Complaints from Access to Information users more than doubled last year: info czar

OTTAWA — Dissatisfied users of the Access to Information Act lodged over 6,000 new complaints last year — more than double the number in the previous year, a federal watchdog says.

In her annual report for 2019-20 tabled Tuesday, information commissioner Caroline Maynard urged the government to improve service and reduce delays in responding to requests.

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The commissioner is an ombudsman for requesters under the access act, the key federal transparency law.

It allows users who pay $5 to ask for files ranging from briefing notes and expense reports to internal studies and email correspondence.

However, the law introduced in 1983 has been widely criticized as outdated and poorly managed. That has prompted formal complaints about prolonged delays and blacked-out pages in documents.

Maynard has been wrestling with a backlog of thousands of complaints. She received 6,173 new ones in the last fiscal year, many of them about one institution, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, leading Maynard to conduct a systemic investigation of the department.

The commissioner says some federal agencies have used the COVID-19 pandemic "as an excuse" to shirk their obligations, with a few institutions even completely closing their access offices.

"It's still a concern," she said Tuesday in an interview.

The Trudeau government announced a review of the access law in June, but has yet to provide details on how Canadians might participate.

Maynard said she will push for broader coverage of the law, which currently does not apply to some federal agencies such as cabinet ministers' offices.

She also wants to see a narrowing of exceptions in the law, which would result in disclosure of more cabinet-related information and confidential advice drafted by government officials.

Maynard hopes the government will not just fine-tune the access system but "really make big changes and bold decisions to improve everything."

Openness advocates expressed wariness Tuesday about federal intentions during a panel discussion on reforming the access law.

Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association noted a "resistance to change" on the part of people in government who are worried about what more transparency might mean.

As a result, she has questions about the federal review. "It's not exactly clear what that's going to look like, and it's not clear what it's going to lead to."

This will be the 14th review of the Access to Information Act in the last 37 years, said Dean Beeby, who frequently used the law as a journalist at the CBC and The Canadian Press.

"So we really know what's wrong with the act, we don't need another review."

Ultimately, such government-run studies end up being "hijacked by the public servants" with an interest in keeping files under wraps, he said during the discussion presented by the Public Service Information Community Connection.

Toby Mendel, executive director of the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, said the issue of right to information carries a political weight in some countries "that it simply doesn't carry here in Canada."

Mendel, whose organization has studied access laws around the globe, cited Bulgaria, Mexico and Sri Lanka as a few of the places where the subject has more profile among members of the public.

"They really believe in this issue, and they think it's important."

In her report, Maynard said the government review is a significant opportunity to bolster transparency.

"However, it is also my sincere hope that this review will not stand in the way of timely action by the government to improve service and reduce delays, and to deal with other problems that persist across the access system, not all of which require legislative change to resolve."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2020.

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