Feds 'Not Transparent,' Says Information Commissioner

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SUZANNE LEGAULT
Canada's Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, says the current federal government is "not the most transparent" and that response to requests for Access to Information is now at a record low. (CP) | CP

Canada's Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, says the current federal government is "not the most transparent" and that response to requests for Access to Information is now at a record low.

"We are at a record low in terms of timeliness," Legault told CBC Radio's Sunday Edition. "The percentage of information being disclosed is also low."

Legault, who has been at her job for three years, says her office — which suffered an 8 per cent budget cut — has dealt with about 7,000 complaints with another 2,000 left to go.

"In the recent statistics provided by the government, requests for extensions [by departments] are at a record high."

Departments are required by legislation to respond to a request within 30 days. They can, however, also ask for an extension of that deadline. In 2011, less than 20 per cent of requests made to federal departments and agencies were met with full disclosure.

The most notable one is the ministry of defence, which asked for a 1,110-day extension on one request. That situation, said Legault, is now before Federal Court.

"I don't have order-making power. I only have recommendation power," she noted.

Legault says Canada's legislation, created in the 1980s, has not been updated.

- THE SUNDAY EDITION: Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault

"Generally, countries which have amended their legislation since 2000 include more modern elements ... the U.K. and Australia have given their commissioners order-maker power," said Legault.

Indeed, Canada has fallen behind. Legault points out that Canada's legislation was the envy of the world — back in the 1980s. Now, other commissioners ask her "what to avoid" when she meets them at conferences.

An international report last year ranked Canada 55th out of 93 countries in terms of its access to information laws. Serbia placed at the top.

'Canadians should be angry'

According to a report card issued by Legault last year on the timeliness that requests were fulfilled, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the department of Northern and Indian Affairs, and Transport Canada were given "F" grades.

Legault points out the report card only dealt with the time issue and not disclosure — and on this front the Department of Defence was at the bottom of the class.

"It prevents Canadians from holding governments to account — especially in the way they respond to crises."

The information commissioner says Canadians should be concerned about how the government handles issues such as health, environment and natural resources.

Legault, who is asking the public for input to amend current legislation, says the federal Tories aren't putting enough resources toward responding to Access to Information requests.

"Canadians should be angry," she said. "It's really a fundamental democratic right in Canada [and] it's linked to freedom of expression."

Canada drops in media freedom survey

In a report by Reporters Without Borders, a ranking of countries on its media freedom survey dropped Canada 10 positions from the previous survey to No. 20 out of 90. The top three countries are: Finland, the Netherlands and Norway.

The Press Freedom Index looked at various criteria, from legislation to violence against journalists. The U.S. climbed 15 places to land at No. 32.

The report noted that Canada lost "its status as the western hemisphere's leader to Jamaica (No. 13). This was due to obstruction of journalists during the so-called 'Maple Spring' student protests and to continuing threats to the confidentiality of journalists' sources and internet users' personal data, in particular, from the C-30 bill on cyber-crime."

Legault says she'd like to see Canada become the envy of the world again in terms of this.

"We need more voices to weigh in. It's a very important right and we must fight for it."

Committed to openness

In an email to CBC News, the office of the Treasury Board, responded to Legault's remarks.

"Our Government is committed to openness and transparency and we continue to take Canadians’ right of access very seriously," said the statement from Matthew Conway, representing Tony Clement, the President of the Treasury Board.

The statement pointed out that the Commissioner has noted the “measurable improvement across the system," and referred to a significant reduction in backlogged requests and a 58 per cent drop in complaints in 2011-12.

"The Government completed 43,664 access to information requests in 2011-12, nearly double that of a decade ago, according to the Info Source: Statistical Reporting Bulletin. And while the complexity of each request has increased substantially due to evolving digital technology, there has been a steady decline in requests taking longer than 120 days to complete, from a high of 13.2 per cent six years ago to 10.5 per cent in 2011-12."

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