Message from the Commissioner

Suzanne Legault

This time last year, I sounded a note of mild optimism in my annual report. For the first time in a decade, federal institutions were providing more timely responses to access to information requests—a slight but perceptible improvement.

That progress was short-lived, however. As I release my latest annual report, there are unmistakable signs of significant deterioration in the federal access system. In fact, I saw numerous instances over the year of institutions’ failing to meet their most basic obligations under the Access to Information Act.

One organization was so understaffed it could not acknowledge access requests until months after receiving them, and even then could not say when it would be able to provide a response. Another took an extension of more than three years for responding to an access request. Others failed to live up to commitment dates my office had negotiated for providing records to requesters on files that were already considerably overdue. Still others did not retrieve and analyze records before telling requesters they could not have access to them.

A common refrain was that budgetary restraint is having a direct and adverse impact on the service institutions provide requesters.

Developments such as these have led to a significant increase in the number of complaints to my office. Complaints were up by nine percent in 2012–2013 and jumped by a staggering 50 percent in the first quarter of the new year alone. More troublesome, administrative complaints—clear indicators of basic failings on the part of institutions—are climbing, reversing a three-year downward trend.

My office also continues to deal with the ramifications of new institution-specific exemptions that became part of access law under the Federal Accountability Act. In addition, investigations were hampered by the disappearance or amalgamation of institutions, without there being any clear guidance on how or where their records were to be dispersed or preserved.

All together, these circumstances tell me in no uncertain terms that the integrity of the federal access to information program is at serious risk.

Statistics show that Canadians are increasingly demanding accountability from their government by filing more and more access requests each year. Consequently, it is imperative that the problems in the system be fixed, and fixed promptly and substantively. “It is not enough that we do our best,” as Winston Churchill noted. “Sometimes we have to do what is required.”

What is required is leadership, most notably on the part of the government and the individual institutions that respond to access requests.

Ministers and officials at the highest levels must regularly and vigorously promote the intent and spirit of the Access to Information Act, to foster a culture of openness in their organizations and to communicate the importance of meeting their obligations under the law.

To be truly effective, however, leadership must translate into concrete action.

The present circumstances demand the allocation of sufficient resources for the access function at institutions and adequate parliamentary appropriations for my office to carry out its investigative work.

The legislation that guides access to information at the federal level must be modernized to reflect technological and legislative advances that have taken place since the Act was drafted 30 years ago. Administrative fixes, while suitable for addressing some concerns, are insufficient to effectively deal with the pressing problems in the legislation. Countless calls for reform have gone unheeded by successive governments. That track record of inaction must cease, given the perilous state of the access system.

There is also a role for Canadians to play. They must speak out about the need for a properly functioning access system and their quasi-constitutional right to information about the decisions the government is making on their behalf.

At this juncture, it is my view that the government has no choice but to listen to those demands. The Access to Information Act is the law of the land. Respecting it is the government’s legal obligation.

Moreover, access to information is fundamental to Canada’s system of government, a key tool that facilitates citizen engagement with the public policy process. When the access system falters, not only is Canadians’ participation in government thwarted but ultimately, the health of Canadian democracy is at stake.