OTTAWA – Canada’s national police force is violating the rights of some Canadians trying to access RCMP documents, according to the country’s information watchdog.
Access to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault says over the past months her office began receiving complaints from individuals saying they were not hearing back from the RCMP after filing access to information 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.”
The commissioner plans to reveal details about this in her next annual report, scheduled for release Sept. 16.
In an email, an RCMP spokesman said they are actively working to respond to all submitted requests, which have been increasing in volume and complexity. Sgt. Greg Cox maintained the force is “diligently working towards increasing our efficiency.”
Legault said she has witnessed a slow corrosion of the access system, especially over the past four months.
Her grim viewpoint is based primarily on the complaints her office receives and analyzes.
“What I’ve seen last year was really the clear signs of deterioration across the system,” she recently told Global News. “Since the beginning of this fiscal year (April 1), there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of complaints.”
In one week this month, 80 complaints landed on Legault’s desk – a rate she says she hasn’t witnessed in the four years she’s held the post.
While Legault looks to the flow of complaints as one indicator of the state of affairs for access to information, what she’s seen with the national police force is unprecedented, she said.
“There’s actually an institution that’s completely stopped responding. Just stopped responding to requesters,” she said. “And this is not a small institution. It’s a big institution that gets a lot of requests and that has been performing somewhat steadily over the years.”
This, she said, is failing to respect the most basic obligations of the access to information laws.
Canada’s access laws give all Canadians the right to access records the government holds, subject to certain exemptions; the laws have been described as essential to democratic accountability.
Despite those certain exemptions, federal institutions are legally obliged to acknowledge receipt of the request and confirm it will be processed and responded to within 30 days.
The act permits for extensions beyond the initial 30 days, within reason. Any requester who feels their rights under the act have not been honoured can complain to Legault’s office, which can take departments to court, but doesn’t have the power to compel any action.
The RCMP, however, hasn’t even been completing the first step of the process, neglecting to send receipts of acknowledgement, Legault said.
RCMP spokesman Cox said the RCMP have not stopped responding to requests.
“The RCMP is fully committed to meeting our obligations under the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act. All requests are taken seriously and dealt with in a professional manner,” he said.
The RCMP approved increased funding and staffing levels for the access to information branch this past March, Cox said, but not all positions have been filled.
Still, a lack of capacity isn’t an excuse for halting response to requesters, says Garry Clement, a former RCMP superintendent with 30 years experience in the force.
“The act is pretty explicit,” he said. “I think we’re in an era where there is going to be more and more requests, and that’s going to be the nature of what governments are going to have to contend with.”
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said the news is disturbing and troubling.
“This has been defined by the Supreme Court as a quasi-Constitutional right. It’s the law of the land,” he said.
“And for the RCMP to decide they don’t have to follow the law of the land, what message is that sending to other government organizations or to the government itself?”
Former RCMP superintendent Clement agrees, noting that when he was a section head at the RCMP, the access to information branch was robust and “went out of their way” to meet requests.
“It’s legislation … We have a requirement to meet the act,” he said. “And as a law enforcement agency, I believe we have to set the standard and perhaps even a higher standard than other agencies, because our mandate is to uphold the law. We should lead by example.”