Parliament’s information commissioner said Canada’s federal police force needs an “urgent … change of course” when it comes to handling requests made to it under the federal Access to Information Act.
In response, the minister in charge of the RCMP, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, issued a “ministerial directive” that the RCMP must respond to the information commissioner’s scathing indictment “in full” within three months.
Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard had launched a special investigation of the RCMP for repeated and systemic violations of the Access to Information Act.
Maynard tabled her report “Access at Issue: The Need for Leadership” in the House of Commons Tuesday. MPs on the House access to information and ethics standing committee will now consider her recommendations.
“The key findings in my special report lead me to conclude the obvious: a change of course in the area of access at the RCMP is urgently needed,” Maynard said in a statement. “If the Minister and senior RCMP leaders fail to act on my findings, the organization will continue to fail at upholding the right of access.”
Maynard’s office found that when it tried to investigate individual complaints made by requesters about the RCMP’s failure to provide information, the RCMP failed to respond to her investigators’ queries.
“I want to stress that the situation in the RCMP is critical and may soon cross the point of no return, unless the organization’s senior leadership takes immediate action,” Maynard said in the report. “It is critically important that the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness (Bill Blair), to whom the RCMP reports, ensure that the necessary resources, processes and tools are available so that the RCMP can begin to meet its obligations under the Act.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would consider Maynard’s recommendations though he did not commit his government to any particular course of action.
“Canadians need to have confidence in their institutions. We need particularly to have confidence in institutions like police forces like the RCMP. One of the best ways to do that is to demonstrate transparency and accountability. We have seen in the past there have been challenges on that,” Trudeau said Tuesday. “We will certainly be looking at how we can ensure that Canadians have full confidence in their national police force.”
In her report, though, Maynard stressed over and over that previous commitments to do better have not been followed up with appropriate action.
For the fiscal year that ended on March 31, 2020, the RCMP received 4,436 requests for information, the third highest number of any government department, and, according to Treasury Board data, had carried over 3,428 requests from 2018-2019.
But by year’s end, the RCMP had only closed 53 per cent of those requests requests, easily the lowest closure rate of any major federal department dealing with more than 1,000 requests in the year. The goverment-wide closure rate by comparison was 83 per cent.
Moreover, another department within Blair’s portfolio, the Canada Border Services Agency, which also handles sensitive files often pertaining to national security, handled more requests — 9,399 — and closed 86 per cent during the year.
Maynard made several recommendations to improve the RCMP’s access-to-information performance and, before publishing her report, she submitted those recommendations to Blair’s office for comment.
But, time and again in her report, Maynard said Blair appeared not to be taking her six recommendations seriously, to wit:
- “The Minister’s response is disappointing … “
- “The Minister of Public Safety has not committed the RCMP to implementing or adopting more innovative digital approaches or investing in digital skills development for staff.”
- “It appears that there is still no targeted plan to channel some of those new resources to its ATIP program.”
- “The RCMP still lacks a comprehensive strategy to address the persistent problems identified by the [information commissioner].””
- “The Minister’s response on tasking is not satisfactory,…”
- “The Minister did not commit the RCMP to implementing an audit capacity to ensure that [standard operating procedures] are implemented consistently across the organization and over time.”
Challenged on those comments, Blair said he was only advised on Sunday of the recommendations that Maynard would make.
“I take our transparency very seriously,” Blair told reporters. “I did not ignore her recommendations.”
Blair has also instructed the RCMP that the plans to change the force’s access-to-information (ATI) performance will have to be validated by Treasury Board officials. The Treasury Board is the central government agency responsible for overall administration of the Access to Information Act government wide even though ministers, like Blair, are responsible to Parliament for their department’s performance under the Act. It is an unusual and rare act for any minister to ask an external agency such as Treasury Board to essentially approve plans to boost performance.
For its part, the RCMP said it is already proceeding to implement some of the information commissioner’s recommendations.
“The RCMP agrees with the recommendation … into how we process requests, and we acknowledge our challenges in fulfilling our obligations under the Access to Information Act,” RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval said an e-mailed statement. “We remain committed to providing Canadians with information in a timely manner.”
Duval said that, among other things, the RCMP has created a new unit to triage request responses and is in the process of buying new software for the ATI unit.
Maynard’s findings come after an internal RCMP audit published earlier this year that found the force’s access to information understaffed and poorly managed. Moreover, the audit team was unable to properly document the force’s failures to fulfill its responsibilities under the Access to Information Act because the force simply was not collecting enough or appropriate information about its own performance.
“The audit team was unable to assess the effectiveness of the initiatives given the lack of evidence-based performance information,” the audit said.
The RCMP said it is working to address some of the audit’s recommendations but that it could take two years to do so.