Friday, April 12, 2013

Time to fix the Access to Information Act

In December 2010, I made a request to the Department of Justice under Canada’s Access to Information Act, looking for information on Rod Bruinooge's Bill C-510, Roxanne's Law.

After a long, arduous, and drawn out saga, that included changing my initial request (1) to reduce the scope (2), and reduce the quoted cost from $666 to $0, I finally received the information.

It was received in three parts dated June 27, 2012, September 12, 2012, and November 5, 2012. (My original request would have cost me $666. How can the average Canadian afford such prohibitive costs to access information from their government?)

That's a long time to wait to receive information (18 months, 21 months and 23 months) that should normally take 30 days.

I complained to the Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, regarding this lengthy process. The Commissioner's office investigated and found that my complaint was "well founded." Don't get excited though, there doesn't seem to be any repercussions to Justice:
"Subsection 4(2.1) of the Act codifies the duty to assist. One of the principal aspects of this duty includes providing timely access to requested records. We find JUS failed to comply with its duty to assist obligations when it failed to respond to your request within the statutory timeframe prescribed by the Act. Nonetheless, JUS sent you its interim responses on June 27, 2012, and September 12, 2012, and its final response on November 5, 2012. Based on the above, we will record your complaint as well-founded, resolved without having made recommendations to the head of the institution."

Justice apparently had to do outside consultations for my request but this didn't forgive their tardiness. (Justice consulted with the Privy Council Office; I am still waiting to hear back from the Information Commissioner's office as to why this was necessary.)

The Information Commissioner's Office further stated that:
"While consultations with other government departments may have been required, JUS is the government institution responsible for processing the request and is therefore accountable to initiate and manage the consultations so that responses are received within a reasonable period of time."

So what did I receive? A lot of redacted information in the first 202 pages, and not much else in the last two smaller batches (19 and 14 pages).

Most of the information pertained to the scheduling of meetings, translation services, phone call requests and docketing of information. In other words, administrative information. Also included were different versions of the government's speeches on C-510 and talking points.

Any other information I received appeared to be already publicly available, like Hansard and some media articles.

Information was redacted and withheld under these sections of the Act:

19 (1) [personal information],
21. (1) [advice or recommendations],
21. (b) [consultations or deliberations],
21. (c) [positions or plans],
23. [solicitor-client privilege],
69 (1)(a) [proposals or recommendations to Council],
69 (1)(g) [any records making a reference to (a) to (f)] [confidences of the Queen's Privy Council of Canada] of the Act.

The 19 and 14 page documents were basically emails, with "from" and "to" information, with almost everything else blacked out.

I am appealing to the Information Commissioner again, on the grounds that much of the information was redacted.

Maybe there's hope yet though. This article from last December quotes the information commissioner as speaking out against the problems that exist in citizen's abilities to access information:
"After releasing a report showing mixed reviews in federal government response to requests for public records, Parliament's information watchdog, Suzanne Legault, said it's time to correct the flaws in Canada's access to information legislation.

Canada's Access to Information Act, first adopted in 1982, requires federal government departments, agencies and Crown corporations to release public records to anyone who makes a request and pays a $5 fee.

But Legault, the federal information commissioner, said the legislation should no longer have exclusions that prevent her office from reviewing files when officials decide to withhold information in categories such as federal cabinet secrets...

"Exclusions are, in my view, arcane in matters of access to information if one looks at international standards. I think that when we first enacted an Access to Information Act in 1982, we were considered to be leaders around the world, and now we are considered to be laggards and I don't think that any Canadian should be happy with this situation."

...she noted that a recent evaluation of freedom of information legislation around the world ranked Canada 55th out of about 100 countries."

It's time for an MP to take this on and introduce his or her own Private Member's Bill to clean up the Access to Information Act. To make ATIPs timely; to make all information accessible in practice instead of only in theory; to make it affordable instead of having two-tiered access to information; to give the Information Commissioner some teeth to review cabinet confidences and to decide for herself if they truly should be hidden from public scrutiny.

I'm pretty sure there would be a lot of support for such a bill, both from Canadians and from all political parties. Maybe then we can finally learn what the government in power is really up to.

Why have access to information at all, if in cases like with Justice, it hardly yields any information? And Bill C510 was a Private Member's Bill, not a government bill. So why did Justice need to a) contact the Privy Council office and b) invoke the cabinet confidence clause at all? Because the Bill had nothing to do with the government.

Finally, the irony of all of this, is that Mr. Harper was the champion of the Federal Accountability Act, whose purpose was supposed to "strengthen access to information legislation" and make sure that "the Government is more transparent and more open."

Clearly, something got lost in translation.

(1) original ATIP request:
"Could you please send me copies of all correspondence relating to Bill C-510 ( Roxanne's Law) between and within the following offices/departments: the Justice Minister's Office, Prime Minister's Office, Privy Council Office, Justice Department, the public and the media, including briefing notes, talking points, reports, emails, letters, and any other documents that reference bill C-510. The correspondence requested could be between any of: the Justice Minister's Office, Prime Minister's Office, Privy Council Office, and Justice Department, as well as the public and media. In other words, any and all documents, that are internal to any of these places, OR that traveled between any of these places."

(2) modified ATIP request:
"briefing notes, talking points, reports, emails, letters, and any other documents that reference bill C-510, from April 2010 until January 10, 2011, which would include final versions or last draft of record."
(As you can see I gave up a lot in this modified request, since it excluded all correspondence to the Minister’s Office, PM office, PCO, the public and the media. In other words, it only included information inside Justice. However, judging by the amount of blacked out information I did receive, we can assume that much of this additional information would probably also have been heavily blacked out--had I been able to obtain it.)

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