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Appearances before Parliamentary Committees

Year


Appearance before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on the Modernization of the Access to Information Act

Ottawa

[2009-5-28]

[Check against Delivery]

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for inviting me to address you once again on the issue of the Access to Information Act reform. With me today are Suzanne Legault, Assistant Commissioner, Policy, Communications and Operations, and Andrea Neill, Assistant Commissioner, Complaints Resolution and Compliance.

Since my appearance before you in March to discuss the modernization of the Act, you have heard the views of a number of witnesses – access to information users and experts, representatives of interest groups and civil society as well as my provincial counterparts and the Minister of Justice and his representatives. I found their testimony both interesting and useful. For your convenience, I have prepared and circulated a table with the views of the witnesses on my twelve (12) recommendations. This table has not been vetted by the witnesses and relies on our interpretation of their position.

I will not comment on the remarks made by individual witnesses but rather, I will address one point that requires clarification.

During his appearance before this Committee last month, the Honourable Minister of Justice stated in very strong words that the Act, in its current form, is a strong piece of legislation that equals any first-rate access to information legislation around the world.

Although I agree, Mr. Chairman, that Canada “blazed the trail in the early 80s” with the passage of the Access to Information Act, I do not agree, with all due respect, that Canada continues to be at the forefront today.

To use a figure of speech, the federal Access to Information Act is, if you wish, the grandmother of access to information laws. She created a steady system based on sound values and established a number of governing rules to assist in the release of information. However, she is also tenacious. Despite advice to keep up with the times, she has failed to adapt to an ever-changing environment and remains anchored in a static, paper-based world. She has weakened and slowed-down over time because she has not followed a rigorous exercise regimen.

The reality is that Canada’s regime has not aged well. It lags behind the next generation of laws. These laws include features such as:

  • universal access;
  • a wide coverage of public institutions;
  • tight timelines for processing requests; and
  • a strong oversight body with:
    • binding powers to order the release of information;
    • a public education mandate; and
    • access to cabinet records for review.

The next generation of laws also make use of modern technologies to proactively disseminate information.

These international standards are enshrined in the Right to Know Principles drafted by Article XIX (a human rights organization) and endorsed by the United Nations and the Organization of American States as well as the Atlanta Declaration for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information spearheaded by the Carter Center in the United States.

My twelve (12) recommendations represent an important first step in improving the functioning of the access to information regime and in catching-up to more progressive regimes both nationally and internationally. The list is by no means complete. The recommendations only tackle the most pressing matters.

Mr. Chairman, before I conclude my presentation, I would like to follow-up on my last appearance regarding the 2009-2010 Main Estimates. I indicated at that time that the planned spending did not reflect additional funds requested and included in Supplementary Estimates (A), which were tabled the day following my appearance.

I will not go into more details about this issue today for two reasons. First, I would like to focus today’s discussion on the modernization of the Act. Second, I understand that this Committee has asked me to appear before it next week to address the specific issue of funding for my Office. I will therefore reserve my comments for that appearance.

Once again, thank you Mr. Chairman for inviting me to talk about the reform of the Access to Information Act. We would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

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