Information Commissioner’s appearance before the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates

February 21, 2024
Ottawa, ON

(Check against delivery)

Thank you for inviting me to speak to this committee today.

It has been three years since my last appearance, but I expect that many of the things that you will hear me say today will be very much in line with what I said in previous appearances.

That’s because from the very start of the pandemic, my message has been the same.

In April of 2020, as government institutions came to grips with the impacts of remote work, I issued a very clear warning: The extraordinary circumstances we found ourselves in had not suspended the right of access to information, a quasi-constitutional right. Nor did they absolve institutions of the duty to document, which is a foundational principle that underpins this right and is at the heart of government transparency. 

After all, as I noted in my January 2021 submission to the Government’s review of access to information, the right of access is contingent on two factors: One, institutions’ properly documenting their key actions and decisions, and two: the retention of these records. 

Simply put, the right to access government records depends on those records actually existing.

In those early days of the pandemic, I spelled out the requirements of this duty in practical terms. Heads of institutions needed to ensure that their officials generated, captured and kept track of records documenting decisions and actions. These records also needed to be properly managed at all times. I called upon leaders to set the example by providing clear direction and updating guidance on how information was to be managed in the new operating environment.

Because I foresaw the grave consequences that could arise from a failure to do so, I also offered a prediction for the future. In a statement published in April 2020, I said: ‘’When the time comes for a full accounting of the measures taken and the vast financial resources committed by the government during this emergency, Canadians will expect a comprehensive picture of the data, deliberations and policy decisions that determined the Government’s overall response to COVID-19’’. 

In the months that followed, I continued to insist on the importance of carefully documenting decisions and actions and to efficiently manage information. In fact, you can find such references in my opening remarks for my previous appearances before this committee. I then explained how challenges faced by public servants in managing information, capturing it and storing it in government repositories were creating barriers to transparency and eroding government’s accountability to Canadians.

With all this in mind, you can understand that I was dismayed by the release of the Auditor General’s Report detailing that the Canada Border Services Agency’s documentation, financial records, and controls were so poor that she was unable to determine the precise cost of the ArriveCAN application.

I reject any suggestion that in hindsight, a failure of this nature was justifiable or even understandable given the circumstance brought about by the pandemic. I also take issue with the notion that this type of outcome could not have been foreseen. 

As I have demonstrated, I was acutely aware of the possibility that this type of scenario could happen, and had been consistently and repeatedly issuing warnings to our leaders to take the necessary steps to avoid it, practically from day one.

In closing, I would like to remind you that my mandate is very specific: I investigate complaints about the processing of access requests by government institutions. I can confirm that the Office of the Information Commissioner has received complaints about requests related to various contracts awarded by institutions during the pandemic.

As my investigations must be carried out in a confidential manner, I will not be able to comment further on them. Nonetheless, I will be pleased to answer your questions.

Thank you.

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