Little to celebrate in Canada on Right to Know Day

Monday, September 29, 2014
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Sunday, September 28, 2014
This article was originally published in the Chronicle Herald. By Michael Karanicolas Today is International Right to Know Day, when, around the world, people are celebrating the internationally and constitutionally recognised right of citizens to access information held by government. New right to information laws recently have been passed in the Maldives and Sierra Leone, and both are stronger than Canada’s antiquated Access to Information Act. Sadly, another year has come and gone with no tangible process on modernising Canada’s crumbling access to information system. According to the RTI Rating, a comparative analysis of legal frameworks for the right to information developed by the Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe, Canada now sits in 57th place globally, just behind Mongolia. In 2011, when the RTI Rating was first released, Canada ranked 40th. The steep drop in our global standing is due, in part, to the fact that, every year, more countries pass new and better laws, or reform their existing frameworks, while Canada’s system continues to languish. Apart from a few cosmetic changes, the system remains essentially the same as when it was first created three decades ago. Almost every interested stakeholder across the country, including successive Information Commissioners, has called for reform of the law, but successive governments have been equally adamant in their refusals to contemplate reform. There is also clear evidence that Canada’s public bodies are falling short even of the modest requirements that the law does impose. According to the Access to Information Act, public bodies are normally meant to respond to access requests within 30 days. However, a recent audit by Newspapers Canada found that federal government agencies met this deadline less than half the time. The average response time was 52 days and, in one case, Transport Canada demanded a whopping 340 additional days to complete a query for briefing notes related to the Lac Megantic disaster. Compare this to Indonesia, where public bodies have to respond within ten working days and the maximum allowable extension is an additional seven working days. The Newspapers Canada audit also found that only 43% of their requests were met in full. These results corroborate claims about problems in the system which are documented in the latest report of Canada’s Information Commissioner, which notes that the 2013-2014 cycle saw a 30% increase in complaints, over three-quarters of which were upheld. At the provincial level, meaningful reform seems equally elusive. During the 2013 election campaign, Stephen McNeil vowed to make Nova Scotia “the most open and transparent province in Canada.” More specifically, he promised to implement three key reforms suggested by the Centre for Law and Democracy, namely that Nova Scotia’s Review Officer would be given order-making power, that timelines for responding to access requests would be tightened, and that the government’s use of solicitor-client privilege would be limited. Nearly a year later, no progress has been made on these campaign promises. On the contrary, in an interview in July, Premier McNeil said that, “people have access to information, and at (this) point, we’re going to continue with the process that’s been working.” Unfortunately, this not only reneges on campaign promises but signally fails to comport with the facts. Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act scored only 85 points on the RTI Rating, only marginally better than the federal law and in a tie for 50th place globally, along with Honduras and Belize. Why do Canadians, and Nova Scotians, stand for this? The right to information is internationally recognised as a human right and the Supreme Court of Canada has held that it is protected under section 2(b) of the Constitution, as part of the right to freedom of expression. Even more importantly, effective and accountable government depends on the people being able to inform ourselves about what our elected leaders and officials are up to. And yet, every year we hear the same tired and misleading rhetoric from our political leaders about how transparent and open our governments are, even as we continue to fall further and further behind the rest of the world. Canadians deserve better, and we must demand better. Only popular demand can generate the political will to implement much needed improvements in terms of access to information. It is up to each one of us to let our leadership know that we value our right to know. Here’s to hoping that the coming year finally brings some meaningful reform, because this Right to Know Day Canadians have little to celebrate but broken promises and empty words.
Michael Karanicolas is legal officer for the Centre for Law and Democracy. You can follow him on Twitter @rti_law.

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