The Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament buildings. Photo courtesy of Saffron Blaze/CC BY-SA 3.0.

Scrap ATI reform bill and start over, coalition tells Ottawa

Bill C-58 is being criticized for not addressing serious issues in the Access to Information Act. Continue Reading Scrap ATI reform bill and start over, coalition tells Ottawa

In a letter signed by a long list of organizations and individuals, the Canadian government is being urged to scrap its current attempt at reforming access to information legislation and do the job right.

“The Access to Information Act (ATIA), now nearly 35 years old, is in desperate need of major reforms to reduce delays and provide for an effective right to access information held by public authorities. This challenge calls for bold and thoroughgoing reforms to the ATIA to align it with international standards and better practice in other countries,” says the letter addressed to Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board.

“Unfortunately the government’s proposed ATIA reform, Bill C-58, comprehensively fails to meet this challenge.”

The coalition is seeking at a bare minimum the following reforms:

  • Deliver on the promise to expand the scope of the Act to cover the Office of the Prime Minister and Ministers’ offices by allowing individuals to make requests for information from these bodies, as they may do with other public authorities, while retaining the proposed proactive publication obligations.
  • Introduce a formal duty to document for public authorities, and require them to preserve records of their decision making.
  • Put in place a robust system for limiting the discretion of public authorities to extend the time limits for responding to requests and formalise in law the fee waivers contained in the May 2016 Interim Directive on the Administration of the Access to Information Act.
  • Ensure that exceptions and exclusions to the right of access are narrowly defined and subject to both a test of actual harm and a mandatory public interest override.
  • Give the Information Commissioner binding, enforceable order powers over all complaints regarding requests for information. (The letter notes that this reform is included in Bill C-58 and says it should be retained.)

The Centre for Law and Democracy, one of the signatories to the letter, said its analysis shows that the reforms included in Bill C-58 would merely raise Canada from 49th to 46th place in the RTI (Right to Information) Rating, which assesses the strength of access to information law in 111 countries.

The letter is signed by 35 organizations, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, PEN Canada, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Association of Journalists, as well as by 26 individuals.

Grant Buckler is a retired freelance journalist and a volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and lives in Kingston, Ont.