Civil society groups, journalists and members of the public are telling the federal government it is time to fix Canada’s broken transparency law.
Written and oral submissions to a federal review call for expansion of the Access to Information Act, removal of numerous loopholes in the law, strict timelines for responding to requests and more resources to make the system work.
The issue has received scant attention on the election campaign trail, but whichever party forms government will get a clear message: the 38-year-old access law, drafted in the pre-internet era of metal filing cabinets, is in desperate need of reform.
The law allows people who pay $5 to ask for a range of federal documents – from internal emails to policy memos – but it has long been criticized as antiquated and poorly implemented.
The federal review is focusing on the legislative framework, opportunities to improve proactive publication, and assessing processes to improve service and reduce delays.
The Centre for Free Expression at Toronto’s Ryerson University says in its submission that the review launched in June last year is an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability.
“Today we have an Act with exceptions and exemptions that have been stretched beyond recognition to prevent disclosures, a critically under-resourced access system not equipped to keep up with requests, and a culture of secrecy within government that views access as a threat rather than a right of all Canadians,” says the brief.
The centre is the co-ordinator of the Right to Information Alliance Canada, composed of 17 organizations including News Media Canada, the Centre for Law and Democracy, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Greenpeace Canada.
In its submission to the review, the group World Press Freedom Canada says that during the COVID-19 pandemic – a moment when Canadians required access to a stream of government information for their safety – the pipelines were rusted and clogged from years of deliberate neglect.
“The numerous flaws in Canada’s access-to-information regime can be reduced to just two: the law provides far too many reasons to keep information secret, and releasing information takes far too long.”
A shift in culture is also needed, says Vincent Gogolek, former executive director of the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.
“When estimated time to complete an ATIA request is measured in years, when records either disappear or are never created, and when officials seek to prevent requesters from exercising their rights on the flimsiest of pretexts, these are signs that the problem is not just with laws and regulations, but with policies and with the basic culture of the institutions subject to the Act,” says his submission.
“That has to change.”
During a series of public consultation sessions this year as part of the review, attended by a total of about 200 people, participants advocated:
- Expanding the right of access under the Canadian law to anyone in the world;
- narrowing exceptions in the law with the guiding principle of releasing as much information as possible; and
- a requirement that government information be disclosed in all cases unless there are valid reasons not to publish it.
A report from the government review is to be submitted to the Treasury Board president by Jan. 31 next year – perhaps a reason the Liberals are not binding themselves to any Access to Information promises in their platform.
The NDP platform is also silent on the access law, though leader Jagmeet Singh expressed a need for more openness when asked about it this week.
“I think transparency is incredibly important and we’ve seen for a while that it’s been difficult to obtain information, and it’s something we absolutely believe in,” he said in Montreal.
The Conservatives promise to review the access law and to give the information commissioner, an ombudsman for users, the power to order departments to “release information promptly” to end “the current government’s practice of endless delays that makes a mockery of the law.”
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