Freedom (or not) of information in Canada: Panelists agree on the latter
On Nov. 22, the CJF hosted a forum, "Freedom (or not) of information in Canada." Rhiannon Russell was there, and speaks to the discussion that Canada's Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, had with journalist Jim Bronskill and lawyer Paul Schabas on the state of freedom of information in our country.
When Stephen Harper introduced the Federal Accountability Act in 2006 – his first piece of legislation as Prime Minister – he vowed to “clean up corruption” and “lift up the veils of secrecy” to make the federal government more accountable.
The consensus at the CJF’s panel “Freedom (or not) of Information in Canada” on Nov. 22 was that there’s been little to no follow-through on this promise.
“Reluctance by government officials to release information has been a long-time concern,” said moderator Hugh Winsor, a senior member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. He said Parliament Hill journalists call the Harper administration the most secretive government they’ve seen. “This is not what we were promised,” he said.
According to an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted for the CJF, six out of 10 Canadians think the government makes it too difficult to access information.
Panelists at the forum included Suzanne Legault, Canada’s Information Commissioner, Jim Bronskill, a Canadian Press journalist in Ottawa and Paul Schabas, a litigation partner who specializes in media law.
Legault agreed with Winsor that our country’s information system is lacking. “The Canadian freedom of information regime compares dismally, to say the least, on the international landscape,” she said.
A recent Associated Press survey proves this. AP sent FOI requests to 105 countries with right-to-know legislation. While Guatemala sent all documents in 10 days and Turkey in seven, Canada asked for a 200-day extension.
Legault said there are two big issues with how FOI requests are handled: timeliness and the amount of information disclosed. She compiled graphs that showed an increase in the amount of time taken to complete requests from 2002 to 2010. Last year, only 56 per cent of requests were responded to within the 30 days that government institutions are given under the Access to Information Act. Also in 2010, only 16 per cent of responses included all requested information, which is down from 41 per cent in 1999.
“You do find these kinds of problems in modern democracies where there’s a lot of paper,” she said. “There are an exponential number of pages that are being reviewed due to freedom of information requests.”
Institutions can ask for an extension on their requests, though. This often creates backlog — making an already long, complicated process even longer. They can also claim exemptions, meaning they provide a reason for why the information should not be disclosed. Exemptions cited to be based on issues of national security are the fastest growing.
Bronskill expressed his frustration at the country’s federal access law. “It doesn’t work as well as it should,” he said, calling it “antiquated.” He called for the law to be updated to make obtaining information easier.
Case in point: six years ago, the Canadian Press filed an FOI request to obtain the files concerning politician Tommy Douglas. Initially, the government only disclosed some of the files, and they were heavily censored. CP took the case to the Supreme Court to fight for all of the documents, at which the judge ordered Library and Archives Canada to review the decision. More information has been released since, but about one-fifth of the documents are still classified.
“If the law worked better and information were more available, I don’t think we’d be in this position,” Bronskill said. “It’s not just [the fault of] one person, one office. It’s a systemic thing.”
So who does it fall on to improve the situation? “The Commissioner can, and I hope will, have a greater impact on changing the culture,” said Schabas. “[The government] feels threatened by these requests and we have to change that.”
But it is not solely on Legault, Schabas added. Journalists have the platform to expose the issues they face when requesting information, but they largely haven’t. “The media, I think, for too long has been reluctant to write about this … I think it’s time to advocate for a change,” Schabas said.
Bronskill also noted that governments are getting away with missing deadlines and delaying the process. “There’s really no penalty at all when governments break [the law]," he said. "And they do, nearly every day.” To combat this, he suggested there should be penalties when institutions ignore the rules set out under the Act, such as losing the right to claim some exemptions.
Legault said she recognized why governments can be hesitant about disclosing information: it exposes their mistakes. Remember Paul Martin’s Liberal government that was brought down by the sponsorship scandal in 2006? That scandal was exposed through The Globe and Mail’s use of access requests. Legault pressed governments to live with the short-term pain that access to information may cause them in the name of their long-term public service.
Legault encouraged a modernization of the laws, and she’s optimistic. Earlier this year, Canada signed a letter of intent to join an open-government partnership with 46 other countries. The partnership’s focus is government transparency and accountability. Next year, the nations will meet in Brazil to present their plans. “I think that’s something we should be enthused about,” she said, adding that our access to information act is “crafted such that nondisclosure should be the exception.”
In the meantime, journalists should continue searching and fighting for truth, but Legault urges them to go further: “I think journalists need to be activists in the defense and promotion of a healthy freedom of information regime in Canada,” she said.