Canada’s federal police force is failing to respond to freedom of information requests from the public, and neither the Mounties’ leadership nor Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government seem interested in fixing that, a watchdog says.
In a scathing report, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard found that "by nearly every measure, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is failing in terms of its obligation to ensure that Canadians have access to information about its operations and decision-making."
Under the federal Access to Information Act, Canadians can request all manner of government documents, and departments are obligated to respond with the requested files in 30 days, or otherwise ask for an extension.
According to Maynard’s report, delays at the RCMP have skyrocketed in recent years. Between 2017 and 2019, there has been a 1,000 percent increase in the number of delays that extend past a year. Nearly half of all requests take four months or longer to answer.
The problems are endemic, from a lack of resources, to insufficient staff, to woefully outdated technology.
“It’s pretty serious. If nothing is done now, I don’t know what more I can tell them,” Maynard told VICE World News.
The RCMP system, for example, involves receiving requests through an online portal, but involves physically scanning documents—and bureaucrats are only capable of scanning eight pages at a time, due to software restrictions.
The frequency with which the RCMP outright refuses requests has also doubled in two years.
“In one instance, a requester sought records related to a high-profile shooting in Nova Scotia for which the RCMP had been given jurisdiction to investigate,” the report says. “The RCMP responded that it had no relevant records.” It wasn’t until Maynard started investigating that the RCMP suddenly found “thousands” of documents.
It’s no mystery why requests to the RCMP have jumped in recent years. There have been tough questions over the Mounties’ handling of the Portapique shooting in Nova Scotia; the police force insisted it wasn’t using facial recognition technology, only to later admit it had lied; it only fessed up to using cell-site simulators after VICE World News proved it had been using them for years; and often the force won’t even release the names of officers who kill civilians in the line of duty.
“Canadians rightfully expect that the police force for Canada, in charge of enforcing Canadian law, will itself comply with it,” Maynard wrote.
Oftentimes, the only way journalists have been able to uncover basic details about the RCMP’s operations is by using the access to information system.
Maynard said if her warnings aren’t heeded, there may not be much of a system left. In her report, she writes that “critical and may soon be past the point of no return, unless senior leaders within the organization take action immediately.”
Maynard said she has been “disappointed” by the RCMP’s reaction to her findings. “I received no communication that would convince me that the RCMP is truly ready to address these problems,” she wrote. There is no evidence, she continued, that any of the supposed solutions put forward by the Mounties to date “really made any difference at all.”
The RCMP is not solely to blame. Maynard said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair “has ignored most recommendations and appears unconcerned by the failings identified within the RCMP’s (access to information) operations.”
On Tuesday morning, after the report was made public, Blair reversed course and called the information commissioner back “to express his deep concerns with the findings of the report, and to commit to fully addressing its recommendations,” a spokesperson for his office told VICE World News.
The spokesperson said that, notwithstanding his office’s weak commitments to Maynard, Blair will soon issue a directive requiring the RCMP to adopt a comprehensive plan to fix the system.
Correctional Services Canada, another agency for which Blair is responsible, is even further behind the RCMP. The agency refuses to accept credit card payments for the $5 fee associated with access to information requests, requiring requesters to mail cheques or money orders. Maynard called that “unacceptable.” (Blair’s office told VICE World News that Correctional Services planned to move online, pointing to a report that hasn’t yet been released.)
But even higher than Blair, the report takes aim at Trudeau’s government for letting whole parts of the system fall apart under his watch.
“The Government of Canada must develop a new vision for the access system, which otherwise is in danger of collapse,” Maynard wrote, noting that those warnings are not new.
The Trudeau government is, apparently, in the midst of a review of the Access to Information Act, that was slated to start in June. But, as heavily redacted access to information documents themselves suggest, that review was approved at the last minute, with no clear direction.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Maynard told VICE World News that some departments have done well, even amid the pandemic. The Canada Revenue Agency, for example, has moved its system entirely online, to accommodate staffers working from home.
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