The Trudeau government ignored its own consultations on reforming Canada’s access to information laws, according to documents obtained by VICE News, and is using exemptions under the act to withhold the details of its current plan.
The 40 pages of briefing notes and memos to Treasury Board President Scott Brison — the minister in charge of the system — were prepared in advance of legislation designed to “modernize” the act, although Brison’s department refused to release another 33 pages, while other pages were redacted entirely.
Those reforms have been largely panned since they were released, and failed to follow through on many of the Liberals’ campaign commitments.
In an ironic twist, a progress report prepared to brief the information commission on status of the transparency reforms is entirely redacted in the documents.
Brison’s office initially scheduled an interview with VICE News about the access to information reforms, but his office cancelled and has subsequently stopped responding to emails.
The memos show that the government misled the public about the reforms they introduced.
The Liberals campaigned on a promise to expand the access to information act to the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet. The legislation introduced by Brison did no such thing, instead it required that those offices proactively disclose certain types of documents — although they are mostly talking points and communications notes.
The minister passed it off as though it was always the gameplan.
“We are fulfilling our mandate commitment — we are extending the Access to Information Act to ministers’ offices and to the Prime Minister’s Office for the first time ever,” he told reporters.
These documents show that was not, originally, the plan.
A summary of the government’s public consultations on the matter, from June of last year, iterate that the government was proposing to “ensure that the access to information act applies appropriately to the prime minister’s and ministers’ offices.” It even added that “a right of access to information in the prime minister’s and ministers’ offices would need to be accompanied by appropriate protections.” Those “protections” were around withholding sensitive records that could be ferreted it out through access requests. There was no mention in the memos of proactive disclosure.
The memo summarized responses to public consultations: “All respondents who comment on this issue agreed with the government’s proposal.”
The Centre for Law and Democracy, an organization consulted on the changes, is quoted in the memos as arguing that the changes “are overdue and should be implemented immediately.”
The report on the consultations — which has not been made public — notes that only about 120 submissions were received from the general public. The summary of the submissions notes that many of those who wrote to the federal government wanted more substantive, broader reforms than the government was committing to.
The documents also highlight that the access system is buckling due to a rise in demands and a lack of resources. The memos also note that, as of 2015, more than 30,000 exemptions were applied to the 67,000 requests handled by the federal government.