Access to Information: Strengthening Participatory Democracy

Recently, I participated in two interesting events:

What stood out for me was the following:

  • The right to access government information has become critical for citizens wishing to be involved fully in the functioning of a modern democracy.
  • Despite its history and outward robustness, democracy remains a fragile form of government which can be diminished without proper vigilance and checks and balances, including broad citizen participation.

Access to Information as a Right to Support Democracy

The Supreme Court of Canada has determined that access to information is a quasi-constitutional right (see Ontario (Public Safety and Security) v. Criminal Lawyers’ Association, 2010 SCC 23). In citing paragraph 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (freedom of expression), the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that access to information“ is a derivative right which may arise where it is a necessary precondition of meaningful expression of the functioning of government.” In simple terms, if a person does not have relevant information, it is impossible to provide input to, or express an opinion on government actions. And without public input or scrutiny, oversight of government is weakened and democracy could be at risk.

As the Information Commissioner of Canada, I see first-hand how well this important right is being exercised, and whether the necessary checks and balances are in place to ensure that citizens can participate meaningfully in the democratic process. As an independent Agent of Parliament, my function under the Access to Information Act is to investigate complaints of access denied (or delayed), to make recommendations to departments for remedies, and, when necessary, to refer or bring difficult cases to the Federal Court for resolution.

The purpose of access to information legislation is first and foremost to facilitate democracy. This was expressed clearly in Dagg v. Canada (Minister of Finance), (1997) 2 SCR 403 where two distinct aspects of the democratic process are cited:

  • That citizens have the information required to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.
  • That politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the citizenry,

Protecting Democracy: Building Trust, Resiliency and Public Participation

In an ideal democratic setting, there is trust between people and their institutions. There is a free and open flow of information. One way to do this is through ‘open government’, where governments take the lead on releasing information, rather than putting the onus on the citizen. Governments, academics, and civil societies from around the world will discuss the importance of opening government at the OGP Global Summit in mid-December. I too will be participating in this summit and I look forward to these discussions.

The strength of a democracy can be related directly to how much information is in public hands. Access to information has been called the single most important instrument (after elections) for ensuring accountability in a democracy. More information means better informed citizens participating in the democratic process.

Everyone must be vigilant in ensuring that there is trust, resiliency and public participation to strengthen our democratic system.

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Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered an important decision related to solicitor-client privilege in the context of the Alberta access to information legislation. This decision may have an impact on access to information rights at the federal level. I will be posting a blog on this decision soon. More to come…

The Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security is reviewing Bill C-22 An Act to establish the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts. Check out my submission to the Committee on my website. I invite you to follow the Bill through the legislative process.