A short while ago, one of my esteemed colleagues shared an article with me that outlined Canada’s abysmal record in providing its citizens with access to government documents. Ranking a shameful 51st on a list of 89 freedom-of-information rankings taken in June 2012, Canada languished behind Angola, Columbia, and Niger in government openness. This is particularly disgraceful given that Canada was at one time among the world’s leaders in government openness.
I, for one, am appalled by this statistic, but unfortunately know firsthand why it is invariably and absolutely true.
Canada’s Access to Information Act took force on 1 July 1983, and allows those interested to pay $5 per request to access a variety of records in federal files – from correspondence and reports to briefing notes and hospitality receipts. Departments and agencies are supposed to respond to requests within 30 days, but often take large extensions of up to half a year or much (much) more. Often little information – if any – is released even after a lengthy wait.
I began my journey through Access to Information over a year ago and have been battling several different federal agencies (DND, DFAIT, and Library and Archives Canada) to gain access to documents pertaining to my research. Unfortunately, the journey has been difficult and I have been resisted at every turn. I continue to have my requests rejected or returned full of blank pages (the information having been redacted), but most of the responses I receive are extension notifications of “up to 500 days” from the date of receipt to respond to my requests.
Now, besides the fact that listing these extension notifications in days as opposed to the nearly TWO YEARS that they actually represent is slightly insulting, I happen to know for a fact that the documents I wish to view are of an entirely bureaucratic nature and have absolutely nothing to do with operational security. It should really not be a problem to allow me access to these documents. And in case you think I’m wrong or am being overly sensitive, I would like to point out that I am not the only person facing these challenges – I know several researchers who have been refused, asked to provide exorbitant amounts of extra money for the information they request, or are given ridiculous extensions, one of up to FIVE years.
Recently I made several official complaints to Canada’s Information Commissioner regarding these extensions and rejections – the legal recourse available to all requesters of Canadian government documents. Yesterday I received notice that “having sat with the agent dealing with several of your requests for a couple of hours, we have determined that there is already over 1600 pages of documents we can make available to you by 30 November 2012. He will no longer be requiring the 500 days initially given for replying to your request.” … apparently when you put your mind to it… and throw in a little effort… 500 days can become two hours… just saying.
While I am ecstatic that some of my documents will soon be arriving, it is upsetting to me that the system our government has established to ensure openness and accountability is failing. Miserably. And I am not the only one appalled by this. Toby Mendel, president of the Centre for Law and Democracy – the group responsible for ranking the effectiveness of access to information laws worldwide – recently spoke with officials devising an access law for Morocco. They asked him what the Canadian government had proposed in the area of access reform as part of the global Open Government Partnership initiative. Mendel told them that Canada had suggested allowing access requesters to apply electronically, dispensing with the current cumbersome practice of a paper application form and a $5 cheque or money order.
“Literally, I could see their jaws dropping,” Mendel said in an interview. “Because it was incomprehensible to them that a country like Canada would not already have electronic requesting possibility.”
Recently, simple improvements, such as allowing for electronic applications to replace the current cumbersome paper form and online access to previously requested documents, have been proposed by the Harper administration, but they have yet to be implemented as they have been in other places. It remains to be seen whether our current government will succeed in making changes to this flawed system. Despite posturing to the contrary, a succession of Canadian administrations has failed to upgrade the access act since its inception.
It is understandable, perhaps, that governments are reluctant to open their doors to requests for information that might compromise them, but it is unacceptable that so much information that Canadians have a right to know is being systematically kept out of sight.
The moral of this story: if you are going to have need for Canadian government documents through the access to information process, start early. It may take a while. And if you encounter resistance, complain. Write a letter to the Information Commissioner regarding the process and your experience. Not only may you have your wait time cut from 500 days to ONE, but the more voices of discontent our government receives, the more likely it will be that change may one day actually occur.