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Access to information

July 07, 2012

EVEN though Canada’s Access to Information Act is almost 30 years old, getting information out of the federal government is still too much akin to pulling teeth. A groundbreaking project to rank the effectiveness of access-to-information laws worldwide placed Canada a shameful 51st among the 89 countries with an access regime in place….

The current Conservative government has been routinely pilloried by critics for being tight-fisted with information that is in the public interest…. But in fairness it should be noted … that the previous Liberal administration behaved similarly ... In the recent global access-to-information ranking, Canada placed behind such countries as Angola, Colombia and Niger. This is particularly shameful given that this country was at one time among the world’s leaders in government openness. Its Access to Information Act, which took force on July 1, 1983, allowed citizens to request a variety of records from the government … for a $5 fee.

Canada has dropped far down in the access ranking because other countries have made substantial progress since then. This country has failed to keep pace … The report points out that federal departments and agencies are supposed to respond to information requests within 30 days, but says they often take six months or more, and often little information is released even after a lengthy wait. Other complaints against the Canadian system are the imposition of extra access fees, lack of a proper public-interest override in instances where the government is reluctant to release information, and blanket exemptions for certain political offices. All of these, the report notes, contravene current international standards.

Despite posturing to the contrary, a succession of Canadian administrations has failed to upgrade the access act since its inception. A simple improvement, such as allowing for electronic applications to replace the current cumbersome paper form, was long ago proposed but has not been implemented as it has been in other places. It is perhaps understandable that governments are reluctant to open doors to requests for information that might compromise them. But it is unacceptable that so much information that Canadians have a right to know is being systematically withheld.—(July 5)