Will Canada turn the corner?

Will Canada turn the corner on access to information? The Liberal Party campaigned on a platform of openness and transparency, so we have been waiting for proof that this government is serious about modernizing the Act. They have taken some important steps. For the first time at the federal level, the mandate letters of the newly appointed cabinet ministers were released publicly. Just this spring, all fees have been eliminated, except for the $5 fee for the original access application. It is also a good sign that this government has announced a new Open Government Action Plan for 2016-2018, which includes modernizing the access to information and other transparency initiatives.

ETHI conducted a fulsome review of the Act in the spring of 2016. It made 32 recommendations and identified those that should be prioritized in the first phase of amendments. These priorities were selected due to their greatest impact on transparency. For the most part, their priorities aligned with those that I had identified. The report urged the government to move forward with an important series of recommendations in the first phase. The Government of Canada has responded to a report from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI) on how to modernize the Act and signaled that changes are coming.

The government response is positive yet timid in its commitments. It does not address the recommendations from the parliamentary committee. It leaves room for a number of possibilities on what will appear in the actual legislation. I encourage the government to follow the committee’s recommendations.

It has been a long journey for me, and my office. The last few years have involved numerous interventions with government and elected officials, a special report to Parliament, appearances before a parliamentary committee, social media chatter and stakeholder meetings. Nothing less than the health of our democracy has been at stake and it is time to recoup the ground that we have lost since the legislation was first enacted in 1983.

It has become evident that something needs to be done. A serious “culture of delay” had settled in and federal government officials regularly denied access to government information and documents. Somewhere along the way, legislation meant to open things up and ensure that citizens could benefit from information and keep government accountable, has produced a slow and arcane system that seems bent on denying access. As a result, my office has handled over 10,000 individual complaints related to slow or partial responses, or denied requests.

This is the golden opportunity to re-establish Canada as a leader in government transparency. I am confident the government can, in the first phase of amendments, find the right balance between the public’s right to know and the government’s need to protect limited and specific information. It doesn’t mean that we open the floodgates, and harm people and institutions that need their information protected. But freedom of information is a fundamental characteristic of a healthy democracy and its citizens’ right to access information is paramount. Canadians want and deserve more.

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