Update on the state of access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic

Appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates

by Caroline Maynard, Information Commissioner of Canada

February 21, 2021
Ottawa, ON

(Check against delivery)

Thank you for inviting me to meet with you once again to discuss access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In my previous appearance before this committee, I conveyed the message I have consistently reiterated since April of last year: the right of access, a quasi-constitutional right, cannot be suspended because of the pandemic. 

Government transparency is the foundation of a strong democracy and has never been more important than during this crisis.

In the simplest terms, we must collectively strive to produce an access to information system where access requests are processed in a timely manner without interruption, decisions are properly documented, and information is well-managed.

When we last spoke, I outlined some of the factors that were creating barriers to transparency and eroding government’s accountability to Canadians. 

But I also spoke of a window of opportunity that had been opened to bring about essential change, starting with the operating model of government and the culture that underpins it.

It was time for the government to show leadership and take action.

Now we find ourselves approaching one year since the start of the pandemic. Has the government seized the opportunity for change?

In my estimation, it has not. 

At least, not to the extent I would have hoped, and Canadians might have expected.

There are some positive developments since we last met: Many institutions regained some capacity to process access requests during the summer. I want to take the time here to recognize the extraordinary efforts of the employees within federal institutions who worked diligently to get ATIP operations back up to speed and respond to Canadians. 

I commend them for their creativity and initiative in making the best of a difficult situation.

However, there are further signs that government is not moving in the right direction with little, if any, concrete measures to improve the current state of affairs.  The postponement of the launch of the new ATIP Online system is one such example.

I was also disappointed by the news that a report on the review of the access to information regime announced by Minister Duclos would only be submitted next January.  On February 3, during a conversation with Minister Duclos, I took the opportunity to remind him that the principles of openness and reasonable timeliness must be respected. I also pointed out, as I have done more than once, that there were, and continue to be, concrete steps that can be taken immediately and which do not require any legislative change. 

I have now also reached out to other Ministers who oversee what I call our “Top Fifteen” institutions, with a request to speak to them about the state of access within their institution and to discuss how, as leaders; they must be part of the solution.

In a submission I shared with Minister Duclos and published on my website in January, I outlined some of the steps I believe could make an immediate difference.  They include steps to address the following 4 issues:

  • Inadequate leadership and a lack of clear guidelines on transparency and disclosure expectations;
  • a pressing need to innovate and to allocate enough resources to the access regime;
  • the necessity to properly document decisions and to efficiently manage institutions’ information; and
  • the declassification of records in a timely manner.

In closing, I return to my familiar refrain: The Government must act without delay. 

I will now happily respond to any questions you may have.

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