OTTAWA — Treasury Board President Mona Fortier says she hopes to share a plan in coming months for improving the key federal transparency law and how it is managed.
Fortier told a House of Commons committee Tuesday she expects the plan for making the Access to Information Act more effective will come before the end of the year.
MPs peppered Fortier with questions about the lack of progress on reforms at the committee’s latest meeting about the much-maligned access regime.
“Canada’s access-to-information system is struggling, it’s failing, and it’s causing a loss of confidence in our democratic institutions,” said Conservative MP Damien Kurek.
For a $5 fee, people can use the access law to ask for a range of federal documents — from internal emails and invoices to briefing notes and policy memos — but it has long been criticized as outdated and poorly implemented.
Federal agencies are supposed to respond within 30 days or provide valid reasons why more time is needed to process a request.
The law has not been significantly updated since its introduction 40 years ago, and many users complain of lengthy delays, heavily blacked-out documents or blanket denials in response to their applications.
Civil society groups, journalists and members of the public who participated in a recent federal 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.
Fortier presented to Parliament last December a report from the review that pointed out areas of concern but made no concrete recommendations for updating the law.
Meanwhile, the Commons committee is conducting its own study of the access system.
New Democrat MP Matthew Green noted the Treasury Board review had been criticized as a delay tactic to prevent meaningful changes to the access legislation.
“Your review, in fact, has no legislative amendments,” he said. “Do you believe that no legislative amendments are necessary to achieve the outcomes that you’ve stated within the report?”
Fortier told the MPs that “hopefully very soon I will be able to share an action plan” setting out next steps concerning administration of the law and “also looking at possible legislation.”
However, she provided no details of what the plan might include.
Fortier also made it clear her focus is on making the system work more smoothly, not overhauling the law to remove roadblocks to access.
“My current priority is to improve administration of the existing law,” Fortier said. “We have a lot of work to do to address the underlying systemic issues. And we will continue to take action to do just that.”
For instance, she pointed to improvements to an online platform aimed at making it more efficient to submit a request and receive records.
Ken Rubin, an investigative researcher and veteran user of the federal access law, dismissed Fortier’s promise of “some vague action plan.”
“She only confirms that the government wants to impede and delay meaningful access reform,” he told the committee following Fortier’s appearance.
“This committee must sanction Treasury Board for its inept, self-serving review and recommend Parliament remove it from having a central role in access to government records.”
In its place, he added, the committee should recommend that an arm’s-length freedom-of-information agency be set up under a revised law to handle and promote public information disclosures.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2023.