The good news is the Liberals know exactly what they need to do to fix Canada’s beleaguered access-to-information system.
The question for 2022 is: will they do it?
After more than a year of public consultations, the government released a detailed report on the flaws and frustrations surrounding Canada’s nearly four-decades-old Access to Information laws.
The system, created in 1983 under Pierre Trudeau, allows any Canadian to send a request for unreleased government documents – memos, reports, emails, data – for a $5 fee. In theory, the request is supposed to be fulfilled within 30 days.
In practice, the system is plagued by delays – with some requests taking years to complete – and the information released is often liberally censored. This isn’t just an inconvenience for researchers and reporters; with unprecedented billions flowing from federal coffers and new, social fabric-altering programs like national child care, the federal government holds crucial information that could help inform important public debates and decisions.
And the problems that have long plagued the system have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even before the pandemic … chronic under-resourcing had created backlogs in both access requests and complaints that had grown year after year,” Caroline Maynard, the federal information watchdog, warned the Liberals in April 2020.
Maynard said the system could soon be “beyond repair” without government action.
“Transparency in government is crucial to maintaining trust between citizens and their government.… Failure to take action on (this front) could have serious consequences.”
Months after Maynard’s warning, then-Treasury Board president Jean-Yves Duclos launched a review of the system. On Dec. 23, the government released an interim report on what that review found.
The Liberals were told that government should proactively release more information regularly, rather than regularly defaulting to secrecy. The access regime should be expanded to include the Prime Minister’s Office – where many of the decisions facing the Liberal government are made – and ministers’ offices. The government shouldn’t censor information so liberally, and should commit more resources to making sure access-to-information offices are fully staffed and fully trained.
If that sounds familiar, a lot of it was promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau before he won his majority government in 2015.
“We committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in Ottawa,” Trudeau wrote in an open letter to Canadians in November 2015.
“Government and its information must be open by default. Simply put, it is time to shine more light on government to make sure it remains focused on the people it was created to serve – you.”
Six years later, the review makes clear the Liberals have considerable work to go on that goal.
Isabella Brisson, a spokesperson for Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, said the government remains committed to a “full” review of the access-to-information system.
“We want to do this right. We will take the time needed to meet this commitment and we will continue to be transparent about the process,” Brisson wrote in a statement to Global News.
Brisson also pointed to some progress the government has made, including moving access requests to an online portal, rather than the pen-and-paper system that’s been in place since the 1980s; training hundreds of public servants on proactively releasing information; and committing $12.8 million in the previous budget to boost online access and review the system.
“We will continue to closely track and report on these actions on an ongoing basis,” Brisson wrote.
The Liberals are expected to produce a final report on their review of the access-to-information system in 2022. Brisson did not say whether the government would follow the final report with legislative changes or commit more resources to the system.