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Canada’s Access to Information Regime Is Busted, But It Can Be Fixed

Information Commissioner releases report slamming current system, offers slate of recommendations.

by Justin Ling
Mar 31 2015, 10:02pm

Photo via Flickr user opensource

It took Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada, 104 pages to say something very simple: Canadians are losing their right to access government information.

The long-delayed report, prepared by an office that is virtually bankrupt, is a jarring criticism of the Access to Information (ATI) system that is supposed to be one of the most powerful ways that Canadians can hold the government to account.

"There has been a steady erosion of access to information rights in Canada over the last 30 years," Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault said in releasing the report. "Although the act was intended to shine a light on government decisions, it has become a shield against transparency and has encouraged a culture of delay."

Legault introduced 85 recommendations to the act that would, among other things, extend the the scope of the access to information regime to ministers' offices (including that of the prime minister); create a legal obligation for bureaucrats to retain relevant information, and make it illegal to destroy it; make it harder for departments to delay requests; and to expand the commissioner's power to force departments to comply with the Act.

VICE interviewed the minister responsible for the ATI regime, Tony Clement, in December. He told us, then, that he's "quite willing to take credit" for the system.

"Canadians' right to access is healthy right now," Clement said.

VICE asked for an interview with Clement on today's report, but got a statement from his office instead—which is exactly the same statement that he read in the House of Commons when he was asked by members of the opposition about the report.

"Our Government takes Canadians' right of access to information very seriously and has taken important steps in the last few years in support of that right," the statement reads.

Clement regularly cites statistics that show that the government is releasing more documents than ever. The Commissioner's report, however, shows that refusals, redactions, and delays are bad and getting worse.

Clement's office has not commented on any of the recommendations. He would only say that: "I thank the Information Commissioner for her report and am currently reviewing her recommendations."

The fact that Legault's office could even finish the report is sort of incredible. The commissioner has been consulting and writing the report for two years, and in that time Legault's office has almost had to strip the wire out of the walls.

At the end of last fiscal year, Legault had $37,000 left in the bank. And things haven't gotten much better.

Financial statements from her office, which were also released Tuesday, reveal that the Office of the Information Commissioner has been cut so deep that there's virtually nothing left. Of their paltry $8.5 million budget, only about one percent is freed up for discretionary spending.

In other words: if the office were to be faced with any unexpected costs, they would have less than $100,000 to deal with it. Aside from that: they have no money.

"In order for the OIC to continue to operate within its appropriations, the Commissioner will need to cut into the program," the office's report reads. "This will result in longer wait times for complainants. In turn, this could lead to increased litigation related to complaint delays."

That means that it will be even more difficult to deal with the mountain of complaints levied against federal departments over delays, obfuscation, and outright refusals in releasing information under the ATI system.

One such complaint comes from VICE, over a request made to Canada's spy agency asking for financial reports on a program that has since been declared unconstitutional.

The government has not made any changes to the ATI system since they first came into power in 2006. The closest they've gotten is considering hiking the fee schedule.

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