Monday, September 22, 2008

Canada's Access Laws in Crisis Says Freedom of Information Report

A new report on access to government information shows that delays imposed on Canadians making requests under federal access to information rules have reached a "crisis level".

Under the federal access to information law, enacted in 1983, Canadians who pay $5 can ask for government files ranging from audits and briefing notes to correspondence and expense reports.

The report, Fallen behind: Canada's access to information act in the world context, was written by Stanley Tromp, co-ordinator of the freedom-of-information caucus of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

According to the author:

  • more than 60 countries have quicker response times to access requests than Canada
  • the right of access to government information is written into the constitution of 42 of the 68 countries studied. Such a right is not in the Canadian constitution
  • the federal Information Commissioner, an independent officer of the Canadian Parliament, does not have the power to order the publication of information subject to Cabinet confidences. Access officers in many other countries have much broader powers of enforcement
  • some 100 public bodies in the Canadian federal sector are still not subject to Canada's access legislation. Legislation in a majority of studied countries covers most legal entities performing public functions and/or 'vested with public powers.'
  • Canadian access legislation fails to conform to many recommendations from at least ten other global political organizations, such as Commonwealth Secretariat, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and United Nations Development Agency
  • exemptions and exclusions of information from coverage under Canada's access legislation tend to be broader than what is standard in other countries

The report was funded by the Canadian Association of Journalists, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Newspaper Association, the Canadian Community Newspapers Association. The contents don't necessarily reflect the sponsors' views.

Mr. Tromp's Canadian FOI Resource Website offers links to more material including a World FOI Chart and an index of global freedom of information rulings.

Related Library Boy posts include:

  • Freedom of Information: Code of Silence 2006 Award Nominees (May 11, 2006): "On a related note, the Canadian Newspaper Association documented what it calls a 'culture of secrecy' in a major 2005 freedom of information research project. Reporters from 45 member newspapers simultaneously visited municipal, provincial and federal government offices across Canada asking for access to information on basic everyday topics such as class size, police suspensions and restaurant inspections. As the Ottawa Citizen reported in a May 28, 2005 front page article ... : 'Reporters found a confusing patchwork of policies across the country, ranging from poor disclosure in provinces such as Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, to a surprising 93-per-cent disclosure in Alberta. Overall, officials handed over records to just one in every three requests made in person. The rest remained locked in government filing cabinets as reporters were told they had to file time-consuming -- and often expensive -- formal requests under provincial or federal access laws'."
  • Many Federal Departments Flunk in 2006-2007 Information Commissioner Report Card (May 30, 2007): "In his first annual report, the new federal Information Commissioner Robert Marleau concludes that a great many Canadian government agencies show a serious lack of transparency when it comes to access to government documents under the Access to Information Act : 'Despite much progress since 1983, there remain impediments to the full realization of Parliament’s intent as expressed in the Act. Too often, responses to access requests are late, incomplete, or overly-censored. Too often, access is denied to hide wrongdoing, or to protect officials or governments from embarrassment, rather than to serve a legitimate confidentiality requirement. Year after year, in the pages of these reports, information commissioners recount what is going wrong and offer views on how to make it right'."
  • Media Reports Government Wants to Can Access to Information Database (May 3, 2008): "The Toronto Star is reporting that the federal government is putting an end to the Coordination of Access to Information Requests System (CAIRS), an internal database of every request filed to all federal departments and agencies under the Access to Information Act (ATIA) ... CAIRS was seen by lawyers, reporters, and government watchdog groups as a very useful resource. They could mine the information in the database, approach government departments and request copies of already released documents."
  • 2007-2008 Annual Report of Canada's Information Commissioner (May 29, 2008): "'This period was marked by considerable interest in the issue of access to government information and in the role of the Commissioner and his office in investigating complaints. The interest was partially spurred by changes to the Access to Information Act arising from the Federal Accountability Act, which included a significant increase in the number of institutions subject to the Act (70 to bring the total to more than 250). Another contributing factor was public debate about access to government information, sparked in particular by Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. There has also been ongoing, and welcome, scrutiny of the Commissioner’s effectiveness at using his influence as ombudsman to foster a culture of openness in government. The Commissioner and his office faced numerous challenges in the past year, not the least of which being a significant backlog of complaints waiting to be handled. The number of new complaints received increased by 80 percent from the previous year'."

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posted by Michel-Adrien at 7:01 pm


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