Things have been pretty grim on the right to know front in recent months.
The highest levels of two provincial governments (BC and Ontario) have apparently embraced oral government as a way of life, shredding and deleting the records they are unable to avoid creating. One of those governments (Ontario) was also 'economical with the truth' in responding to the Commissioner about recoverability of deleted e-mails. The Ontario Commissioner was not impressed.
Delays and fees in Freedom of Information requests are reaching such ridiculous proportions that if you didn't laugh you'd cry.
And worst of all, our various rulers are more than happy to continue blocking our information rights, seeming to believe they will have no price to pay.
But there are a number of potential cracks in the wall of secrecy at both the federal and provincial levels.
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has promised proposals for reforming the Access to Information Act sometime this fall. In addition, many people have spoken out in response to the abbreviated 'consultation' conducted by the federal government earlier this month on its Open Government Partnership commitments. And they are not happy.
There was heavy criticism of the consultation process, but also of the skimpy nature of the federal government's substantive commitments. The complete absence of any commitment to reforming the groaningly ancient Access to Information Actcame up time and time again.
The federal government will have to report on the feedback it received, and it will be hard-pressed to sugar coat what the respondents had to say.
On the provincial front, the BC government seems uninterested in doing anything to improve the freedom of information process or the law itself, but some external factors may force additional openness upon them.
Because of an unfortunate court decision in 2002, the BC government has been taking a very broad approach to refusing to release information on the basis that it is 'policy advice' to the government. This has led to the absurd situation where a journalist was denied access to a pamphlet on the benefits of the Harmonized Sales Tax which was to be sent to every home in the province. The government claimed this pamphlet was advice to the minister, but finally released it the day before a hearing with the Information and Privacy Commissioner. They continued to claim the pamphlet was advice, but that they were using their discretion to release it.
Those days may be coming to an end. The Supreme Court of Canada will be hearing a case in November which could result in a clearer interpretation of just what constitutes 'policy advice' and when governments can legitimately claim this exemption to our right to information. BC FIPA is an intervenor in that case, and we are hoping the court will send a message to all governments about the balance between our legal right to information and the limited circumstances
The fight for greater transparency isn't over by a long shot, but hopefully public outrage and a strong message from the highest court in the land may force some greater openness.