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Canada: The Perfect Case Study

Abstract of a presentation by

Suzanne Legault, Interim Information Commissioner of Canada

Panel 2—Specialized Institute, Ombudsman or Court: What Model to Follow?

“Transparency in the Americas”

October 27, 2009

During the past thirty plus years, Canada has gained extensive experience with various types of oversight models and a great deal of knowledge about what works and what does not work. This experience and knowledge is invaluable in support of a case study to create a new model in response to radical changes brought about principally by information and communications technologies.

Canada comprises fourteen jurisdictions, each subject to their own freedom of information legislation. Nova Scotia was the first province to enact a law in 1977 and the federal act was proclaimed in 1983. The remaining provinces and territories followed suit. Consequently, access to information is served by fourteen Commissioners or Ombudspersons. These regimes exemplify the traditional models of oversight and the many variations of them.

Over time, the merits and deficiencies of these models have been studied in the context of prevailing international principles to determine which one would best foster the principles of openness, transparency and accountability in our governments. However, during this period, the environment has changed dramatically. Advances in information and communications technologies have far outpaced our legislative frameworks. This poses significant challenges to how the legislation is administered, but also offers significant opportunities to disseminate information more effectively to citizens.

The Canadian experience clearly demonstrates that, regardless of which conventional oversight model is adopted, many of the basic principles inherent in providing access to information are not being realized. Reviews of the legislation and investigations consistently identify problems of chronic delays, deficiencies in information management, an insufficient supply of qualified personnel, and often a lack of leadership at senior political and bureaucratic levels.

The time has come to consider new oversight models that reflect the realities of 2009. It is time to develop new approaches to assessing compliance of the public bodies with the principles of freedom of information. It is also time to determine new means of measuring the performance of the oversight bodies themselves.

The new models must be based on the progressive concepts of proactive disclosure, the free flow of information and citizen engagement. They must be designed to affirm the role of Information Commissioners as champions of access and information sharing in support of greater innovation and socioeconomic development.