OTTAWA — The federal government says departments will focus on making the access-to-information system work better amid calls for fundamental changes to the transparency law.
The Access to Information Act allows people to request government documents, from internal emails to expense reports for a $5 fee, but it is widely considered to be outdated and poorly administered.
The law has not been fully overhauled since its introduction almost 40 years ago, and many users complain of lengthy delays, heavily blacked-out documents or blanket denials in response to their applications.
The Treasury Board Secretariat says many of the most pressing challenges facing the system do not require legislative change, and departments will focus on improving the regime in the near term.
Civil society groups, journalists and members of the public who participated in a recent review of the regime called for expansion of the law, removal of loopholes, stricter timelines for responses and more resources to make the system work.
Treasury Board President Mona Fortier presented a report from the review to Parliament this month that pointed out areas of concern but made no concrete recommendations for updating the law.
For instance, the report notes that interested parties have long criticized the breadth of the law’s scheme for exempting information from release, which in many cases does not require a department to demonstrate that harm will result from disclosure.
“Exempting information based on classes or record types assumes harm in every instance,” the report says.
In addition, more categories and subcategories of exemptions have been added to the law over the last four decades.
The report stops short of making specific recommendations to remedy the issue, concluding that examining “options to clarify legitimate sensitivities and risks around the disclosure of government information could improve understanding of all transparency and accountability initiatives.”
Fortier’s office said she was unavailable for an interview this week.
Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson Rola Salem pointed out the release of the report was accompanied by an updated list of steps the government “will continue to pursue over the near term” to maintain focus on improving the system.
These measures include better responding to the unique needs and imperatives of Indigenous requesters, enhancing the proactive disclosure of certain information and fostering digital solutions to ensure efficient processing of requests.
A House of Commons committee is conducting its own review of the federal access-to-information regime. Several witnesses have advocated substantial changes to the law.
Democracy Watch, a group that presses for government accountability, told the MPs in October that legislative reforms should be introduced as soon as possible, noting citizen groups and experts have called for decades for key changes.
Group co-founder Duff Conacher said Thursday he hopes the committee will make strong recommendations “to close all the loopholes, strengthen enforcement, and finally impose penalties on government officials who violate the law.”
Shortly before Fortier tabled the government’s review report, The Canadian Press asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a year-end interview if he would commit to introducing reforms to the access law in 2023.
Trudeau said he looked forward to seeing the report “and looking at how we can continue to be open and transparent,” but he stopped short of promising changes.
He said his government ushered in a much greater level of openness and transparency upon being elected in 2015. He pointed to how he and his government regularly engage with the media, contrasting the approach with that of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who served in the government of Stephen Harper.
“Anyone who wants to be reminded of what things were like before, just take a look at how often the Conservative leader — who was part of that gang then — sits down for interviews with The Canadian Press or with anyone else that is part of the parliamentary press gallery,” Trudeau said.
“If I choose to not fully answer a question that you’ve asked me directly, well, that gives you some information as well.”
Sharing what the government is thinking and doing is a significant element of openness, he said.
“Is it going to be fully transparent on everything? Well, no,” Trudeau said, citing national security as one legitimate excuse.
“But getting that balance right to share as much with Canadians as possible is certainly what we try to do.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2022.