The information commissioner's speech from the throne

'The health of Canadian democracy is at stake'

Information commissioner Suzanne Legault has tabled her annual report on the state of the access to information system. Here are excerpts from her foreword.

This time last year, I sounded a note of mild optimism in my annual report. For the first time in a decade, federal institutions were providing more timely responses to access to information requests—a slight but perceptible improvement.

That progress was short-lived, however. As I release my latest annual report, there are unmistakable signs of significant deterioration in the federal access system. In fact, I saw numerous instances over the year of institutions’ failing to meet their most basic obligations under the Access to Information Act.

One organization was so understaffed it could not acknowledge access requests until months after receiving them, and even then could not say when it would be able to provide a response. Another took an extension of more than three years for responding to an access request. Others failed to live up to commitment dates my office had negotiated for providing records to requesters on files that were already considerably overdue. Still others did not retrieve and analyze records before telling requesters they could not have access to them.

A common refrain was that budgetary restraint is having a direct and adverse impact on the service institutions provide requesters…

All together, these circumstances tell me in no uncertain terms that the integrity of the federal access to information program is at serious risk…

The legislation that guides access to information at the federal level must be modernized to reflect technological and legislative advances that have taken place since the Act was drafted 30 years ago. Administrative fixes, while suitable for addressing some concerns, are insufficient to effectively deal with the pressing problems in the legislation. Countless calls for reform have gone unheeded by successive governments. That track record of inaction must cease, given the perilous state of the access system.

There is also a role for Canadians to play. They must speak out about the need for a properly functioning access system and their quasi-constitutional right to information about the decisions the government is making on their behalf.

At this juncture, it is my view that the government has no choice but to listen to those demands. The Access to Information Act is the law of the land. Respecting it is the government’s legal obligation.

Moreover, access to information is fundamental to Canada’s system of government, a key tool that facilitates citizen engagement with the public policy process. When the access system falters, not only is Canadians’ participation in government thwarted but ultimately, the health of Canadian democracy is at stake.

Coincidentally, Brent Rathgeber suggests yesterday’s Throne Speech was an opportunity to present a new agenda for transparency and accountability.

On June 5, I resigned from the Conservative Caucus due to its lack of commitment to transparency and accountability.  The Conservative Government is embroiled in ethical and legal scandals.  There was not a word, however, about ethics or transparency in the 7000 word speech.  Admittedly, I have a special interest in democratic reform and government accountability, but with the Government embroiled in multiple scandals resulting from a lack of transparency regarding Senate expenses, I submit that a grand vision regarding transparency and governance would have been better received and more successful in changing the channel.

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