disappointed, actually," said Chantal Bernier, assistant privacy commissioner.

"While we agree with the minister that privacy is well protected in Canada, we feel we can do better."

A Commons committee had recommended, among other things, that the information commissioner be given more power to force the government to disclose information in a timely manner.

Mr. Drapeau said only 10 to 20 per cent of access requests receive a response within 30 days, as intended under the law. The rest routinely take up to two years with some dragging on as long as four years.

Suzanne Legault, interim information commissioner, said Mr. Drapeau's view of the access system is overly pessimistic. She said 57 per cent of requests get a response within 30 days.

Still, she acknowledged there's an "urgent need" to modernize legislation to remedy some "very long delays" in responding to access requests.

Ms. Legault pointed out that the act was drafted in the days when bureaucrats kept paper records "in a neat file folder." Now, they are inundated with digital information, such as streams of emails with attachments, that is harder to manage and takes longer to sift through.

"We really live in a world of digital information and the system hasn't adjusted," Ms. Legault said.

The Commons committee had also wanted the privacy law expanded to cover new technologies. And it wanted to beef up provisions governing the disclosure of personal information by the Canadian government to foreign states - one of the most urgent needs in the wake of the Maher Arar case, according to Ms. Bernier.

Based on information provided by Canadian security authorities, Mr. Arar was detained in the U.S. and deported to Syria, where he was tortured.

In responses to the committee tabled quietly last week, Mr. Nicholson rejected the proposed reforms as too cumbersome, unnecessary or ill-considered.

He said giving the information commissioner more powers would shift the nature of the job "from an ombudsman model towards a quasi-judicial model," which would be inconsistent with other independent parliamentary watchdogs.

He rejected the notion that information requesters should have direct recourse to the Federal Court if access is refused, arguing that such a reform "would increase the caseload burden on the Federal Court."

On the privacy recommendations, Mr. Nicholson ruled out legislative restrictions on the disclosure of personal information to foreign states, arguing that law enforcement and security agencies "require a flexible approach" to information sharing.

"They must be able to share their intelligence within Canada and well as with their foreign partners," he wrote.

Moreover, Mr. Nicholson argued that efforts to combat international child abductions, forced marriages and worldwide health threats would be "seriously hampered" by restrictions on information sharing.

The Justice Minister maintained both the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act are strong pieces of legislation. And he suggested "administrative alternatives, such as enhanced guidance and training" could be "equally effective" in improving both the access and privacy regimes.

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