Opinion

Letter from the editor: Access to [REDACTED] Information

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Canadians love to rally behind the latest indexes that put us at the top of global lists for wellness or the best places to live. But there’s one global ranking that doesn’t seem to get much attention, and it’s one on which Canada sits behind 56 other countries—including Colombia, Kyrgyzstan and Sierra Leone.

It’s the Global Right to Information Rating.

You read that right. Canada now ranks 57th, behind Brazil, Liberia and Uganda in our access to information laws.

According to the ranking compilers, Access to Info Europe and the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, “Canada’s lax timelines, imposition of access fees, lack of a proper public interest override, and blanket exemptions for certain political offices all contravene international standards for the right of access.”

If Canada wants to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, as we did this week, perhaps we can start by giving some teeth to the country’s access-to-information laws.

Let me explain why this matters.

Access-to-information-and-privacy requests, commonly known as ATIPs, are the backbone of a free and transparent society. They allow everyone—not just journalists—to request documents from government departments, agencies, and academic institutions on specific topics.

Anyone can file an ATIP request. You can go here right now and make one yourself.

If there’s a policy that affected you—let’s say a small business tax—it helps to understand how the government shaped that policy and what led to the decision.

Access-to-information laws give all citizens the ability to keep their elected officials and civil service accountable. Canada’s Access to Information Act, first passed in 1983, set the gold standard for government transparency at the time. While the act wasn’t perfect, it served its purpose.

But the legislation alone isn’t enough. The Global Right to Information Rating looks at legislation, not implementation, and many of the countries around the top of the list—like first-place Afghanistan—rank near the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. The laws are only as good as their implementation. Sadly, Canada does poorly by that measure, too.

Dean Beeby, the recently-retired CBC journalist, is the grandee of Canadian access-to-information journalism. In an interview with CBC’s “As It Happens” last week, he described what has happened since the act passed.

“Back then, bureaucrats were uncertain about what would happen to them if they didn’t apply the law to release more information and a lot of court cases and a lot of experience taught them that, actually, there are no consequences—or very few consequences,” Beeby told host Carol Off.

“So they got better and better at finding the loopholes in the act and using them. Until today, where really the deck is tilted against the user, against journalists and the public and anybody else who wants to use it, in favour of the bureaucrats,” he said.

Without penalties, the system has broken down.

The Logic’s reporting team—who spent thousands of dollars last year filing more than a thousand ATIP requests—can each recount their own horror stories of departments sending back fully-redacted documents, or requiring more than three years to produce them.

A sample of a heavily redacted access-to-information request document.

While working at The Boston Globe, I was amazed at how responsive U.S. government agencies were in swiftly responding to access-to-information requests (Massachusetts, however, has its own challenges). And yet, in Canada, the public can go years without seeing documents. Sometimes, even if you do get a response, it’ll cost you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the request fulfilled.

Suzanne Legault, Canada’s former access-to-information watchdog, oversaw the completion of more than 15,000 investigations during her nine years as information commissioner. In her departing message last year, she issued a clarion call encouraging Canadians to “demand more” from their government.

“Ultimately, the Information Commissioner is just one person,” she said. “It is up to all Canadians to keep pushing the government for true progress in the area of access to information. We all have a stake in ensuring this pillar of our democracy is sound.

“We all could benefit from the increased level of scrutiny that a truly modernized and progressive Access to Information Act could bring to those who hold positions of power in our democracy.”

Last week, the Senate sent an access-to-information bill back to the House of Commons with more than 30 amendments. The two legislative bodies are at loggerheads over minor issues of disclosure. Not included in the bill is Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election campaign promise to open the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet to access-to-information requests.  The bill also doesn’t deal with excessive redactions and delays. But it’s still not too late to change this law—or to scrap it and write a better one.

So the next time you see a Canadian politician touting the importance of journalists and a free press, ask them what they’re doing to improve access laws during the 364 days in the year that aren’t World Press Freedom Day.