Today marks Right to Know Day with celebrations in over 20 countries around the world. This is our opportunity to raise awareness about our right to access as a fundamental human right and as a right to access government information. In Canada, this is a quasi-constitutional right which has also been recognized by our Supreme Court as a derivative right of freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in certain circumstances. I welcomed this opportunity to host with Carleton University an afternoon seminar on access to information and open government, to launch the Grace-Pépin Access to Information Award, and to invite Jayme Poisson, an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star. Jayme is the winner of the Greg Clark Award and chose to study access to information.
I’ve asked Jayme to write a guest post on her experience with access, including her study on the subject.
Right to Know Day is a perfect occasion for journalists, along with people from all over the world, to take pause and think about the values of open government that we all strive for.
Yesterday marked my last of several days spent in the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, where I have had the opportunity to talk frankly with the civil servants who work there, including Commissioner Suzanne Legault. The stint (and a previous stint at the Office of Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner) are the result of an award I received through the Canadian Journalism Foundation. The award, named after the legacy of the great Canadian journalist Greg Clark, is designed to allow a journalist early in her or his career to delve into an issue that will help them improve in their craft.
I wanted to study access to information in Canada because my experience with using access legislation to obtain government records for the stories I am researching has been mixed. For every success I have had, there has been a brick wall or two. I want to better understand the intricacies of the legislation that binds government officials who are charged with deciding what they can and cannot release. My time at the offices of both information commissioners has helped me gain that understanding, as well as given me a better grasp of the recourses available in the appeal and complaint processes overseen by their offices. I am very grateful for the opportunity.
The Access to Information Act itself, which has not been updated since 1983, needs to be modernized. On Monday, I participated in a seminar for Right to Know Week at Carleton University. A panel I sat on, with fellow journalists Sean Holman and Justin Ling, touched on ways the legislation hinders the release of information in the public interest because of things like overly broad exemptions that can be applied to records, such as how governments make decisions. We also discussed the problematic fact that the Act does not cover the offices of MPs and Senators and the Prime Minister himself. And we spoke about the need for more resources and better training for government officials who are tasked with releasing this pertinent information.
These are not new suggestions. They are among the 85 recommendations that Commissioner Legault has made with the goal of modernizing the Act and bringing Canada to the forefront of government transparency globally (a role we have fallen far, far behind in). She told me, and later said during her speech at Carleton on Monday, that she is optimistic that our current government is committed to meaningful changes such as giving her office order-making powers. Commissioner Legault also speaks of the need for a shift in culture, where government’s are open by default. She told me she has already noticed a change in this new government and the ways in which its officials have already begun to increase transparency. It’s an attitude shift, illustrated by the Honourable Scott Brison, President of the Treasury Board, showing up to Monday’s seminar (something that should also give you a sense about the previous government’s priorities to access). During his remarks Mr. Brison reaffirmed Liberal election promises, including cutting down dismal response times. “We’ve already come a long way,” Mr. Brison said. “We can do better.”
I hope our government does do better, because an open government is better for Canadians. I realize these changes won’t be simple. But I hope they’ll be bold.
As the Commissioner herself says: “The hard work begins now.”
Jayme Poisson is an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star. She is studying access to information in Canada as the 2016 recipient of the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Greg Clark Award.