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Right to Know Week 2010

Accessing Democracy

Thursday, September 30, 2010
Carleton University Senate Room,

Robertson Hall, 1125 Colonel By Drive
10:00 a.m. to noon 

Introductory Remarks
Suzanne Legault
Information Commissioner of Canada

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  • Thank you, Dean ApSimon, for your kind words of introduction. This is an unusual treat for me because today, I get to spend the whole day here at Carleton University with you and with an amazing set of panellists for an event, and a week, that is close to my heart: the Right to Know Week. Today’s presentations reflect how access to information can bring together people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to discuss this fundamental right, as well as the concept of open government.

  • This year marks the 5th Right to Know Week in Canada. For this occasion, Canadians all around the country are organizing activities to raise citizens’ awareness of their right to access government information. Freedom of information activists around the world are also promoting this right and campaigning for more open, democratic societies and citizen engagement.

  • Last June, Parliament conferred upon me the honour of serving this country as Information Commissioner. During the summer months, I spent some time reflecting on the challenges and the opportunities that our fast-evolving environment has created for access to information. I feel both humbled and excited about what this entails for my role and that of my Office. I am grateful for the opportunity to share some of these thoughts with you today.

  • Access to information is a fundamental tenet of our democracies. At the very least, citizens have the right to know what use is being made of their tax dollars. Access to government information fosters good governance, accountability and transparency from public institutions. It informs debates, which in turn contribute to evidence-based decisions and policy development. Stanley Tromp, an international expert on freedom of information, has shown how valuable the Alberta legislation has been in recent years. He summarized 50 news articles on his website, which were derived from access to information requests and which shed light on important public issues.

  • Currently, the way our access to information regime works is fundamentally traditional and reactive. Access is granted only after someone makes a formal request for the information.Yet, in journalism as in science, timely access and timely sharing of information are critical. Any information delayed quickly becomes outdated and loses its relevance. As in business, delayed information means missed opportunities. Information drives our global, knowledge-based economies. Like entrepreneurs, academics and scientists need timely access to our whole range of public sector information if we want to foster a competitive edge for Canada.

  • This is the fundamental reason behind my Office’s renewed goal and efforts to ensure compliance with access legislation through timely and efficient investigations into complaints and issues. In doing so, we are positioning ourselves to become a centre of excellence and expertise in matters of access and transparency for the benefits of all Canadian citizens and organizations.

  • On this note, I would like to refer to a Federal Court decision which was just announced last week. It was a ground-breaking case involving the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Information Commissioner. In September 2007, the CBC was made subject to the access legislation, with the exception of certain information relating to, according to section 68.1, “journalistic, creative or programming activities.” In the following two years, the CBC received numerous access requests, several of which were denied under s.68.1. As a result, 16 complaints were filed and investigated by my Office, during which we asked the CBC to produce the responsive records. CBC refused and initiated a legal proceeding with the Federal Court. It challenged the Commissioner’s authority to summon records excluded under s.68.1 and, de facto, halted our investigations. In the end, the Court ruled in our favour, confirming the importance of my role as the first level of review to protect the rights of information requesters and complainants.

  • Today, technology affords public institutions the opportunity to do much more than “reactive transparency.” And young citizens like yourselves expect far more than being passive recipients of information. Every day we learn about new initiatives that transform data into useful applications. These initiatives range from a website that tells you how your Member of Parliament has voted on specific issues, to IPhone Apps that show you where the traffic on the Queensway is. Technology developments and creative communities are putting increasing pressure on our government to become more forthcoming with information. This makes perfect business sense. Increasing access to public data can fuel unforeseen economic and social benefits. After all, government data is a public asset to be leveraged by citizens, businesses, and communities, including the academic and research community.

  • This is why on September 1st, I invited my provincial and territorial counterparts to join forces in adopting an Open Government resolution. This resolution urges all levels of government across Canada to commit to greater disclosure of public information. Among other things, it calls for ongoing consultations with the public to identify high-value data and disclose them 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.

  • In 1983, Canada was the eighth country in the world 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 very much 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 we can collaborate and share information. Yet, only a modest number of departments already provide open access to some of their data, or interact directly with the public using social media.

  • Our government must strive to keep pace with technology. It must regain its leadership role by modernizing our access legislation. Working to restore a leading access to information regime will be one of my primary goals as Information Commissioner. 

  • Public institutions must also embrace collaborative technologies and transition to a participatory style of government. This is critical to remain responsive to citizens’ needs and expectations. It is also crucial to harness the refreshing ideas and energy that members of your generation have to offer. I made the experience myself on Monday, while hosting the inaugural chat session on the Right to Know collaborative website.

  • Your generation has experienced unprecedented access to literature and culture. You are now equipped with cutting-edge communications technology. I can’t help but think: this is the generation that will redefine yet again the information age. You have the right to demand easy and broad access to government information. Because government information is your information. It belongs to you.

  • But this right comes with a hefty responsibility, particularly for those in journalism and communications. The WikiLeaks phenomenon of Internet disclosures, in particular, has highlighted the increasing requirements for accountability that come with freedom of expression in the electronic age. [As public sector management scholar David Zussman argues in the September issue of the Canadian Government Executive] In addition, the proliferation of new media has allowed many new players to provide alternative sources of information and interpretation. At times, this new reality has led to a decline in the quality of media reporting, due to competitive pressures. Yet this has a profound impact on the way in which Canadians learn about their world. Therefore, those in the industry have the responsibility to “ensure that quality standards apply to all of those who try to influence public opinion”—including bloggers and alternative voices.

  • Achieving a leading access to information regime is a collective undertaking. As information commissioner, one of my objectives is to tap into stakeholders’ experience and expertise—such as yours—mobilize everyone and create synergies. Yesterday, to celebrate such engagement, I launched the Grace-Pépin Award on behalf of all my colleague commissioners across the country. This award will be given annually as part of the 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. Maybe one of you will earn that honour in the years to come…For now, I hope you will all share in my vision and join me on our common path to greater transparency, innovation and participatory democracy.

  • In closing, I wish to convey my most sincere appreciation to Professor Kazmierski, for organizing this conference and for being such a great advocate of government transparency.

  • I hope you have great success in your deliberations and I look forward to hearing your views and ideas throughout the day.