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Page August 10, 2020

Review won't fix Canada's Access to Information law significantly

By Ken Rubin

There's no real desire to remedy shortcomings. It is no longer good enough to continue holding Canadians hostage to incomplete data

The Citizen recently highlighted the manipulation of records, sought under the Access to Information Act, in the government's case against dismissed Vice-Adm. Mark Norman. The case is but one among various abuses of the federal access to information process. There have been countless other instances of records delayed or only partially released, even though the public has a right to them. 

So, to advocates of open government, It might sound like good news that Treasury Board announced in June a review of the outdated Access to Information Act.

But the review does not aim to fix widespread “exemptions” in the act or make records public any more quickly. Things such as cabinet confidentiality, the lack of inclusion of the Prime Minister Office under the legislation, and the protections granted granted for corporate, bureaucratic, and law enforcement special interests are not up for serious change.

Instead, Treasury Board seeks public comments on what “opportunities” should be added to the government-controlled narrow program of record publication. One example of this approach is the government’s release of sanitized talking point notes from government briefings.

The terms of the review also suggest that the government has no
intention of ending the long delays the public encounters when using the Access to Information Act. Nor does it intend to have a more independent Information Commissioner office reviewing failures to document decisions or examining government publication data.

The start and end point of the review is a failure to recognize and dramatically deal with the systemic secrecy so engrained in official Canada's mindset.

It is just assumed that government is entitled to entrench its many ways of saying no to requests for taxpayer-funded information. 

Parliament itself is not called on to do a transformative review of government secrecy and administrative barriers, only to respond to a tightly designed “review” report.

A more serious starting point would be the creation of a special parliamentary transparency committee in this minority Parliament. It would hold virtual hearings and ask for comment on radically resetting the access to information regime.

Advocates of openness, civil liberties, whistleblower protection, anti-corruption, consumer and environmental causes should press for a parliamentary committee independent of the Treasury Board-led process.

In matters such as police behaviour, corrupt contracting and COVID-19 pandemic planning, there has been far too much government institutional resistance to full disclosure, with very weak whistleblower protection.

Many previous official reviews and studies on transparency have gone nowhere. Many times parliamentary committees have asked for specific information, and their requests have been denied.

It is no longer good enough to continue holding Canadians hostage to incomplete information by only releasing bits and pieces of it, or delaying it altogether for months and years at a time.

The corrupted government access to information review controlled by senior bureaucrats wants the exact opposite outcome: more secrecy.

This story was first published by The Ottawa Citizen on August 10, 2020, and is republished here with the author's permission.

Ken Rubin has championed greater transparency for over five decades and is reachable at He is an investigative public interest researcher, author and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Free Expression.