January 12, 2018 10:28 am

COMMENTARY: RCMP’s job is to enforce the law, but it’s falling short on access to information laws

The RCMP has yet to fulfill an access to information request Andrew Lawton filed last October, and he wants to know why Canada's largest police service is dragging its heels.

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Canada’s largest police service has yet to fulfill an access to information request I filed last year — and no one from its information and privacy department is responding to explain why.

Last October, I filed a routine document request with the RCMP to better understand the scope of a story I had started following earlier in the fall.

The access to information office for the RCMP sent me a notice acknowledging it received my request on Oct. 17. But since then, nothing.

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These requests under the Access to Information Act — ATIPs, for short — can no doubt be a thorn in the side of bureaucrats. Many of them require time and effort to fill, and some contain damning information. Such is the price one pays for transparency.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals campaigned, in part, on a pledge to improve access to information laws, which hadn’t been updated in more than three decades. One change, which I greatly supported, was the elimination of processing fees (which could sometimes run hundreds of dollars) beyond the $5 application charge.

What didn’t change is the requirement for government departments — including the RCMP — to supply either the requested documents, or an extension notice, within 30 days.

READ MORE: Access to information bill a step backwards, not forward: watchdog

In my case, a month came and went with neither provided. In fact, in the 86 days since acknowledging receipt of my ATIP, I’ve had no communication whatsoever from the RCMP’s information department on the substance of my requests.

Nothing. Egregiously, the two inquiries I sent about my file to the RCMP’s information office have yet to be fulfilled.

If they’re hoping I’ll forget about it and move on, I won’t.

READ MORE: Liberal transparency bill isn’t as transparent as promised: opposition

It’s understandable that in a large organization, some things will fall through the cracks. But my experience isn’t an outlier, nor is it representative of a new problem for the RCMP — an agency well known for being cagey with the press.

In 2013, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault rebuked the police department for not responding to information access requests.

“This past year at some point, they just completely stopped responding,” Legault said of the RCMP. “Requesters were complaining to my office, but we didn’t even have any response from the institution.”

I did file a formal complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner earlier this month, but it sounds as though I shouldn’t be optimistic.

When Legault’s scathing report was published, an RCMP spokesperson said the force was “diligently working towards increasing our efficiency.”

We’re now four and a half years later, and it appears the RCMP has little to show for its purported efforts.

WATCH BELOW: RCMP still working through FOI backlog: Information Commissioner

In 2016, the RCMP came under fire after admitting an employee fabricated the date of an access to information response to avoid being penalized for the delay.

It shouldn’t have come as any surprise to the RCMP that, this past November, it was awarded the “Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy” by a group of journalism organizations. This came on the heels of a News Media Canada report finding the RCMP responded to zero out of five requests in a cross-government freedom of information audit the group conducted.

That report concluded that access to information has worsened under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, despite his campaign promise and subsequent legislation.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees the RCMP, told me the government “is committed to maintaining the integrity of the (Access to Information Act) process and does not interfere in the processing of requests.”

He pointed to the government’s improvements to information access such as giving the Information Commissioner order-making power, putting ministerial and Prime Minister’s Office staff inside the Access to Information Act, and reviewing the legislation every five years.

These are good steps, for sure. But they’re irrelevant when a government department doesn’t appear to be complying with the law.

READ MORE: Trudeau government proposes expanding information czar’s powers

I asked the RCMP’s media relations office for comment, and was told the information office “offers its apologies for not communicating with you in a timely fashion to update you on the progress of your request.”

I didn’t want an apology though. I wanted — and still want — what they’re legally obligated to provide.

Instead, the RCMP spokesperson said “a number of factors” — including volume of requests, complexity of police records, and shortage of ATIP analysts — prevent the RCMP from meeting the statutory 30-day timeline of requests.

“As this matter is now before the Office of the Information Commissioner, we anticipate there will be opportunities to clarify the circumstances of your particular case through the investigative process,” a statement said. “The RCMP is working diligently to meet its responsibilities under the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act and to be transparent with Canadians with respect to our work or activities which may impact the privacy of Canadians.”

These concerns may have merit, but they don’t excuse the department’s apparent inability to improve its processes over the last five years. They also don’t justify non-responses to inquiries about delays.

This is government secrecy and non-transparency from a department that should be among the most forthright.

I doubt the RCMP would respond well to civilians ignoring subpoenas and warrants, so it’s unacceptable that it chooses to ignore its legal obligations when it comes to government transparency.

If we can’t trust the enforcers of the law to follow the law, who can we trust?

Andrew Lawton is host of The Andrew Lawton Show on AM980 in London and a commentator for Global News.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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