Two years ago, when The Globe and Mail set out to investigate the state of freedom of information across the country, part of the effort centred on using access requests to create a tally of how the various systems functioned.
The Globe filed 253 requests with every government department and ministry, provincial, territorial and federal, to assess the systems’ operations in 2021. What were the results of access requests? How fast or slow were they processed? The eventual answers were not surprising – that governments are slowing and circumscribing freedom of information is well known – but the data were illuminating.
In June, the Globe presented for the first time an audit of the problems. Only one in five requests across Canada were granted in full. Just half of requests were completed within 30 days, the typical legislated deadline. Using the systems to assess the systems revealed the specific ways in which they were falling short.
There was, however, one glaring hole in the data: Alberta. The province’s 22 ministries refused to answer The Globe’s request for basic data of how freedom of information is working in Alberta. At first, the province claimed there were no records – a questionable assertion, given every other jurisdiction had, and provided, records. Premier Danielle Smith at the time said Alberta aimed to remedy the problem.
The analysis concluded that Alberta is “testing the extent to which it is legally required to assist the public in accessing public records, as well as the extent of its obligations to provide select data from government datasets.”
That governments ignore their own freedom of information laws is a daily reality for people trying to use the system. The Globe’s Secret Canada project has made that abundantly clear. That one government is attempting to further tighten access is a worrisome push in the wrong direction.
It’s part of a general slide away from freedom of information and toward its opposite, a Why Do You Want to Know Act.
This week The Globe reported that Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has launched a systemic investigation into whether the province has not complied with its own law. Among the office’s powers is to make an order to compel government to release the records if it is found its ministries acted improperly.
That would be welcome, but it’s also part of the problem. It is not much of a punishment or deterrent to merely order the release of what was being requested – especially in this case, since the data are in fact basic information. Governments of all partisan stripes, favouring secrecy over openness, can too easily undermine requests with delays, forcing people who seek information into an extended battle.
This is why this space advocates for real consequences when governments are found in violation of their freedom of information laws.
Broader reform is necessary. Last December, a federal government review of the freedom to information produced zero recommended changes to access laws, after more than two years of work. In response, federal information commissioner Caroline Maynard said that “the status quo is unacceptable and Canadians deserve better.”
Ottawa’s review seems to have produced the outcome the Liberal government wanted. Months after the zero recommendations, The Globe showed the Liberals had rejected a better plan proposed by the Treasury Board to strike an independent panel to review the law. Treasury Board also had a list of possible legislative changes. None of it was put forward.
Calls for change keep coming. The House of Commons standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics made “a comprehensive review and overhaul” of federal freedom of information its top recommendation in a report in June on the state of the system.
Beyond the letter of the law, the bigger issue has long been the reflexive secrecy of governments. Alberta is now pushing the limits. The Premier needs to make good on her stated belief in freedom of information and fix the situation.