Wednesday, February 16, 2000A new Canadian coalition fighting for greater access to public information is about to be born. Open Government Canada (OGC), an organization in the early stages of creating a national voice for freedom of information (FOI) in Canada, is holding its founding conference March 10 - 11 in Toronto. The coalition will be a national forum for FOI networking, education and advocacy pushing for legislative changes that grant greater access to public information. "We have a bureaucratic culture in Canada that routinely restricts and delays the release of information with immunity," said Robert Cribb, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists which initiated the coalition. "That translates into less accountable governments and a less informed public." Public information routinely available in hours or days in the U.S. can take months to access in Canada because of slow-responding government departments that hide behind weak legislation. "This is information that belongs to us and yet we often have to wait months and pay hefty fees to get access to it, when we get access at all," said Cribb. "And at a bureaucratic whim, journalists and the public are often declined information altogether." Open Government Canada is designed as a national grassroots coalition that will bring together existing FOI organizations across the country, media lawyers, librarians, historians, non-profit groups and individual users. "We're getting an incredible response from the groups we speak to about this initiative," said Cribb. "There is a real ground swell of support for an effort that finally addresses the serious problems with access to information in this country." Nancy Monson, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition in the U.S. will give a full-day seminar. And Alasdair Roberts, a Queen's University professor who last year produced a study of Canadian FOI problems called "Limited Access: Assessing the Health of Canada's FOI Laws," will also speak. Roberts noted in his study that the push by governments to cut services and staff are threatening the principle of openness, and said a culture of "official adversarialism" has developed among some public officials in an effort to protect government interests. Organizers are also planning to pass a series of draft resolutions and elect the group's first executive at the conference. "We want the Toronto conference to be the birth of a new public voice fighting for access to information," said Cribb. "Nothing like this exists in Canada. And the vacuum has left governments free to retrench. This is an effort to help change that trend and make our governments more transparent and open." The coalition will rely on an Internet mailing list and a Web site which will eventually host a variety of resources, including a Web-based letter-generator that assists even the novice FOI user in making trouble-free requests. "Through Open Government Canada we hope to do something that's never been done before in this country," said Cribb. "We hope to create an effective lobby group fighting for public access to information about our institutions, governments and ourselves. It's about time." CONTACTS: Robert Cribb: 416-869-4411; [email protected] Mike Gordon: 514-597-6360; [email protected] Jeff Lee: 604-605-2197; [email protected] Lisa Roberts: 416-515-9622; [email protected] Open Government Canada's inaugural conference will be held at Toronto's Westin Harbour Castle on March 10 - 11. For more information: E-mail: [email protected] Mail: Open Government Canada C/O Canadian Association of Journalists St. Patrick's Building, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON, K1S 5B6
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