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Push or Pull: Liberating Government Information

Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Barney Danson Theatre, Canadian War Museum
10:00 a.m. − noon

Introductory Remarks
Suzanne Legault
Information Commissioner of Canada

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  • Good morning. It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to this second day of seminal discussions organized as part of Canada’s fifth Right to Know Week. Welcome to everyone here in Ottawa, and to those of you who are joining us through the Web. I also wish to convey our most sincere appreciation to our panellists, who have generously accepted to share with us their time and expertise. They bring in an impressive body of knowledge and a variety of perspectives on open government.

  • As Canada’s Information Commissioner, I have been looking forward to this week’s events since last June when Parliament bestowed upon me this honour and privilege. During the last few months, I have reflected on the tasks at hand. In consultation with key stakeholders, I have defined how I and my Office can best serve the right to know of Canadians, including the right to a timely access to government information.

  • Candidly, I must say I feel humbled by the responsibility that this entails and the work that needs to be done. But I am also excited about the opportunities we have to make significant leaps forward through concerted collaborative action for the benefits of Canadians. Today’s discussions will allow me to share some of these thoughts with you.

  • As an example of successful collaboration, one only needs to look at the increasing number of activities that are taking place this week throughout the country. They range from seminars and public discussions to skills testing competitions and “Access Networking Socials.” They all serve to raise awareness of the public’s right of access to government information and to foster an understanding of the impact of technology. A first this year: provincial and territorial information commissioners and I have been engaging directly with Canadians through online chat sessions.

  • Our times−and technology, in particular−present us with an exciting opportunity to redefine the social contract between government and citizens. Every day we learn of new and exciting applications in every jurisdiction that are having a profound impact on how governments can more proactively deliver information. An increasing number of countries are embracing the concept of open government. The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have been at the forefront of this movement. These countries have recognized the potential of open government to stimulate participation, innovation and socioeconomic growth.

  • In 1983, Canada was the eighth country to adopt a law providing a right of access to government information. In over a quarter century, this legislation has never been revised to keep pace with more progressive standards at home and abroad. It still reflects a reactive and paper-based mode of disclosure that is at odds with today’s electronic environment.

  • In the late 1990s, the objective of government policy was to become “known around the world as the government most connected to its citizens” through the Government Online initiative. Today, Web 2.0 is changing the way organizations collaborate and share information internally. Some departments already provide open access to some of their data. On a more modest scale, some interact directly with the public using social media.

  • I am pleased to note that in August, at a presentation in Mexico, our federal Chief Information Officer enumerated a Government of Canada Open Data Five Point Plan. The plan refers to:

    • Building a public facing GC Data Portal;

    • Increasing access to federal data;

    • Exploring policy regarding open data and web practices;

    • Improving the GC Data Portal; and

    • Developing a long term open data strategy and milestones.

  • But our government must strive to keep pace with technology. It must regain its leadership role by modernizing our access legislation. It must also embrace collaborative technologies and transition to a participatory style of government. This is critical to remain responsive to citizens’ needs and expectations. Working to restore a leading access to information regime will be one of my primary goals as Information Commissioner.

  • On September 1st, I invited my provincial and territorial counterparts to join forces in adopting a resolution endorsing and promoting the principles of open government. The resolution urges governments to enhance transparency and accountability and to demonstrate their commitment to a culture of openness. Among other things, it calls on governments to consult with the public on an ongoing basis to identify high-value data sources to disclose in open, accessible and reusable formats, at little or no charge. This of course, with due consideration given to privacy, confidentiality, security and copyright issues.

  • While covering last week’s plenary session of the UN General Assembly, David Akin−a well known proponent of access to information−instantly tweeted a quote from Peru’s President Perez, stating that “Information is the fundamental energy moving the economy and political change.” For this very same reason, when information is delayed, then it loses its relevance and usefulness, and the source becomes less accountable.

  • This is the fundamental reason behind my Office’s renewed goal and efforts to ensure compliance with access legislation through efficient, fair and confidential investigations into complaints and issues. I am committed to providing the leadership, and mustering the level of professional excellence and expertise that will effectively contribute to the modernization of our access regime. This will serve to reverse the declining trends in timely government disclosure of information.

  • On this path, our success will be proportional to the engagement and combined synergies of all stakeholders. I am proud to launch this year, on behalf of all my colleague Commissioners across the country, an annual award named after both the late Information Commissioner John Grace and Monsieur Marcel Pépin, founding president of the Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec. The Grace-Pépin Award will be given annually as part of Right to Know Week. It will acknowledge exceptional contributions to promoting and supporting the principles of transparency, accountability and the right to access government information.

  • We are honoured to have among us today Ms. Ruth Grace, four of their children−Elizabeth Grace-Tremblay, Christopher Grace, John Grace and Ellen Grace-Meredith−as well as Mr. Grace’s sister, Diana Lebrun.

  • Mr. Pépin’s relatives are also honouring us with their presence: his wife, Mrs. Denise Amyot, their son Jean-François as well as his sister, Mrs. Ghislaine Pépin-Moranger.

  • Thank you for being here, as we commemorate these two great men who have significantly contributed to developing and promoting access to information in Canada. The award that we are launching today will allow future generations to celebrate their dedication and impassioned defence of one of our most fundamental democratic rights.

  • In closing, a word about the power of influence through collaboration. I read recently that great ideas−like our goals of openness and transparency−require passionate stewardship, stakeholder buy-in and solid execution to move mountains and inspire thousands. These are the conditions that I intend to nurture over my seven-year mandate to achieve greater transparency in the public interest.

  • For now, let me introduce you to our moderator for this morning’s panel, John Weigelt. As the National Technology Officer for Microsoft Canada, John is responsible for driving the company’s strategic policy and technology efforts. He is the lead public advocate for the use of technology by the private and public sectors.