La Forest Report urges Ottawa to “do much more” to make access to information and privacy laws work

The federal government got a lot more than it asked for when it commissioned former Supreme Court justice Gerard La Forest to study whether or not the offices of the federal Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner should be merged.

Although these offices are merged in some provinces, it was not entirely clear what was pushing the move toward a federal merger. Regardless, Justice LaForest was clearly unimpressed with the merger idea and urged Ottawa to focus instead on making information and privacy laws work better for the public.

La Forest’s report says a full merger, or the appointment of a single commissioner to both offices, “would likely have a detrimental impact” on the policy aims of the access and privacy laws.

La Forest calls on Ottawa to “do much more” to foster compliance with information and privacy obligations. Concerning access to records, he says the government should:

  • Make it clear to officials that information should be provided to requesters unless there is a clear and compelling reason not to do so.
  • Develop better information management systems.
  • Provide incentives for complying with the law.

With respect to privacy, La Forest says the government should pay greater attention to the implications of programs involving the sharing, matching and outsourcing of personal information about Canadians to private companies.

He also urges better training for access and privacy officials who process inquiries from the public.

Read the report

Harper pledges to strengthen Access to Information Act and protect whistleblowers

Opposition leader Stephen Harper has announced that, if elected, the Conservatives will introduce major measures to increase federal transparency and accountability.

The federal Liberals promised major initiatives to increase transparency, but FIPA and other watchdogs have taken them to task for introducing ineffective whistleblower legislation and failing to carry through with reform of the Access to Information Act.

The Conservatives say their proposed Federal Accountability Act will, among other things, strengthen the federal Access to Information Act and provide “real protection for whistleblowers.”

Among other measures, the Conservatives promise to:

Strengthen access to information legislation

  • Implement the Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act.
  • Give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of information.
  • Expand the coverage of the act to all Crown corporations, Officers of Parliament, foundations and organizations that spend taxpayers’ money or perform public functions.

Provide protection for whistleblowers

BC whistleblower sticks neck out for turtles

Gordon McAdams, a BC government ecologist, was fired on his last day before retirement for filing confidential government documents with the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

McAdams was dismissed for attaching confidential government records to an affidavit he filed in support of a court action to stop the province from building a road through endangered painted-turtle habitat in Grohman Narrows Provincial Park, near Nelson. His case has become a rallying point for BC advocates of whistleblower protection legislation.

McAdams, who had been employed by the provincial government for 35 years, was fired on his last day at work for the provincial government. This would have cost him $50,000 in lost salary and pension benefits, had the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union not gone to bat for him. He has now reached a confidential settlement with his former Ministry.

The Supreme Court ruled that Bill Barisoff, who was then the minister of water, land and air protection for the Liberal government, had made “an unauthorized exercise of his statutory power” when he approved the road.

The road was not built after Mr. Barisoff’s order was set aside by the courts — but in the meantime, Mr. McAdams had been fired for breaching the civil-servant’s oath of secrecy.

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Ottawa Routinely Breaks the Law in Treatment of Media Requests under Access to Information, Newspapers Claim

Canadian Newspaper Association asks Information Commissioner to Investigate Secret Rules that Block Transparency

The federal government is applying bureaucratic systems that filter access to information requests made by media and subject them to scrutiny that causes unfair delays, in violation of Canada’s Access to Information Act, Canadian Newspaper Association President and CEO Anne Kothawala said today.

“We now have proof of something newspapers have long suspected: media requests for government information take longer to process because they are subjected to such a degree of scrutiny and even censorship, that often whatever prompted the request in the first place loses relevance or ceases to be topical,” Ms. Kothawala said.

Speaking to a national conference on Access to Information in Ottawa, Ms. Kothawala said freedom of information law is supposed to be applied fairly and without discrimination. “How ironic that secret rules are being applied to legislation that is meant to counter secrecy,” she said.

See also:

Public’s right to know in failing health in Canada, says national study
May 31, 2005

Canadians using freedom of information laws to find out how government decisions are affecting their daily lives are very likely to be denied, according to a national audit by the Canadian Newspaper Association.

The CNA study found that while the federal government as well as Canada’s provinces and territories all have freedom of information legislation, in many cases compliance with these laws falls short. Results of the study were released on May 28 in 45 newspapers across Canada.

Read the CNA news release and press coverage