Remarks by the Information Commissioner of Canada

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy And Ethics

Briefing with the Information, Privacy, Lobbying, and Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioners

February 23, 2016

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Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to assist the Committee in setting its priorities for this session.

The Access to Information Act provides Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and individuals and corporations who are present in Canada with the right to access government information, subject to certain limitations.

The Information Commissioner conducts confidential investigations into complaints about institutions’ handling of access to information requests.

The Supreme Court of Canada has held that the purpose of access legislation is to facilitate democracy by helping ensure that citizens have the information they need to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the citizenry.

The Access to Information Act is over 30 years old. Over the Act’s three decades of existence, technology, the administration of government and Canadian society have been transformed in many regards. And yet, despite these changes, the Act remains largely in its original form.

When the Act became law, information was mostly paper-based. Now, virtually all information is in electronic or digital form. The sheer volume of electronic data and the speed and methods of transmission have challenged government’s ability to collect, store, manage and share information with the public.

As stated in the Speech from the Throne, the government is committed to be open and transparent. A government that builds and fosters trust that Canadians have in public institutions. A key component of an effective and open government is a modern access to information law that maximizes timely disclosure of government information in electronic and non-static formats. This influx of information to the public increases accountability and facilitates collaboration between government and the citizenry about how best to deliver programs and services.

Mr. Chair, I am cognisant of the fact that the government and this committee have much work to accomplish. In this context, a clear focus on results will be a key to success. With this in mind, my recommendation to the committee is to give priority to the modernization of the Access to Information Act.

This priority is consistent with the Speech from the Throne and the Prime Minister’s mandate letters to the President of the Treasury Board, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Democratic Institutions.

You have before you my Special Report entitled “Striking the Right Balance for Transparency” tabled in Parliament last year. The report contains a comprehensive set of recommendations to modernize the Act to deal with the current realities and expectations of Canadians. These include: 

  • extending coverage;
  • increasing timeliness;
  • maximizing disclosure in line with a culture of openness by default;
  • strengthening oversight; and
  • adding consequences for non-compliance.

In formulating the recommendations contained in the report, I have looked at international, provincial and territorial legislation, annual reports and model laws; I have reviewed all reform proposals made by former commissioners and all studies of the Act. The recommendations are also based on my own experience, after completing over 10,000 cases during my mandate. The report could be a starting point for your review of the Act.

In closing, I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to present what I strongly believe should be the committee’s priority in relation to openness and transparency. Please be assured of my commitment to assist the committee as it moves forward on its agenda.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.