Access to information is regarded as the capstone to the rights and freedoms that Canadian democracy gives its citizens. Yet, the current system in place to deal with access to information requests continues to operate in severe state of disrepair. Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has voiced her concerns about the health of the current access to information system and how it is harming Canadians’ right of access.
Legault, as Information Commissioner, is the mediary between government institutions and dissatisfied access to information applicants. The majority of these dissatisfied applicants are journalists, who on a daily basis are tasked with the responsibility of reporting on stories in a timely manner and with accurate information.
This lack of timely access to information is important to both journalists and the public because, as the The Supreme Court of Canada has stated, informed voting is dependant on informed debate. Without being able to easily access this information, the government is controlling the information that the public needs in order to make informed decisions on governmental policies and practices.
Laura Tribe, a reporter with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, says that the majority of these problems stem from budget cuts and understaffed offices. These issues, paired with the failure to proactively disclose information that is supposed to be in the public sphere regardless, makes it nearly impossible to respond to requests in the allotted 30 day time frame set out by the act.
Tribe continues by explaining the biggest increase in requests seen by the British Columbia Information and Privacy Commissioner in the past year are for government calendars. A report from the same office stated that the easiest thing they can do to deal with the backlog of access requests is publishing the Minister’s calendar automatically rather than responding continuously to individual requests.
This backlog of requests is causing huge delays in the response times from the government. Most notably, a study by Newspapers Canada reported that requests average over a year from submission to when the information is received. The law states that these requests must be filled and completed within 30 days, yet there are no penalties for the government when they fail to meet this standard.
Another fault in the system is that not all requests are treated equally, argues Danielle Stone, a media lawyer for CBC. “They use the act to their advantage. If they know there is something damning in the document, there are many ways that they can delay releasing it to you.” This stalling tactic allows governmental departments to slow access down until a story becomes irrelevant.
Stone also mentions that they employ a flagging system, where requests from specifically bothersome journalists are automatically sent to the minister for approval despite the topic of the requested information.
This government secrecy continues to get worse as the information age progresses. Making this blatantly clear, is the problems journalists encounter when trying to report on environmental issues. Tribe suggests that this is due to a growing bureaucracy within the government to build a barricade between federal scientists and the media.
When the Canadian Press attempted to interview renowned scientist Max Bothwell about rock snot, a type of algae also known as Didymo, this fairly harmless environmental piece was put on hold while 110 pages of emails were sent back and forth between 16 separate communications officers within the government. In the end the article did hit newsstands, but without an interview with Bothwell.
Why would the government find it necessary to be so secretive about algae? That problem lies with the heavy governmental secrecy shielding the public’s view from politically sensitive issues; in this case issues relating to climate change and the billion dollar oil and gas industries.
Even though these issues are critical for the Canadian public to make informed decisions, journalists are continuously forced to fight the government for the ability to access information. These materials should be easily available to citizens after the passing of the Access to Information and Privacy Acts in 1983, yet as this legislation gets older, it continues to get easier for the government to find ways around it.
“They’ve got ulterior motives,” says Stone, “The institutions are getting more and more sophisticated in how they can stop people from talking.” One aspect of Stone’s job at CBC forces her to go to court on a regular basis and fight for rights that have been in place for over ten years. She argues it is a journalist's responsibility to question and fight the government when they withhold information that is the public’s by right. “If you let the government and the institutions get away with those smaller incidents you’re denying your recognized rights,” she says. The more these rights are taken for granted, the easier it becomes for them to disappear completely from public consciousness.
Canada’s access to information legislation was put into effect over 30 years ago, before the internet became a tool in mass information gathering, and this is why it is easier to find loopholes within the law. On the Global Right to Information Index published by the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada ranks 56th out of 97 countries. Interestingly this ranks Canadians behind countries like Mexico, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Russia, whose laws have been put into effect within the last 15 years, yet are still ranked in the bottom percentile in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index.
Although the Canadian access to information system can be a long drawn out process, it does work. The major difference between Canada and the countries previously mentioned is both journalists and citizens alike have the ability to speak out and criticize freely without the risk of attacks on their person or backlash from the government.
To truly give Canadian citizens a more honest and direct look at the government, the Access to Information Act must be amended to include the impact of new technologies and should also guarantee access to the Cabinet and Prime Minister’s office. Recently, these offices were deemed separate from the departments they head by the Federal Court of Appeal, and therefore are protected from access to information requests.
As a statutory right in Canada, access to information continues to be a problematic issue, as it fails to be properly protected and amended. The current Conservative government has stated that they want to be open and accountable to their citizens, yet the aging legislation allows access, but only after lengthy waiting periods. This restricts citizen’s rights to informed decision making, the most important aspect of a free and democratic society.