The federal government’s key transparency provision has steadily eroded to the point where it no longer serves its intended purpose, says information commissioner Caroline Maynard.
In her annual report to Parliament tabled Tuesday, Maynard said chronic issues continue to plague the access-to-information system, with no solutions in sight.
For a $5 fee, Canadians can use the access law to request federal records, from briefing notes and reports to emails and invoices.
However, requesters have long complained the system is clumsy, slow and full of loopholes that allow government agencies to refuse to release information.
Maynard, an ombudsperson for users of the law, noted that despite calls for meaningful change, a federal review concluded with a report last December that outlined no firm commitments and proposed no legislative change.
The commissioner, who took office five years ago, said money to bolster the system has evaporated, commitments to transparency have vanished from ministerial mandate letters and it’s clear that improving transparency is not a priority for the government.
“Over the course of my time as commissioner, I have observed the steady decline of the access-to-information system to the point where it no longer serves its intended purpose.”
When it came into force nearly 40 years ago, the Access to Information Act was recognized as a forward-thinking, progressive piece of legislation, Maynard said.
“Over time, however, successive governments failed to bring in amendments aimed at modernizing the legislation,” she said, noting it took until 2019 to introduce meaningful reforms to the law.
“While I recognized this as a step in the right direction at the time, I never viewed it as more than a first phase, and indicated that additional changes to the law would be required. Four years on, it has become obvious that no further changes to the law are being contemplated.”
Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, the minister responsible for the access regime, said in April she hoped to share a plan in the coming months for improving the law and how it is managed. She said her priority was to improve administration of the existing legislation.
Maynard said in her report she would continue to press the Liberals to take action to remedy “this lamentable state of affairs and give access to information the attention it so badly needs.”
The commissioner said her office managed in the last fiscal year to keep pace with the complaints coming in, closing more than 8,000 files.
Even so, the inventory of complaints continued to stand at around 3,500 files. Many of the remaining files are very complex, requiring the dedicated attention of a small number of seasoned investigators, Maynard said.
“Simply put, if I am to eliminate this inventory by the end of my mandate, additional temporary funding for my office will be required. This has proven difficult to secure in the past, including this year as my request for additional funding has not been accepted.”
Maynard said she will continue to advocate for an alternative to the funding model in place for her office, which involves submitting requests for money through a minister whose department she investigates.
“As an agent of Parliament, I report directly to Parliament, and the manner in which my office is funded should reflect this independence.”