CPJ expresses concerns with proposed changes to Canada's Access to Information Act

February 27, 2018 10:47 AM ET

The Honorable Scott Brison
President of the Treasury Board
90 Elgin Street
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0R5

February 27, 2018

Dear Minister Brison,

We at the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom advocacy organization, would like to express our concerns with proposed changes to Canada's Access to Information Act. Bill C-58 falls short of the progressive amendments that the government promised and which Canadians want and expect. We urge you to consider amending the bill to expand access to the prime minister and other ministers' offices, address the overuse of extensions to deter investigations, and establish narrow limits for exemptions.

A free press allows citizens to hold the government accountable, and requires that the media have access to information. However, Canada's information access system is broken, and efforts to reform it have been woefully insufficient.

The Access to Information Act was first adopted in 1983 but has had few updates in the past 35 years. Though meant as an update to the ATIA, Bill C-58 fails to address a number of issues with the current information access system, and would exacerbate several existing problems.

The bill includes new wording that allows the government to deny information requests that are deemed "frivolous or vexatious," "large" or "unreasonable." These terms are presented without definition and would allow for arbitrary refusals to release information. Additionally, those requesting information could also potentially face higher fees for their inquiries.

The bill would require the prime minister and ministers' offices to release certain types of documents, but this is no substitute for having an efficient system to request information from these offices. Exempting these offices from the ATIA's authority limits public access to crucial information, and is disappointing given Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's repeated campaign assurances that the exemption would be revoked.

Further, the proposed C-58 neglects to address a long list of material exempt from requests. These exemptions include information certified by the attorney general, information obtained by or prepared for Information Commissioner investigations, and, very broadly, "advice to the minister." C-58 preserves these restrictions to public access regardless of how the information's release could be compelling to public interest. In doing so, the bill does not meet international norms for access to information, which provide exemption guidelines.

Bill C-58 also fails to address the problem of authorities abusing time limit extensions when responding to information requests. In some instances, the wait time for a request to be filled has extended over several years. Even members of parliament have expressed their discontent and frustration with the lack of prompt and transparent disclosure. It disturbing that such tactics appear to be deliberately used to functionally quash and deter investigations into government activities. Such purposeful delays on releasing information stifle freedom of the press and limit the public's ability to hold those in power to account.

The bill is not without merits: the provision to grant the Information Commissioner binding, enforceable powers to conduct investigations and inquiries, mediate, and publish findings is a step forward. We hope that this part of the bill will remain in its final copy.

Canada reasserted its status as a global leader in freedom of the press when parliament unanimously passed a shield law in October. It is now imperative that Canada continue on this path by providing and protecting an efficient information access system.

You stated when unveiling the bill that it was "guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves." But even with the changes in Bill C-58, Canada's 35-year-old access to information system would still fall below existing international standards. The country's lax timelines for granting information, access fees, and blanket exemptions for particular government offices are outdated. For these reasons, Canada is ranked a dismal 49th out of 111 countries on the Right to Information Rating, a global program founded to monitor the strengths and weaknesses of global legal frameworks. Without comprehensive and progressive reforms addressing these shortcomings, this ranking will likely continue to decline.

We urge you to consider the amendments to Bill C-58 proposed by our Canadian press freedom partners and colleagues, as outlined above. It is only through undertaking these changes that Canada can make needed improvements to its access to information system, and protect its reputation as an international beacon of press freedom.

Sincerely,

Alexandra Ellerbeck
North America Program Coordinator
Committee to Protect Journalists

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