Accessing public information in Canada frequently entails multiple-year delays, seemingly arbitrary and generous redactions, and time-consuming appeals processes.
By Patrick Butler
Canada’s access to information regime is systematically broken, and there’s lots of blame to go around.
That was the message Monday from a panel of three current and former journalists, who levelled a laundry list of criticisms at the Canadian government’s current access to information legislation and reasons it’s falling short.
Vice News Canadian features editor Justin Ling, Toronto Star reporter Jayme Poisson and Mount Royal University professor Sean Holman, who spoke at Carleton University during a Right to Know Week seminar on open government on Sept. 26, said accessing public information in Canada frequently entails multiple-year delays, seemingly arbitrary and generous redactions, and time-consuming appeals processes.
“It’s not time to reorganize deckchairs, here,” Ling said. “It’s time to blow this system up.”
“The average journalist can’t wait four or fives months to get information and most times it’s useless information by that time,” he said, adding a recently returned request he made from Health Canada arrived four years after he’d filed it.
Poisson, an investigative journalist who earlier this year received the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Greg Clark Award to study Canada’s access to information process, said blanket exemptions based on information to do with subjects as vague as “foreign affairs” and “advice and consultation” contribute to public servants too easily blacking out information, and with little oversight.
“There are some exemptions that are so broad they can just slap it on anything,” she said.
Requests sometimes thousands of pages longs are also often returned in unreadable file formats, she added, and search fees at the provincial and municipal levels (the federal government has eliminated all fees except a $5 processing charge) can be overwhelming for some reporters, especially freelancers or small news outfits.
But Holman, who is currently writing a book about the early history of access to information legislation in Canada, said the problem runs deeper. He said it’s a culture of indifference, both in the general public and the Canadian news media, that’s as much to blame for the country’s sorry state of access to information.
Holman said Canadians are largely oblivious to how the current access to information scheme works and, according to preliminary research he conducted, most journalists may be as well. Only a fraction of Canadian journalists, he said, are frequently making use of access to information systems.
“If we actually want to change the relationship between Canadians and their governments we can’t just amend our laws,” Holman said. “We also have to think about how we change our culture.”
The Access to Information Act first came into force in Canada in 1983, well before the Internet and the dramatic increase in digital communications that followed.
Treasury Board president Scott Brison, who delivered keynote remarks before the lecture, said the current legislation has “not been meaningfully updated since” and is “out of touch with Canadians’ expectations today.”
The Liberal government, which campaigned on a promise of more open and transparent government, has pledged updates to the legislation this winter, including proposals to make the PMO, ministers’ offices, and departments that assist courts eligible for access to information requests.
Another promise would allow the federal information commissioner to order documents be released publicly. The government has also said the reforms will mean shorter wait times for information requests and a rolling review process every five years to keep the new legislation up-to-date as technology changes.
Ling, however, said he’s skeptical about how effective those changes will be and whether expanding the parameters of access to information will be matched with enough funding, given the current system already appears under-resourced.
“If you’re not going to address the fundamental rot and the structural problems at the heart of the system, can your new add-ons really be effective?” he said.
“It’s nice to look transparent but to actually take the extra step is a lot tougher,” Ling said. “Now we only have the big headline items of the policy and not the details. And the devil’s always in the details.”
Patrick Butler is a freelance writer and fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University. His work has previous appeared on CBC Radio and in The St. John's Telegram, The Overcast and the French-language weekly Le Gaboteur.