Canada's Access to Information Commissioner received a major increase in complaints over the past year related to federal departments blocking the release of government records.
In her annual report tabled Thursday, Commissioner Suzanne Legault urges the government to improve its performance as soon as possible, after complaints rose by more than 30 per cent.
"This decline in performance must be promptly addressed," she states. "Canadians should be concerned and speak out whenever their quasi-constitutional right of access is in jeopardy."
For a $5 fee, Canadians can request copies of government records from federal departments, subject to a list of exclusions listed in the federal Access to Information Act. Canadians can complain to the Access to Information Commissioner – who is an independent officer of Parliament – if they feel their request has been unduly denied or delayed.
During a year in which the Conservative government's approach to immigration issues has been under close scrutiny, Citizenship and Immigration is identified as the biggest source of new complaints. New complaints against that department rose from 109 in 2012-2013 to 305 in 2013-14.
That same department also tops the list of complaints that were found by the commissioner to have merit. During 2013-14, the commissioner's office completed reviews of 148 complaints involving Citizenship and Immigration and found 127 had merit. The Canada Revenue Agency came second in that category, with 105 complaints found to have merit, followed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at 92.
The commissioner's report noted that part of the rise in complaints is accounted for "to some extent" by an increase in the total number of requests.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement noted in the House of Commons that the government is responding to more requests than ever.
"We have replied to more access to information requests than the Trudeau, Mulroney, Turner, Campbell, Chrétien and Martin governments combined. That is our record on access to information and we are darn proud of it," he said.
The annual report outlines examples of some of the disputes it addressed over the past year.
Following the deadly train crash in Lac Mégantic Quebec in July 2013, Transport Canada saw a major increase in requests for information related to the topic. Under the law, departments are required to respond within 30 days but are allowed to make extensions under certain conditions. Extensions of 30 or 60 days are quite common.
The commissioner received complaints that the department was imposing extensions ranging from 300 to 365 days, and in one case even longer.
"It became clear that the extensions Transport Canada had taken were not valid," the commissioner reports. The commissioner said it intervened and the department improved its timelines.
In another case, a person asking the Privy Council Office for travel and hospitality expense reports was told it would cost them $4,250. The commissioner's office looked into the issue in response to a complaint and found the PCO had decided unilaterally that the fee rate in the law allowing departments to charge $10 an hour for search time above five hours was out of date and imposed a much higher rate.
The commissioner told PCO to respect the existing rules and the department lowered the fee to $119.80.
Ms. Legault cited cases where government departments blacked out information unnecessarily. In one case, the Department of Justice Canada blacked out records relating to a law passed in the late 1930s. The redactions were largely unnecessary, Ms. Legault found, "particularly since much of the information was publicly available or, given its age, unlikely to harm Canada's international relations or defence." The commissioner also slapped down the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for blocking access to documents related to security in the 1976 and 1988 Olympics, and the Privy Council Office – which reports to the Prime Minister – for refusing to fully release certain records proposed in the Meech Lake Accord in 1990.
In other cases, the Commissioner applauded the work of a department, including Foreign Affairs in a case where it properly withheld details about the construction of the Canadian embassy in Kabul.
With a report from Josh Wingrove