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President of the Treasury Board Jean-Yves Duclos listens to a speaker during a news conference June 16, 2020 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal government should be treating access to information as an essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than shutting down or scaling back the offices responsible for disclosing documents, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard says.

Each federal department has a section of officials responsible for finding and releasing government records requested by the public though Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) legislation. But Ms. Maynard said most are operating at reduced capacity and some – including at Canadian Heritage – are essentially closed.

“I believe that every department should have their access ATIP units be part of their essential services, especially when they’re dealing with information related to a crisis like this,” she told the standing committee on government operations and estimates Friday.

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The federal government has declared certain positions to be “critical” during the pandemic, which generally means the remote work is given priority access to government servers or must be done at the office. Public service unions have expressed concern that the term is not clearly defined.

Ms. Maynard told MPs that the coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for a culture change in access to information, both in terms of being more transparent and doing away with many routines that increase delays.

She said ATIP co-ordinators continue to rely on outdated technology like CD-ROMs and printing and mailing hard copies, which is causing even more problems when most of the public service is working from home.

More broadly, Ms. Maynard said that the government needs to increase funding for managing ATIP requests. She also said it needs to shift away from thinking about how requested information can be denied under the various legal exemptions and focus more on how to release as much as possible.

“There’s still a problem also in being afraid of being embarrassed by the information. Embarrassment is not an exclusion under the act,” she said. “It is good to provide the information. This is how we get the trust from Canadians that our decisions are being made properly, fiscally responsibly.”

Ms. Maynard warned in April that the pandemic could make the problems of backlogs and underfunding of Canada’s disclosure systems even worse.

In a letter to Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos on April 28, she said: “Today I am writing to you to signal that the access to information system, a key pillar in safeguarding this trust, is currently in a critical phase and may soon be beyond repair if certain ongoing and developing issues remain unaddressed.”

Last month, Mr. Duclos, who is responsible for the federal public service and access to information, wrote a letter to his cabinet colleagues urging them to be transparent and accountable, “even in times of crisis,” according to a copy of the letter provided by his office.

The committee also heard from members of a new advocacy organization called the Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group, which is calling for more records to be proactively released. The group warns that at a time when unprecedented amounts of public dollars are being spent during a crisis, increased disclosure could help reduce the risk of fraud and negligence.

On Thursday, Mr. Duclos launched a review of the Access to Information Act, which is legally required under the terms of a bill approved by Parliament last year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of open, accessible, and trustworthy information from governments,” he said in a statement. “This review is part of our efforts to ensure the access to information regime is working for Canadians, and we encourage all Canadians to participate.”

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