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Canada’s access to information system not up to par

by Keith Race October 29, 2013
Canada’s access to information system not up to par

This October, Canada’s Information Commissioner released a critical report of the country’s access to information system, stating that there is significant deterioration in the federal access system and institutions are failing to meet their most basic obligations.

There was a nine per cent increase in complaints lodged against institutions who failed to properly address Access to Information (ATI) requests compared to the year before, bringing the number of new complaints to 1,596.

Complaints responded to in the 2012-2013 year were down 12 per cent, however the average turnaround time for closing an ATI request complaint is 380 days.

The report catalogued almost two dozen instances of what it characterized in a subheading as an “All-round failure to meet the duty to assist.”

National Defence took a 1,100-day extension on a request for information about the sale of surplus military assets to Uruguay. Broken down, that’s a total of two years, one week and one day for the institution to fulfill its legal obligation to the public.

The extension included 230 days to process approximately 3,000 pages, and 880 days to consult other government institutions.

In the commissioner’s investigation, it was discovered that intergovernmental consultations would only take approximately 160 days; well short of the 880 days claimed necessary. The investigation found that National Defence could not justify the extension, and its actions were determined to be wholly unreasonable and invalid.

Transport Canada took a 540-day time extension on a request which they made zero effort to pursue for almost a year. Its claims that the request constituted a large volume of records and that it would unreasonably interfere with operations was determined to be invalid by the commissioner.

In attempting to resolve Transport Canada’s outstanding information request, the commissioner appealed directly to the Transport Minister to obtain a response within the legislated due date after standard avenues failed.

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) disposed of documents requested in an active information request. The institution refused an information request citing the obligation to withhold documents under the mandatory exemption for personal information.

The CSC was determined to be guilty of irremediable harm to the rights of a requester as delineated in the Access to Information Act. The documents were never actually retrieved or analyzed before the refusal, as the law requires, and were disposed of during the commissioner’s investigation.

Criticisms included in the report questioned if the access to information process was meeting the intent of the program.

The Information Commissioner has pledged to issue reform proposals to parliament in 2013 in hopes of resolving the litany of failings plaguing the access to information system.

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